Leading up to the 2020 election, Arab American organizers in south-east Michigan like Terry Ahwal worked to convince their community to go to the polls for Joe Biden. The message was simple: Donald Trump’s Islamophobic rhetoric and policies such as the Middle East travel ban were a threat to Arab Americans. Voters mobilized to help push Biden over the top in this critical swing state.
Several years on, amid Biden’s full-throated support of Israel in the current war and an unfolding humanitarian crisis that has claimed thousand of lives in Gaza, Ahwal feels deep regret: “I have to say “I’m sorry’ to my friends.’”
Ahwal is among hundreds of thousands of Arab Americans in Michigan, many of whom are watching with horror as the US supports Israel as it carries out its bombing campaign. After the community backed Biden by a wide margin in November 2020, the feeling goes “beyond betrayal”, about a dozen Arab Americans in Michigan said.
“This is a complete loss of humanity, it is the active support of a genocide, and I don’t think it gets any worse than that,” said Huwaida Arraf, a Palestinian American activist and attorney. “I’ve gotten a few comments, ‘Well, the GOP is going to be worse,’ and my question is: ‘How can you get worse than active support of a genocide?’”
Polls show that Americans have generally been supportive of Israel and its response to the 7 October attack, though Morning Consult data released this week also shows the number of people who sympathize equally with Israelis and Palestinians is on the rise. That poll also showed support for Biden’s response is growing.
But Arab Americans who spoke with the Guardian said they did not know of anyone in their community who would vote for Biden in 2024. That could have profound consequences in a state in which Trump won by 10,000 votes in 2016, and a tight rematch is taking shape.
Still, the Biden administration has remained steadfastly supportive of Israel, proposing $14bn in aid; providing weapons such as missiles and armored personnel carriers; refusing calls for a ceasefire; and deploying US troops to the region. A Data for Progress poll released Thursday found 66% of Americans think the US should call for a ceasefire.
The use of Arab American tax dollars to bomb Gaza is generating “widespread horror and fury”, Arraf said.
Though Biden has called on Israel to show restraint and touted a deal he struck to allow trucks carrying aid to enter Gaza, Arab Americans who spoke with the Guardian view the gestures as pittances. They see the US’s support as ham-fisted and “shocking” in the context of the last presidential election.
“Even our conservative members voted for Biden, only to get a guy who dehumanizes us, who is sending the weapons to Israel, and the only purpose of these weapons is to use Palestinian as target practice,” Ahwal said. “I don’t know anybody who would vote for him.”
That sentiment was echoed by Muslim and Arab Americans elsewhere in the country. Zohran Mamdani, a New York assemblymember, called Biden’s response to the crisis “disgusting” and warned that the president is underestimating the Arab American voting bloc.
“I have had many constituents of mine, as well as Muslims from beyond my district, reach out to me and ask me: ‘How am I supposed to vote for Joe Biden?’ And I don’t know what I’m supposed to tell them,” he said.
A number of people also expressed fears that the Biden administration’s rhetoric and positions are fanning the flames of Islamophobia in the US and putting their communities in danger. People who are publicly critical of Israel or supportive of Palestine have lost jobs and faced harassment in recent weeks. Muslim and Arab American politicians are receiving death threats and the level of vitriol is above what was experienced in the wake of 9/11, said Abraham Aiyash, a Muslim American state representative in Michigan.
The president’s comparison of Hamas’s attacks to “15 9/11s”, Aiyash said, “enhances Islamophobia”, referencing the recent murder in Illinois of a six-year-old Palestinian American boy in an alleged hate crime.
“If you support [Israel’s war] abroad, you have to be ready for the consequences of it at home,” he said.
Multiple Palestinian Americans who do not work in politics declined to speak with the Guardian over safety fears.
Any potential for political fallout for Biden is greatest in Michigan, a critical swing state that is home to 300,000 Arab Americans who helped boost Biden after Clinton’s narrow 2016 loss. Biden beat Trump in 2020 by about 150,000 votes.
Few – if any – issues are more important to this group than Palestine and Middle East foreign policy, said Amer Zahr, a Palestinian American activist and comedian. He noted that Dearborn, a majority Arab American city just outside Detroit, went for Bernie Sanders by a significant margin during the last two Democratic presidential primaries because Sanders was willing to challenge US policy on Israel.
But Biden was viewed as better than Trump, so Arab-Americans turned out in the general election, Zahr said. Next time, many people have said, they will vote third party, or leave the top of the ticket blank.
Dearborn went 63% for Clinton in 2016 when she lost the state by 10,000 votes, but nearly 80% for Biden four years later. In the four municipalities with the largest Arab American populations in metro Detroit, about 40,000 more people voted for Biden than Clinton.
“They came into our community and asked us to vote for Joe Biden and save America from Donald Trump, and now we feel like we have to save Palestine from Joe Biden,” Zahr added. “The argument that we heard before is we have to save the country from Trump – that’s not going to work.”
“If  is going to be a close election then the loss of Arab American support for Biden could have an impact,” said the state pollster Bernie Porn.
The White House’s “lazy” language and the skewed portrayal of the crisis in US media dehumanizes Arabs – Palestinians, in particular, said James Zogby, the founder and president of the Arab American Institute, a Washington DC-based civil rights advocacy organization.
“This objectification of Palestinians and the humanization of Israelis – which is an old story going back to the beginning of the conflict – fed into the pre-existing narrative that it’s Israeli people versus the Arab or Palestinian problem,” he said.
The White House, he added, “sets the tone”, and “it’s important for us to let the administration know, you’re at risk of losing this particular component group of the community.”
Those who spoke with the Guardian said they found the situation especially frustrating because they expected this kind of policy and positions from Republicans, but not Democrats.
“What makes me incensed with Democrats is that they preach human rights, preach equality and diversity, but when it comes to Palestinians, all the preaching goes away, and there is justification for the killing and slaughter,” Ahwal said.
“I know the ramifications and I know the consequences but I cannot justify a vote for a guy who says it’s OK to kill Palestinians.”