Muslim Americans helped Biden win Michigan in 2020. Now, his Israel-Gaza response is throwing their support into question

In 2020, Eman Hammoud was one of thousands of Michigan Muslims who helped President Joe Biden beat Donald Trump. A month ago, the Palestinian American immigration lawyer had no doubts she would support his campaign again in 2024.

But over the last few weeks, she’s watched the Biden administration offer unwavering support to Israel after it declared war on Hamas following the Palestinian militant group’s deadly October 7 attack, with no red lines for Israel and no calls for a ceasefire, even as thousands of civilians in Gaza have been killed. Now she doesn’t know what she’ll do.

“He’s put us in a very difficult situation,” Hammoud told CNN. “It has become almost impossible for me, morally, to vote for someone that’s taken the stances that he’s taken in the past few weeks.”

Arab and Muslim Americans make up a small percentage of the population, but they have outsize influence in battleground states like Michigan, where the rejection of voters like Hammoud — who feel hurt and betrayed by the Biden administration – could cost Biden both the state and reelection.

Michigan has more than 200,000 Muslim American voters — 146,000 of whom turned out to vote in 2020 –— according to an analysis by Emgage, an organization that seeks to build the political power of Muslim Americans. Biden won Michigan — a state that narrowly went to Donald Trump in 2016 — by 155,000 votes.

“That just proves that the Biden administration needs the Muslim vote to win,” said Nada Al-Hanooti, the Michigan executive director of Emgage Action.

The stakes are particularly high in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb where more than half of the population is of Middle Eastern or North African descent.

In nearly a dozen interviews, Democrats there who voted for, campaigned for and donated to Biden’s political campaign say they can’t imagine voting for him now, even if he were to support the community’s primary request: an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

Elections are often a binary choice, and Muslim and Arab American voters told CNN they recognize that the GOP primary field has campaigned on policies, such as denying aid to Gaza and reinstating Trump’s travel ban on some Muslim majority countries, that they believe would be even worse for people in the Palestinian territories and the Middle East. But some also said that they felt afraid, pointing to rising Islamophobia and the stabbing death of 6-year-old Palestinian American Wadea Al-Fayoume last month, which is being investigated as a hate crime.

“The President and this administration have been unequivocal: there is no place for Islamophobia, xenophobia, or any of the vile racism we have seen in recent weeks,” Biden campaign spokesperson Ammar Moussa said in a statement. “As MAGA Republicans continue to run on an openly Islamaphobic platform — including renewed support for Donald Trump’s Muslim ban — the stakes of next year’s election could not be more consequential.”

Still, many Muslim and Arab American who supported Biden say they can’t imagine doing it again or asking their friends and family to back him.

“There is not a question in my mind that our president is in trouble in Michigan,” said Abbas Alawieh, a Democratic strategist who previously worked in the congressional office of Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who represents Dearborn. “The political ramifications of this are as deep as the pain people are experiencing, and that is bone-deep.”

The political power of Muslim American voters in Michigan is visible on a local level. In 2018, Tlaib became the first Palestinian American woman elected to Congress; she is now one of the most vocal critics of Israel and the administration’s response to the conflict in Gaza. The House voted Wednesday to block a resolution to censure Tlaib over her comments supporting Palestinians and condemning Israel’s actions.

In 2021, former state Rep. Abdullah Hammoud became the first Arab and Muslim American elected as the mayor of Dearborn. Hammoud, who has also been critical of the Biden administration’s response, said he rejects the premise of the question of how Muslim and Arab Americans will vote in 2024.

“We’re not here to prostitute ourselves to the lowest bidder in order for us to be recognized for our humanity,” he said. “I think the question actually has to be directed to the elected officials, and to the candidates running for office: What will you do to help determine the outcome of the election?”

For many Arab Americans, Biden’s strong support for Israel isn’t a surprise given his history. But the last few weeks have undercut Biden’s image as the “empathizer-in-chief,” a man of deep compassion whose personal tragedies — his first wife and infant daughter were killed in a car crash, and his oldest son, Beau, died of brain cancer in 2015 — have helped him connect with others who are suffering.

“As someone who has lost children, we thought that he was somebody who could empathize with what’s going on in the Middle East, and clearly we were wrong,” said Adam Abusalah, a Palestinian American who worked as a field organizer for Biden in Michigan in 2020.

Now, thinking about the relatives he has in Gaza and the West Bank, he feels some guilt over the work he did to aid the Biden campaign.

“This is the man that I went out and knocked on doors for,” he said. “I feel guilt and I absolutely do regret what I did on the Biden campaign.”

Muslim and Arab Americans who spoke to CNN pointed to a growing list of what they see as missteps by the Biden administration since the conflict began last month. The US vetoed an October 18 UN Security Council draft resolution calling for “humanitarian pauses.” White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said the US is “not drawing red lines” for Israel. And Biden publicly cast doubt on the number of Palestinian casualties being reported by the Hamas-controlled Gaza Ministry of Health when asked if Israel is doing enough to prevent civilian deaths in Gaza. He later told a private gathering of Muslim American leaders that his comments on the death toll were meant to draw a distinction between Hamas and Palestinians.

“As President Biden said in his Oval Office address to the nation, he’s heartbroken by the tragic loss of Palestinian life,” White House spokesperson Robyn Patterson said in a statement. “We’ll continue to engage in conversations with these important communities and to be unequivocal in condemning hate and discrimination against them and, as the President has said, we must continue to work towards a two-state solution.”

The White House has worked to show that officials are listening to Muslim and Arab Americans both in and out of government. In the days following the October 7 Hamas attack, White House chief of staff Jeff Zients and senior adviser Anita Dunn held a meeting with senior Muslim and Arab American White House and administration officials to talk about what they were hearing from their communities and reiterate their support, according to a White House official present for the meeting.

That was one of several listening sessions and outreach efforts led by senior White House officials aimed at both administration officials and elected officials around the country, part of a broader engagement plan to show that the administration is listening to people’s concerns, the official said.

The calls have not always been smooth. According to two attendees on a Friday morning Zoom held by the White House Office of Public Engagement to discuss the administration’s efforts to provide humanitarian assistance in Gaza, Biden administration officials were told in stark terms that they had lost the votes of some Arab Americans.

During another meeting last Thursday between Biden and prominent Muslim community figures in the West Wing, Emgage CEO Wa’el Alzayat told the president some of his recent remarks had shown a lack of empathy toward Palestinians.

“We felt that the rhetoric, including from the White House, was very unhelpful and in fact potentially dangerous,” Alzayat said. “Particularly [Biden’s] apparent lack of empathy toward Palestinian victims’ suffering, which we feel was not only hurtful because it was also, in a way, helping shape this narrative that somehow the Palestinians were less deserving of sympathy and support.”

This week, the administration announced that it plans to develop a national strategy to combat Islamophobia.

In recent weeks, the administration has begun to call for humanitarian pauses. At a UN Security Council meeting last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that “humanitarian pauses must be considered” to allow aid into Gaza, a call he reiterated Friday after meeting with Israeli leaders in Tel Aviv. During a fundraiser in Minneapolis Wednesday night, Biden was interrupted by a protester who urged him to call for a ceasefire. The president said he supports a humanitarian pause to allow for the release of hostages held in Gaza.

But a “pause” is not a ceasefire, said Sam Baydoun, a Wayne County, Michigan, commissioner.

“What does that mean, a humanitarian pause?” said Baydoun, who immigrated to the US from Lebanon when he was 15. “Why not say unconditional ceasefire?”

Baydoun was one of a handful of Arab and Muslim local elected officials and activists who spoke to CNN Thursday about Biden’s response to the war in Gaza at Habib’s Cuisine, a Lebanese restaurant and staple of the Dearborn food scene. He said he isn’t ready to think about the election.

“Our immediate concern is with the Palestinian civilians that are being killed every day,” he said. “But I will say this to you: If the election was to be held today and President Biden is on the ballot … I can’t promise you that he will get five votes from Arab Americans from the city of Dearborn.”

Baydoun stressed that he didn’t just vote for Biden and other Democratic officials. He and other Muslim Americans in Dearborn welcomed state and federal politicians to their homes and communities and helped raise money for their campaigns.

“They don’t even dare to say we want a ceasefire,” he said. “So that hurts a lot.”

Hussein Dabajeh, a Lebanese-American political consultant, said that he didn’t see a “lesser of two evils” between Trump and Biden.

“The president and his advisers think that we will forget,” Dabajeh said. “I think the message that our community will be pushing is go out and vote, show them that we have numbers, but don’t vote for anyone.”

Lexi Zeidan, a Palestinian American activist, said she wasn’t shocked by how Biden has handled Palestine as much as she felt hurt and betrayed.

“We’ve seen the silence of our elected officials and I think they’re going to see the silence of our people when it comes to the elections,” she said.

Zeidan said asking her if Biden can win back her vote means asking if there’s anything that can redeem the deaths of her family members and other Palestinians in Gaza.

“My people’s life isn’t cheap,” she said.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that Rep. Rashida Tlaib is the first Palestinian American woman in Congress.

CNN’s Denise Royal contributed to this report.

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