Michigan vote to test anger over Biden’s Israel policy

Connie Queline

Michigan vote to test anger over Biden’s Israel policy

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Voters in Michigan have been organising for months to send Joe Biden a message during the state’s primary on Tuesday: “No ceasefire. No vote.”

After President Joe Biden narrowly defeated Donald Trump in Michigan in the last election in 2020, a protest vote tied to events in Gaza is a real concern for the White House.

Mr Biden and Mr Trump are on course for a rematch in November, and in a close presidential election – as is predicted by most polls – experts say Michigan is a must-win state.

With the largest Arab-American population in the US, the state poses a crucial test as to the impact the Biden administration’s policy on the Israel-Gaza conflict could have on Democrats.

The anger it has created among many in that community has been festering for months, and the Democratic primary on Tuesday offers the first chance for the party’s voters to register that discontent by withholding their vote from the president.

He is largely unopposed in the Democratic Party’s search for their presidential nominee, but that has not stopped those opposed to his Middle East policy from taking action.

In the final hours on the eve of Tuesday’s primary election, Khalid Turaani stood outside the Islamic Center of Detroit and distributed pamphlets encouraging people to vote “uncommitted” on their ballot papers.

“We’re doing all that we can to ensure that Biden is a one-term president,” Mr Turaani, the co-organiser behind Abandon Biden, told the BBC.

“In November, we will remember. When you stand against the will of the people, you’re going to lose.”

Brandon Drenon/ The BBC

Two grassroots organisations, including Mr Turaani’s group, Abandon Biden, and a second, Listen to Michigan, are urging Democrats to choose “uncommitted” in Tuesday’s primary.

In the state, each party’s candidate list includes an “uncommitted” option, which allows a voter to exercise a party vote without selecting a candidate – in this case, Mr Biden.

The movement has gained endorsements from at least 39 state and local elected officials. These include congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, Michigan state legislator Abraham Aiyash and Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud.

“I was proud today to walk in and pull a Democratic ballot and vote uncommitted,” Ms Tlaib said in a video shared to social media.

Lexis Zeidan, a co-organiser for Listen to Michigan, said they’re hoping to get at least 10,000 people to vote uncommitted.

“We want to wake up the next day on Wednesday, and we want to be able to claim Michigan as a pro-Palestinian state,” she said. “And we want to inspire communities across the nation to know that, at the end of the day, America is beholden to its people.”

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Mr Biden’s victory in this primary election is assured, but Democrats will be watching how many vote “uncommitted” to see what electoral harm has been done by the president’s support of Israel in its months-long war against Hamas in Gaza.

Recent national opinion polls suggest a majority of Democrats disapprove of the president’s handling of the crisis. In places like Dearborn, a suburb of Detroit where a large concentration of the state’s Arab-American population lives, discontent with Democrats appears to be widespread.

Dozens of Muslims pray at a Detroit mosque

Brandon Drenon/ The BBC

The president has attempted to walk a tightrope between sending aid to Israel, a longstanding US ally with historically strong support from Democrats, and appeasing those in his party who want the devastation in Gaza to end now.

Senator Gary Peters, from Michigan, told the BBC and other reporters at a meeting arranged by the Biden campaign on Monday that the president understands voters’ concerns about the situation in Gaza.

“[President Biden] hears loud and clear what folks are saying. He cares deeply about innocent civilians being caught in that crossfire,” Sen Peters said. “And he’s going to do everything in his power to bring that to an end as quickly as he can.”

The Biden team has pointed to domestic achievements like job creation, investment in poorer communities and lowering healthcare costs as ways the president has helped voters in Michigan.

In one attempt to pacify their frustrations, Mr Biden’s campaign staff attempted to organise an in-person meeting with Arab-American leaders in January, a request denied by Dearborn’s mayor. “This is not the time to talk about elections,” Mayor Hammoud said at the time.

Instead, he and other community leaders met senior staff from the White House in February. Mr Aiyash, the state representative, told the New York Times after the meeting: “We emphasised that beyond communication, there needs to be a change in policies.”

However, the White House has been reluctant to reel back its support, sending billions of dollars in military aid to Israel and three times blocking a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire.

Instead the US has called for a pause in fighting and defended Israel’s right to hunt down the Hamas gunmen who killed about 1,200 people in southern Israel on 7 October. The death toll in Gaza is nearly 30,000 people, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-led health ministry.

  • Gazans surviving off animal feed and rice as food dwindles
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Samraa Luqman, another member of Abandon Biden who described herself as a far-left Democrat, said: “And yet today I stand before you telling you that I am considering voting for Trump in 2024.

“Irrespective of the price I may pay as a Muslim woman in this country, I’m still willing to draw the red line and say that the commission of genocide is more of a priority to me,” she said.

Israel vehemently rejects allegations that it is committing genocide in Gaza.

Khalid Turaani held flyers on Monday that encouraged people not to vote for Joe Biden

Brandon Drenon/ The BBC

Michigan is one of six major swing states that experts say Mr Biden will need to win to defeat Mr Trump in a likely November rematch. The others include Georgia, Nevada, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Arizona.

Michigan has flipped twice in the last two presidential elections, from a Trump-led Republican victory in 2016, back to Democrats under Mr Biden in 2020.

The president’s 2020 victory was by nearly 155,000 votes – fewer than the total number of registered Muslim voters in Michigan. Nationwide, 64% of Muslim voters backed Mr Biden in 2020, according to Associated Press, but that figure rose to nearly 70% in Michigan counties with large Arab-American populations.

President Biden and his campaign surrogates have made repeated visits to Michigan, looking to shore up support and remind voters of his commitment to blue-collar workers, a key Democratic voting bloc from whom Mr Trump has increasingly drawn support.

In September, President Biden joined the picket lines in Detroit with members of the United Auto Workers union, a first for a sitting president in over a century.

Four months later, the UAW officially endorsed the president’s re-election bid, which was welcomed by the Biden campaign amid waning voter enthusiasm. Polls suggest that Gaza is just one vulnerability – voters are also increasingly concerned about the president’s age and are pessimistic about the economy, despite strong growth and low unemployment.

Nate sifts through trash and metal before sending it to a recycling facility

Brandon Drenon/ The BBC

The sceptics include blue-collar workers from the metro Detroit area, like Nate. Standing in a metal scrapyard recycling facility in Dearborn, less than a mile from a Ford car plant where plumes of smoke billowed into the air, he told the BBC he feels “like the economy is getting worse”.

He’s been the owner of a dumpster rental and heavy-trash collecting business for over 10 years, but he said lately “I’ve seen less business, less people”.

“Things have slowed down since Biden took office,” Nate said. “I’m not sure who I’m voting for this year.”

Farther down the road, Adam Abusalah, an organiser with Listen to Michigan who was a member of Mr Biden’s campaign staff in 2020, told the BBC: “People are voting uncommitted for several reasons.”

He said his organisation was making calls to more than just Arab Americans but also other members of Michigan’s black and brown communities and “voters across the state who are not happy with Biden”.

Mr Abusalah said people were upset with the president before 7 October, the start of the Israel-Gaza war.

“People were seeing how Biden handled the Ukraine war and seeing him send so much money but not being able to invest that into our communities,” he said. “There’s a city here in Michigan – Flint – that hasn’t had clean water for over a decade.”

Adam Abusalah poses for a photo

Brandon Drenon/ The BBC

It’s an increasingly common complaint heard from many US voters who often express frustration over federal spending on wars while their communities struggle.

For Mr Abusalah, however, Mr Biden’s support of Israel amid a worsening humanitarian crisis and skyrocketing death toll was the ultimate catalyst that turned him from the president – even if it means a president who once enacted a Muslim travel ban takes his place.

“If we have another Trump presidency, that’s not on me. That’s not on voters. That’s on Biden,” he said.

“[President Biden] cannot win back my vote. Absolutely not. It’s 30,000 lives too late.”


More on the US election

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  • Policies: What a Trump second term would look like
  • Economy: Voters feel better – will that help Biden?
  • Recap: The Trump life story to date


Related Topics

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  • Joe Biden


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