White House Scrambles to Repair Relations with Arab, Muslim Americans

Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post.
Protesters outside the White House on Oct. 14, 2023.

One ripple effect of the Israel-Gaza war is the warp-speed unraveling of relations between President Biden and some of his most loyal voters: Muslims and Arab Americans.

This week at the White House encapsulated the strains, beginning with a listening session for frustrated administration personnel from those communities and ending with a controversial meeting between the president and five Muslim figures picked by the White House who had faced enormous pressure from activists to decline in protest.

The open disdain toward Biden from many in a reliably Democratic bloc is among the many signs the conflict is quickly remaking U.S. domestic politics, with public fury over a Hamas attack that killed 1,400 Israelis colliding with the horror of entire families in the Gaza Strip being wiped out in Israel’s retaliatory strikes.

The events of the week were described in detail in interviews with several Arab American and Muslim advocates inside and outside the administration, nearly all of them speaking on the condition of anonymity to candidly describe their dealings with the White House.

One organizer said community concerns could be boiled down to a critical question: “Are we dealing with warmongers or are we dealing with peacemakers? Who are we dealing with?”

For many Muslims and Arab Americans, the answer came Wednesday when Biden cast doubt on the number of Palestinian casualties because the figures come from health officials who report to Hamas, which controls the territory. Historically, such figures have been accurate, according to Middle East researchers. On Thursday, Hamas released names, national ID numbers and other information for the 6,747 people included in the Gaza Health Ministry’s tally. The group said 281 bodies had not yet been identified, bringing the total to 7,028.

Biden’s remarks, which the administration later reiterated in formal statements, were interpreted by many as calling Palestinians liars, or as equating Gaza’s beleaguered medical professionals with Hamas.

A senior Arab American White House staffer who is directly involved in engagement with the concerned communities said high-level staffers are holding several meeting with Arab, Muslim and Palestinian Americans to discuss the White House response. The staffer described Biden and other top officials’ approach as one of humility and humanity and characterized the conflict as dynamic and complex.

The staffer declined to comment about what has been said in the meetings. When asked whether anything would change in Biden’s tone or policy as a result of the meeting, the person pointed to the Oct. 20 news conference in which Biden reiterated U.S. support for Palestinian self-determination.

“We mourn every innocent life lost. We can’t ignore the humanity of innocent Palestinians who only want to live in peace and have an opportunity,” Biden said then.

In a statement Friday, White House spokesperson Robyn Patterson cited those comments and said the administration is “reaching out to hear directly from members of Muslim, Arab American, and Palestinian American communities. We’ll continue to engage in conversations with these important communities and to be unequivocal in condemning hate and discrimination against them.”

Incensed U.S. Arab and Muslim advocacy groups this week called Biden’s remarks about the death count dangerous, and some prominent voices from those communities chimed in on social media saying that the president had lost them and that they were considering sitting out the 2024 election.

When word got out that the president wanted to meet with community leaders – ones approved by senior staffers – national activists immediately began working the phones to pressure invitees to decline or to accept only on condition that Biden answer for his remarks about Palestinian deaths.

“Why are you sitting down with him without any agreement that he’s going to retract that statement and apologize?” said one community organizer involved in talks. “What seat at the table are you negotiating, the toilet seat?”

The meeting ultimately took place Thursday, capping a week of fraught discussions that left Biden’s relations with many Arab Americans and Muslims deeply wounded. Rifts among the national advocacy groups emerged as they struggled to build a unified response to the conflict.

Above all, Arab Americans and Muslims interviewed by The Washington Post expressed a sense of isolation, of feeling adrift in a party they had viewed as a haven from the open hostility toward them expressed by Republicans and their de facto leader, Donald Trump.

“You can’t reduce this to a political calculation that, by 2024, these communities won’t remember this, and I am talking about communities, plural: Arab American, Palestinian American, young voters, I’m talking about people who spent their lives working on peace in the region,” said Maya Berry, a longtime civil rights activist and executive director of the Arab American Institute. “These are all voters who won’t forget.”

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Damage control

The administration’s week of damage-control meetings with U.S. Arabs and Muslims began Monday at the State Department, where a small group of community representatives sat down with Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

The conversation was intense but remained cordial, one participant said. The visitors had strategized beforehand to keep the conversation focused on legal questions related to U.S. support for what the United Nations and other rights monitors have called Israel’s collective punishment of Gaza’s 2 million residents, about half of them children.

“Are we following the international rules or not? Are we wavering away from that? What policies are decisions being based off of?” the participant said, summarizing the questions. The response, the person said, was that those were important questions but that “everything’s been happening so fast they’ve been focused on trying to keep it from spreading and turning into even more of a deadly conflict.”

There were no breakthroughs, the participant said, but the meeting had helped those there understand that the administration’s reluctance to talk about a cease-fire came from an insistence that the situation not go back to the status quo of Hamas rule in Gaza. The Arab Americans and Muslims at the meeting agreed on that point.

“None of us want to return to the status quo, except bad actors who are profiting off of it,” the participant said. “And we said Hamas is not the only bad actor profiting off this, and we left it at that.”

Talks were more emotional later that evening at a separate temperature-taking meeting in which senior White House officials tried to reassure Muslim and Arab American political appointees from across government.

The event was billed as a listening session with senior administration officials, and those who showed up didn’t hold back, according to three people with direct knowledge of the meeting.

Dozens of people were in attendance – one participant estimated around 70 – from across the government, including intelligence agencies, the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services.

Participants, some in tears, spoke about their endangered family members in the Middle East, of feeling isolated and under suspicion in their government jobs, and of feeling complicit in the administration’s support for Israel’s siege.

“They feel like they’re being censored and they feel like they’re being met with suspicion, they’re not trusted” in their jobs, said one person with direct knowledge of the meeting.

At one point, the officials asked how many people in the room knew someone from Gaza. Nearly everyone raised their hands. Next came a more uncomfortable question: How many of those in the room had been pressured by friends or relatives to resign from the administration in recent days? Again, most hands shot up.

The officials in the room included White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients; senior adviser Anita Dunn; the White House liaison to Muslim communities, Mazen Basrawi; along with representatives from the State Department and other agencies. Doug Emhoff, the husband of Vice President Harris, also briefly stopped by.

The officials’ response, as summed up by an attendee, was: “We hear you. We’re with you. It’s hard. It’s challenging.”

The Arab American White House staffer involved in the community engagement efforts said the multiple meetings with critics inside and outside the government signaled that administration was willing to hold tough conversations. The official added that they personally felt heard in the White House.

The attendees hadn’t expected a policy shift from the meeting, according to the accounts, but felt confident that their concerns would be conveyed to Biden, to be taken into consideration in his public remarks about Palestinians. Two days later, the president made the comments questioning the accuracy of Palestinian casualties at a time when Arabic-language TV channels were showing nonstop footage of lifeless, dust-covered children being pulled from the rubble after Israeli strikes.

“Whatever we said in that room is presumably falling on deaf ears, because it’s not changing the tenor or tone, much less the policymaking,” one person involved in the talks said.

After Biden’s casualty-figure remarks, some administration appointees began to consider resigning, but, as that same person put it: “That’s one news cycle. Then what?” That person said they and others had spent years working inside the Democratic machine for better representation of their communities and that this wasn’t the time for “ceding ground.”

“There is a sense of obligation to be able to voice concern and say this is an injustice unfolding before our eyes and we’ve got to change,” the person said.

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A controversial White House meeting

The most controversial meeting of the week came Thursday with the White House extending an invitation to five national Muslim figures who were picked by the White House in a process one person involved with the talks described as “a sh–show.”

The guest list: Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison (D), who made history as the first Muslim elected to Congress and who has written about his multiple trips to Gaza; Rami Nashashibi, a Chicago-based Muslim whose community organizing earned him a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2017; Imam Mohamed Magid, a Washington-area cleric and interfaith leader who often appears at political functions; Wa’el Alzayat of the Muslim lobbying group Emgage; and Suzanne Barakat, a health-care advocate.

Other activists said that while the invitees were well known and generally respected advocates for U.S. Muslims, the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza makes this a time for Palestinian voices, including Christians.

“I’m not upset by who is going. I’m upset by who’s not going,” said the person involved with the talks. “They’re going to come out and check a box and say Biden met with the Arab American community, and it’s not true.”

One of the five invitees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment candidly about a sensitive issue involving the White House, said the decision to attend was one of the hardest dilemmas they had ever faced.

A key concern, the invitee said, was that only one Palestinian American was to be present.

A second Palestinian American, who had lost scores of relatives in the Gaza strikes and was publicly critical of the U.S. response, had been invited and then was disinvited, according to several advocates who were upset by what they interpreted as a snub.

After much soul-searching and external pressure, the participant said the group decided it was an “obligation” to attend.

“It’s our jobs, given the position we are in, to go and speak truth to power, to the most powerful man in charge, on behalf of the children under the rubble who cannot,” the invitee said.

The participant said the goal was to press Biden on a cease-fire and the need for broader and more meaningful engagement with Palestinians. The person added that the group was unequivocal on the issue of Gaza casualty figures and livid the president seemed more focused on a debate about data than about the fact that many hundreds of children have been killed: “We said, Palestinians are dying. We’re not okay with the numbers of their dead being disputed.”

Versions of these discussions are going on throughout the country among Muslim and Arab Americans who say they feel betrayed by and furious with the White House, feeling that Palestinian lives are being disregarded and international law and norms trampled.

“It’s really crazy to me that the Democratic party destroyed 20-years . . . worth of good will with Muslims and Arabs in just 2 weeks, losing an entire generation that was raised in the progressive coalition, possibly forever,” Eman Abdelhadi, a University of Chicago professor of comparative human development who studies Palestinian Americans, wrote Thursday on X, formerly Twitter.

In an interview, Abdelhadi said community members weren’t surprised Biden was supportive of Israel. But “the degree, the blank check,” is scary, she said, especially given the mounting civilian casualty toll. Young people already are talking about sitting out the election in protest, she said. At a recent campus event that drew hundreds of students, Abdelhadi said, she told the audience, “I think Biden has lost the Muslim vote.”

“The entire room erupted into clapping,” she recalled. “This generation was raised in a time when Muslims and Arabs were constantly in contact with Democrats, felt and were part of the progressive coalition. Now that is completely disillusioned.”

Gallup polling showed that in early 2022, for the first time in more than 20 years more Democrats said “their sympathies” lie with the Palestinians than with the Israelis, 49 percent to 38 percent.

Biden has made multiple comments about the need for all sides to protect civilians. At a news conference Wednesday, he said that the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza needed to increase and that Israel needed to do “everything in its power to protect innocent civilians.” But some Muslim and Arab American leaders say words are no longer enough.

“There’s that Arab saying, ‘Don’t look at what the mouth is saying, look at what they hands are doing,'” one person involved with the White House meetings said. “Look what the hands are doing. They are stoking the flames.”