Protesting Biden: Gaza supporters warn, “Do not blame us” if you lose

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About 100 people turned out Tuesday at the University of Michigan (UMich) to urge Democrats to reject President Joe Biden in the state’s primary election, a political gathering that illustrated both the passion and the limits of the effort to pressure him into calling for Israel to stop waging war in the Gaza Strip.اضافة اعلان

The rally, held by a group called Listen to Michigan that urges voters to cast their ballots for “Uncommitted” against Biden in next week’s primary, called for Democrats to reject the president in the primary.

The speakers in Ann Arbor and a crowd comprised mainly of students displayed energy, pronouncing themselves livid at Biden’s stance on Israel. Still, when the event began, there were so few attendees that they could, and did, all stand in a circle and hold hands.

Former Rep. Andy Levin of Michigan, a progressive Democrat who was at the gathering, said it would be Biden’s fault if his policies toward Israel and Gaza led him to lose the general election to former President Donald Trump, the likely Republican nominee. Levin nodded to Michigan’s enormous Arab-American population, whose frustration with Biden and discontent among young voters and progressives has raised questions about Biden’s standing in the state, a critical presidential battleground.

“Do not blame us,” said Levin, who, along with Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, has become one of the most prominent supporters of the Uncommitted movement. “He needs votes from Arab-Americans, from people of color, from progressive Jews, and young people. He only won Michigan by 150,000 votes in 2020, so politically, we have a moment where we can raise our voices.”

Layla Elabed, the campaign manager for Listen to Michigan and Tlaib’s sister, said the goal for the campaign was to earn “at least 20,000 votes” for Uncommitted.

“That is the number that we will need to flex our political power,” she said.

“We will raise our voices at the ballot box,” said Abbas Alawieh, a former congressional aide who is one of the group’s organizers. “Vote Uncommitted, because a vote for Uncommitted is a vote for a ceasefire. A vote for Uncommitted is a vote against war.”

The Uncommitted push has support from 39 state and local elected officials in Michigan, according to a tally by The Detroit News. Over the weekend, Tlaib became the first member of Michigan’s Democratic congressional delegation to break from Biden and call for an Uncommitted vote.

This week, the Biden campaign began dispatching surrogates to the state to urge primary voters to support the president. On the campaign’s first day of events Monday, Mitch Landrieu, a former New Orleans mayor who is a Biden campaign co-chair, said in Flint, Michigan, that he did not expect the conflict in Gaza to end “anytime soon.”

“Michiganders need to be cleareyed on the differences between Biden and Trump,” said Lavora Barnes, the chair of the Michigan Democratic Party. “Our job is going to be to help people remember that when there is a choice between two people in November, the only way to vote will be for Joe Biden.”

That may be a difficult sell for activists and officials involved in the Uncommitted push if Biden does not engineer a significant change in US policy toward the Israeli war on Gaza.

Rima Mohammad, a member of the Ann Arbor school board who addressed the rally Tuesday, said she could not imagine how Biden could expect people who feel “horrified” by the death toll and humanitarian crisis in Gaza to support him in the presidential election.

“President Biden abandoned this community,” Mohammad said. “People are feeling increasingly betrayed as the violence continues in Gaza.”

For months, anger within the Democratic Party over President Joe Biden’s support for Israel in the war in the Gaza Strip has been building. Protesters have shouted through his campaign events, marched outside the White House, and vilified him as “Genocide Joe” on social media.

Now, Michigan’s primary election next week will put that discontent on the ballot for the first time, with Biden’s liberal detractors urging Democrats to vote “uncommitted” against him. Some of the president’s allies worry that a movement to register disapproval against him now could have lasting effects into the general election, especially if Biden does not alter his stance toward the conflict.

Michigan’s combination of an early primary, a large and politically active Arab-American population, progressive students on college campuses, and the option of a protest vote have raised the stakes of what has otherwise been a sleepy election in the state.

There are warning signs for Biden that frustration over Gaza has metastasized beyond Dearborn and other Detroit suburbs, which are the heart of Michigan’s Arab diaspora, and onto the state’s college campuses, where students increasingly feel affinity with the Palestinian cause.

In some Michigan communities without a large Arab-American presence, crowds have demanded that their local governments enact cease-fire resolutions. Last week, The Detroit Metro Times, an alternative weekly newspaper, endorsed voting “uncommitted” in the primary.

There is no public polling to indicate how much support the “uncommitted” push might bleed from Biden. Still, Democrats at the highest levels of Michigan politics have cautioned, most of them privately, that the president is at risk of losing the state to former President Donald Trump if those who disagree with his Israel policy stay home or vote for a third-party candidate.

“Every vote that does not support Joe Biden makes it more likely we have a Trump presidency,” said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, a co-chair of Biden’s campaign. “Any vote that is not cast, or is cast for a third party, or cast to send a message, makes it more likely that there is a Trump presidency.”

The campaign to vote “uncommitted” was announced this month by Layla Elabed, a sister of Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian American progressive who last weekend became the first member of Michigan’s congressional delegation to call for voting against Biden in the primary.

Tlaib’s endorsement raised alarms among Biden supporters in the state’s congressional delegation, who worry that it will be difficult to persuade voters activated by the “uncommitted” push in the primary to support Biden in November.

Yet in Michigan, few Democratic officials are eager to risk a backlash if they criticize the effort to vote “uncommitted.”

“The Muslim community and the Arab-American communities are clearly very upset, and understandably so,” said Rep. Shri Thanedar, a Detroit Democrat. “You know, 30,000 or so innocent civilians have been killed, including women and children. So, the concern is understandable. They are using this time to get attention, and make a point, and make a case. And I really do not blame them.”

However, Thanedar said he would vote for Biden because “I am not a single-issue voter.”

Michigan Democrats expressed uncertainty about how many people will vote “uncommitted” in Tuesday’s primary. While the Biden campaign is bracing for Arab Americans and young progressive voters to oppose the president in the primary, Lauren Hitt, a campaign spokesperson, stressed that union workers, suburban women, and Black voters remained supportive.

“His investments in infrastructure and green energy have created thousands of union jobs. He walked the picket line with UAW. He is standing up for reproductive rights, an issue that motivated hundreds of thousands of Michiganders to flip the statehouse in the midterms,” Hitt said of Biden. “He recently met with Black voters in Detroit to talk about his administration’s efforts to create record-low Black unemployment. And he is working tirelessly to create a just, lasting peace in the Middle East.”

Two weeks ago, Biden’s White House dispatched a delegation of senior aides to Dearborn to try to ease tensions with Michigan’s Arab American community. Jon Finer, a deputy national security adviser, told the local leaders that the Biden administration had made “missteps” in dealing with Israel and Gaza and had left “a very damaging impression.”

The same day, Biden declared that Israel had gone “over the top” in its response to October 7, 2023.

But students, Arab-Americans, and other Michiganders said in interviews that Biden’s alliance with Israel’s government was unforgivable and would prevent them from voting for him in November if he did not call for a ceasefire and halt US aid to Israel’s war effort. Perhaps more concerning for the president as he tries to win over skeptical young voters, students with no family connections to the Middle East described their advocacy for the Palestinian cause as part of their social identity.

Ruthy Lynch, 21, an undergraduate student from Traverse City, Michigan, said she had not known much about the Israeli occupation of Palestine before October 7.

Lynch now wears a black-and-white scarf known as a kuffiyeh around campus to demonstrate to friends and others that she sides with the Palestinians.

“I am wearing it as a show of solidarity,” Lynch said. “It feels good to walk around campus. I see other people also wearing kuffiyehs, and we are sort of trying to normalize it and bring more visibility to solidarity with Palestinians.”

Lynch said she had voted for Biden in 2020 but that she would not in November if he did not call for a ceasefire and halt US military aid to Israel. “I am not sure I can bring myself to do it,” she said.

A Fox News poll of registered voters released last week found Biden narrowly trailing Trump by two percentage points in a head-to-head matchup in Michigan. With third-party and independent candidates included, Trump’s lead grew to 5 points.

Abbas Alawieh, a former congressional aide from Dearborn who helped organize the group Listen to Michigan, which is leading the “uncommitted” effort, said it was Biden, not those protesting his foreign policy, putting his electoral prospects in jeopardy.

“President Biden has brought risk onto himself in a general election by making it so that his policy on Gaza is indistinguishable from Netanyahu’s most murderous instincts and actions,” Alawieh said after the Ann Arbor rally, referring to the Israeli prime minister. “He has already lost people, and what we are trying to tell him is, if you take a different approach, that is something that people here in Michigan need to see. Help us prevent Trump from becoming president.”

Biden’s political toxicity in Ann Arbor and Dearborn was evident in his campaign’s scheduling this week. Vice President Kamala Harris is expected to visit Grand Rapids on Thursday, and the campaign dispatched surrogates, including Mitch Landrieu, the former New Orleans mayor and Reps. Sara Jacobs of California and Joyce Beatty of Ohio to address voters, but there are no events scheduled in the congressional district that includes Ann Arbor.

Instead, Rep. Ro Khanna of California is hosting an event Thursday that posters across the UMich campus call a “ceasefire town hall” and is scheduled to appear alongside Tlaib in Dearborn on Thursday evening. Khanna’s role as a Biden surrogate is not mentioned, a conspicuous omission to avoid advertising his affiliation with the president’s campaign.

“If we do not have a change in the situation in Gaza and in our policy approach, there is a risk of losing,” Khanna said. “Any day that bombs are falling on innocent children and women in Palestine is not a good day for our party and our prospects.”

Listen to Michigan has set a public goal of 10,000 votes, slightly less than the margin by which Trump carried the state in 2016 but about half the number of votes for “uncommitted” in Michigan’s 2016 and 2020 Democratic primaries. Our Revolution, the political group formed by Sen. Bernie Sanders supporters, said it aimed for 10 percent of the primary vote. Sanders has disavowed the effort, a spokesperson said.

While the “uncommitted” supporters have held events in Dearborn and on Michigan’s college campuses, they have not built a presence in Detroit’s Black neighborhoods. Branden Snyder, the executive director of Detroit Action, a progressive organizing group in the city, said voters there would be more inclined to support a Biden protest effort if the focus were on domestic issues.

“There are a ton of Black folks and brown folks who are disgruntled with Biden’s policy and looking at Biden spending resources abroad instead of at home on issues we cared about,” he said. “If messaging really focused on those people, you would have some serious concerns.”

Some Michigan voters say Biden has already lost their support in the general election.

Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, an Iranian American environmental toxicologist from Ann Arbor who has run repeatedly for local office, distributed business cards Tuesday highlighting her latest City Council campaign. Her platform includes cleaning the city’s contaminated water, enacting a $15 municipal minimum wage, and telling Congress to “stop funding Israeli wars.”

Savabieasfahani, 64, said she would not support Biden, even if doing so would help Trump return to the White House.

“We cannot be held hostage between two terrible choices,” she said. “Pick between these two elderly white men who do not know what you want and do not agree with what you want.”

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