Biden visits Michigan as Arab-American anger over Gaza threatens to cost him state

Home to largest US Muslim community, the Midwestern state is crucial to the president, who won it with a margin of just 154,000 votes in 2020

President Joe Biden, center, speaks with patrons at They Say restaurant during a campaign stop Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024, in Harper Woods, Michigan. (AP/Evan Vucci)
President Joe Biden, center, speaks with patrons at They Say restaurant during a campaign stop Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024, in Harper Woods, Michigan. (AP/Evan Vucci)

US President Joe Biden traveled Thursday to the crucial swing state of Michigan, which is also the crucible of growing Arab-American anger at his policies in the Israel-Hamas war.

The trip came days after the Democratic incumbent’s campaign manager traveled to the city of Dearborn — home to the largest concentration of Arab Americans in the United States — only to be snubbed by the Detroit suburb’s mayor.

It was an ominous sign for Biden, for whom swing states such as Michigan could prove decisive in November when he faces a likely rematch with his predecessor Donald Trump.

The White House has made clear that Thursday’s trip was purely a campaign visit, with Biden meeting with members of the powerful United Auto Workers (UAW) union, who endorsed him last week.

That could carry a lot of weight in Michigan, home to the US auto industry — but he will still have to contend with the anger of Arab Americans as Israel’s war against Hamas grinds on, almost five months after the terror group’s October 7 shock assault on southern Israel.

In an unusual move, the White House did not say ahead of time which town Biden would be visiting — only that it was in the Detroit area.

As Biden chatted with a friendly union crowd inside the UAW hall, pro-Palestinian demonstrators held back by police with riot shields voiced their anger nearby over the US president’s support for Israel in its war with Hamas.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators march against police during a visit by US President Joe Biden in Warren, Michigan, February 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

After the devastating Hamas assault in Israel on October 7, in which thousands of terrorists launched assaults on more than 20 communities, massacring some 1,200 people, wounding thousands more and seizing 253 people as hostages, Biden pledged that the US would provide full backing to Israel and ensure that it had the means to defend itself.

In the ensuing months, he asked Congress for billions of dollars in additional military aid to Israel as it fights to eradicate Hamas from the Gaza Strip, and his government has vetoed UN Security Council calls for a ceasefire in the conflict. His stance on the war has left many Muslims and people of Middle Eastern heritage in the US feeling betrayed by the Democratic Party, traditionally their political home.

They have accused the 81-year-old Democrat of sacrificing civilians in Gaza, which is facing a serious humanitarian crisis, in the name of supporting Israel.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry said on Thursday that more than 27,000 people in the Strip have been killed in the fighting, a figure that cannot be independently verified and includes some 10,000 Hamas terrorists Israel says it has killed in battle. The United Nations has warned that some 85 percent of the enclave’s 2.3 million residents have been displaced.

White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday that Biden was “heartbroken by the suffering of innocent Palestinians.”

Coinciding with his Michigan trip, the president on Thursday imposed sanctions on Israeli settlers in the West Bank accused of attacking Palestinians.

Thousands of people march down Washington Boulevard in downtown Detroit, Michigan to call for a ceasefire in the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, October 28, 2023. (Jeff Kowalsky/AFP)

On Wednesday, a group of Dearborn organizations called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, and Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud wrote on X, formerly Twitter, that he refused to meet with Biden’s campaign manager.

“I will not entertain conversations about elections while we watch a live-streamed genocide backed by our government,” he said.

Biden’s schedule for his Michigan visit will not include any meetings with Arab Americans, adding to increasing frustration within the community.

“Why not have a meaningful conversation for how you change course with a community that has first-hand accounts of what it’s like to live in the countries where your decision-making is unfolding?” Hammoud asked.

Jean-Pierre told reporters on Air Force One with Biden, however, that senior administration officials will travel to Michigan later in February to hear from community leaders on the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

Biden is now regularly confronted by demonstrators waving Palestinian flags and chanting slogans against “Genocide Joe,” with his speeches interrupted by protestors.

Activists with the Abandon Biden movement said Thursday that demonstrators are “on standby” and that protests will be held at the president’s events once they determine the locations.

“Eventually we will find out and we will make sure to give him a proper reception,” said Khalid Turaani, co-chair of the Abandon Biden campaign in Michigan.

Despite the White House offering no details about Biden’s planned meeting, close to 200 pro-Palestinian demonstrators were waiting for Biden outside the UAW Region 1 building in Warren ahead of his event there, but the president’s motorcade bypassed them using side streets.

Protesters chanted “Hey Biden, what do you say? We won’t vote on Election Day” as well as pro-Palestinian slogans, including, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”

Dozens of riot gear-clad police officers and an armored vehicle kept the protesters from the union hall.

The White House and many Jewish groups have criticized the “from the river to the sea” chant as a call to dismantle the state of Israel.

A protester against Israel interrupts US President Joe Biden during an event on the campus of George Mason University in Manassas, Virginia, January 23, 2024, to campaign for abortion rights. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Michigan is home to the US’s largest Arab-American community, with more than 300,000 people claiming ancestry from the Middle East and North Africa. As Biden won the state with just 154,000 votes more than Trump in 2020, their votes could make the difference between winning and losing the election.

In 2020, The Associated Press reported that Arab-Americans across the country had overwhelmingly voted for Biden — 64% compared to 31% who backed Trump. In Michigan, close to 70% of the Arab community voted for Biden. But analysts have warned that many Muslim and Arab-Americans are looking to stay home this year, or are planning on voting for a third party.

Michigan has shifted increasingly Democratic in recent years, with the party controlling all levels of state government for the first time in four decades, and Biden is looking to build on that power as he seeks reelection and the state’s critical 15 electoral votes.

His visit to the state comes ahead of the state’s February 27 primary. The president faces no serious challenge in the primary, but his campaign is trying to build energy for the far tougher fight to come in the fall.

Michigan was part of the so-called blue wall of three states — with Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — that Biden returned to the Democratic column when he won the White House in 2020.

A December AP-NORC poll found that 59% percent of Democrats approve of Biden’s approach to the conflict, up from 50% in November. But Democratic voters in New Hampshire’s primary were roughly split on how Biden has handled the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to AP VoteCast.

Democratic state Senator Jeremy Moss, the third-ranking Democrat in the chamber who also represents one of the largest Jewish communities in the state, said that when it comes down to Trump versus Biden again, he doesn’t see Michigan voters going back to the Republican.

“Is the situation precarious now? Sure. There’s no question about it,” he said. “But we’re coming really close to that binary choice. It will be Trump and it will be Biden. And I have to have faith in so many people who, number one, don’t want it to be Donald Trump again. And number two, are going to acknowledge Joe Biden’s achievements over the last year.”

Democratic Representative Debbie Dingell of Michigan, a longtime Biden ally, said Democrats need to tend to a multitude of constituencies in Michigan to hold on to the state in 2024.

“Michigan is a purple state. I say that to everybody,” she said. “Clearly, the Arab American community matters. But young people have to turn out. They were very decisive two years ago in voter turnout. A lot of the union leadership has endorsed the president, but we’ve got to get into the union halls and do the contrast so people really understand what it’s about. And we’ve got to make sure women and independents turn out. You know, we’re a competitive state.”

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