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May 29, 2024

Muslim Americans who soured on Biden see Israel aid package as further betrayal

Muslim Americans who soured on Biden see Israel aid package as further betrayal

WASHINGTON — “Outraged,” “point of no return” and “absolute disaster” are how some Muslim American organizers have described their reactions to an aid package for Israel that is making its way through Congress for President Joe Biden to sign into law.

Many Muslim Americans were already furious with the Biden administration over its handling of the Israel-Hamas war, with activists organizing Democrats to vote “uncommitted” rather than support the president in some state primaries this year.

For several activists and leaders of prominent Muslim American organizations, Biden’s support for $26 billion in aid for Israel reaffirms their view about November’s election: They cannot back Biden for a second term.

Ahead of the House’s vote to pass the aid package to Israel on Saturday, Muslim American organizations urged voters to contact members of Congress to demand they vote against the aid. It ultimately passed 366-58, with 37 Democrats and 21 Republicans voting against the aid and seven members absent.

If Biden signs an Israel aid package, as he intends to, “that heartless decision could mark the point of no return for what remains of the White House’s relationship with the American Muslim community and other Americans opposed to the genocide in Gaza,” said Council on American-Islamic Relations’ government affairs director Robert McCaw in a statement.

“The administration is already at its lowest point in its relationship with the American Muslim community,” McCaw said.

For others, it’s too late.

The rift between the president and Muslim American voters is unlikely to be repaired “unless the president can undo what has been done for the past six months” in Gaza, said Osama Abu Irshaid, the executive director for Americans for Justice in Palestine Action.

Abu Irshaid, who lives in Virginia, cast a ballot for Biden in 2020 but is not planning to vote for Biden nor former President Donald Trump in November, he said.

More than 33,000 people in Gaza have been killed since the start of the war, according to the Gazan health ministry. About 1,200 people in Israel were killed during the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, according to the Israeli government, and more than 240 people were taken hostage. More than 100 hostages remain in Gaza, though it is unclear how many are alive.

The aid package, which now heads to the Senate for likely passage next week, would mark a significant boost of U.S. support for Israel, though the U.S. has already sent weapons to the country since the start of its war with Hamas. Democratic lawmakers have been increasingly critical of arms support to Israel as well. Earlier this month, more than three dozen members of Congress — including former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. — signed a letter asking the White House to “reconsider your recent decision to authorize the transfer of a new arms package to Israel.”

Progressive Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., is among the lawmakers who voted against the Israel aid Friday. She said that she and her colleagues were working to “make sure that we don’t send more weapons” to Israel as part of the aid package.

“Just because we authorize it doesn’t mean it has to be sent immediately,” she said.

Biden praised the House’s passage in a statement after the vote, urging the Senate to “quickly send this package to my desk so that I can sign it into law.”

“This package will deliver critical support to Israel and Ukraine; provide desperately needed humanitarian aid to Gaza, Sudan, Haiti, and other locations impacted by conflicts and natural disasters around the world; and bolster security and stability in the Indo-Pacific,” the president said in the statement.

In a close election, anger at Biden’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war could be key in swing states that the president won in 2020 by a slim margin.

Biden flipped Michigan, which has a sizable Arab American population, winning the state by about 154,000 votes in 2020. In 2016, Trump won the state by about 11,000 votes. But during the 2024 presidential primary, more than 100,000 Michiganders cast ballots for uncommitted, many as an act of protest.

But the relatively tiny proportion of uncommitted delegates — just 0.008% of the Democratic delegates awarded so far — points to uncertainty about the movement’s impact on the November general election. While Biden has more than 3,000 delegates, only 26 have been designated “uncommitted.”

Biden also flipped Arizona in 2020 by a tight margin, beating Trump by just over 10,000 votes.

Ahmed Ewaisha, the chairman of the Arizona Muslim Alliance, said he was “very excited” about Biden in 2020. Now, he serves as the co-chair of the Abandon Biden campaign in the crucial swing state. Ewaisha said he’s “definitely concerned” about Trump, adding that he “would never, ever support Trump at all.”

Still, he said he wanted to vote against Biden as punishment for the president’s policies toward Israel and Gaza.

In a statement, a Biden campaign official said that “the President believes making your voice heard and participating in our democracy is fundamental to who we are as Americans.”

“He shares the goal for an end to the violence and a just, lasting peace in the Middle East,” the official continued. “He’s working tirelessly to that end.”

Separately, a White House official pointed to the administration’s numerous meetings with state, local and interfaith leaders, as well as outreach to Muslim, Arab and Palestinian communities. 

Biden administration officials have also traveled to Michigan and Illinois to meet with Arab American and Muslim community leaders.

“White House officials have had more than 100 conversations with leaders at the local and state level concerning the conflict and humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza,” the official said.

Ayah Ziyadeh, the advocacy director for Americans for Justice in Palestine Action, said she voted for Biden in 2020 and tried “to convince everybody to vote for him.”

Now, her organization is working alongside other groups on an American Muslim election task force, which she said will guide how she votes in November. The task force recommendations are expected in a month or two, she said.

When criticizing Biden’s response to the war, she said that she doesn’t know “that anything can change my views because I’ve had to watch six months of genocide against my people.”

As the war progressed, Biden has increasingly sharpened his rhetoric against Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli military’s tactics.

After an Israeli air strike killed aid workers in Gaza, Biden said he was “outraged and heartbroken” and argued that “Israel has also not done enough to protect civilians” and aid workers.

Similarly, Biden expressed support for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s public rebuke of Netanyahu.

The New York Democrat roundly criticized Israel’s prime minister and called for new elections in the country. Later, Biden said that Schumer “made a good speech, and I think he expressed a serious concern shared not only by him but by many Americans.”

While several Muslim American organizations are critical of Biden’s policies toward Israel, organizers are contemplating how their November votes could impact Trump’s prospects for regaining the Oval Office.

In the early days of his 2016 campaign, Trump released a policy plan calling for “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” In October of last year, he called for expanding travel bans from several Muslim-majority countries and barring potential refugees from Gaza from entering the U.S.

However, several Muslim American organizers say that the onus is on Biden to regain their votes to avoid handing the election to the former president.

“We don’t think it’s on us. It’s on Biden,” Abu Irshaid said. “If our votes and the votes of people who support the Palestinian human rights are so important, then Biden should be listening.”

Activist Linda Sarsour echoed his sentiments, arguing that “trying to explain that Joe Biden is better right now during a genocide is not a talking point that lands within our communities.”

Sarsour is the executive director of the Muslim grassroots organization MPower Change and an organizer for the campaign to vote uncommitted to protest Biden. She said she voted for the president in 2020.

“There is no community in this country that knows that Donald Trump is worse than we know him,” she said, referring to the travel ban on Muslim-majority countries.

Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, voted for Biden in 2020 “because I really care about our democracy. I saw what Trump was doing.”

He said he has not yet decided how he will vote in November. His organization has not decided whether to make an endorsement for the presidential election, adding that some feel that “it’s not worth endorsing anyone.”

“My concern is that you have a candidate for president who cannot do any more public events for fear of protest, who will not be able to galvanize his own party because it is fractured and is not listening to his own base in his own party,” Al-Marayati said.

Biden continues to do public events, although he has faced anti-war protesters interrupting his speeches. At an event in March, he conceded that pro-Palestinian protesters who interrupted his remarks “have a point.”

“We need to get a lot more care into Gaza,” he said after the protesters, who called for care in Gaza, were escorted out.

Megan Lebowitz

Megan Lebowitz is a politics reporter for NBC News.

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