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What could Biden's Israel-Gaza stand mean for his campaign? Michigan is an early test

Abbas Alawieh, a spokesperson for the group Listen to Michigan, pictured at a coffee shop in Detroit, Mich., on Thursday.
Sylvia Jarrus for NPR
Abbas Alawieh, a spokesperson for the group Listen to Michigan, pictured at a coffee shop in Detroit, Mich., on Thursday.

DEARBORN, Mich. — Abbas Alawieh had planned to step away from politics this fall. He's a Democratic strategist who's worked with several progressive members of Congress.

Then the Hamas attack on Israel happened that killed 1,200 people and took some 240 hostage, per the Israeli government. Israel's military response in Gaza has since killed nearly 30,000 people, mostly women and children, according to the ministry of health in Gaza.

It may feel far away for some Americans, but Alawieh's city, Dearborn, has felt every death in Gaza deeply. It's home to one of the largest Arab American communities in the country.

Alawieh started getting calls from cousins, friends and acquaintances in Michigan who'd barely expressed an interest in politics.

"Those same people are reaching out to me right now saying, 'This is Biden's fault, what are we going to do to make sure Biden stops this?'" he said.

Just like that, Alawieh was pulled back into politics with an urgency he said he's never felt before.

"Okay, so you have a community that is alienated, that Biden is alienating beyond what we can even capture in numbers," he said.

So he and other progressive organizers in the Detroit metro area are trying to create those numbers. He's a spokesperson for the Listen to Michigan movement, the self-described "multiracial and multifaith, anti-war campaign" that's encouraging Democrats and Independents to show up to the polls for Tuesday's primary.

But they're not getting out the vote for Biden, who Alawieh himself supported in 2020. They're urging voters to check the "uncommitted" box instead, as a way of protesting the Biden administration's handling of the Israel-Hamas war.

A panel of activists and government officials in the Dearborn community at the Arab-American Museum on Thursday in Dearborn, Mich.
/ Sylvia Jarrus for NPR
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Sylvia Jarrus for NPR
A panel of activists and government officials in the Dearborn community at the Arab-American Museum on Thursday in Dearborn, Mich.

"What we're saying is, first and foremost, we need a cease-fire, not some temporary thing," said Alawieh.

"We're also saying, President Biden, you are losing people and have lost many people here in Michigan, key voters, where you need every vote you can get," he added. "And unless you take a different approach, you will be handing the presidency back to Donald Trump and his white supremacist buddies."

Michigan is a key swing state. Biden won it by more than 150,000 votes in 2020, while Trump took it in 2016 by a margin of just over 10,000 — which is the minimum number of "uncommitted" votes the Listen to Michigan campaign hopes to get.

The primary on Tuesday is also being watched as an early litmus test for how much Biden's stance on Gaza could hurt his reelection bid — even though a lot could change before the general election in November.

"I think the more votes we have, the stronger our hand will be to play the next move that saves lives," Alawieh said.

The heart of the uncommitted campaign is in Michigan's Arab and Muslim communities. But it's also resonating with young voters and people of color from a variety of religions and backgrounds. Proponents of the campaign want a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, an end to unconditional U.S. military aid to Israel and a clear path to Palestinian statehood.

A flyer encouraging voters to vote uncommitted sits at Cairo Coffee and Spotlite, a popular activist gathering spot in Detroit, Mich.
/ Sylvia Jarrus for NPR
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Sylvia Jarrus for NPR
A flyer encouraging voters to vote uncommitted sits at Cairo Coffee and Spotlite, a popular activist gathering spot in Detroit, Mich.

In recent weeks, Biden has grown more publicly critical of Israel's conduct, and is working on a hostage exchange deal that could bring six weeks of respite. Last week, for the third time, the U.S. vetoed a United Nations resolution calling for an immediate humanitarian cease-fire.

Israel has argued that a cease-fire would give Hamas an opportunity to regroup and regain strength, and the Biden administration has been balancing its support for a close ally with pushing for a pause and longer-term solution to the conflict.

Administration officials acknowledged "missteps" when they met with Muslim and Arab American community leaders in Dearborn earlier this month, said Alawieh, who attended the meeting.

"The feeling of betrayal here in Michigan runs so deep that it will not be wiped away by a TV ad or two or ten or a hundred," he said.

Many residents are personally affected by the Israel-Hamas war, either because they have lost loved ones or have dealt with similar conflicts in their own family history — including Alawieh, who was a child during the 2006 Lebanon War between Israel and Hezbollah.

"I could have been killed by one of those U.S.-funded Israeli bombs ... I could have been one of those kids whose stories we don't know," he said. "That child inside of me, a child that too many people here in southeastern Michigan know all too well ... is saying the most urgent thing you can do right now is to advise President Biden to call for a cease-fire."

The administration told NPR that Biden is "working hard to earn every vote in Michigan" and to "create a just, lasting peace in the Middle East." But many anti-war Democrats who spoke to NPR say they feel taken for granted by the party — and, by voting "uncommitted," hope to increase pressure on Biden to listen to them and change course.

The campaign aims to send Biden a message

Supporters of the uncommitted effort agree it won't change Biden's expected primary victory on Tuesday — his Democratic opponent Dean Phillips trails far behind. But they hope to prove that he needs their support to beat Trump, the leading GOP frontrunner, come the general election in November.

Among those supporters is former U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, a Democrat who represented parts of metro Detroit in Congress from 2019 to 2023. He's also a self-described Biden ally who worries the president doesn't understand how deep the anger is in the Arab American community and beyond in the key swing state of Michigan.

Former U.S. Rep. Andy Levin at the First United Methodist Church in Ferndale, Mich., on Thursday. He is a Biden ally and uncommitted voter.
/ Sylvia Jarrus for NPR
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Sylvia Jarrus for NPR
Former U.S. Rep. Andy Levin at the First United Methodist Church in Ferndale, Mich., on Thursday. He is a Biden ally and uncommitted voter.

"The biggest danger for the president in his reelection is not getting that message," said Levin, who will be voting uncommitted in the primary.

The threat to Biden's reelection, as Levin sees it, isn't that anti-war Democrats will vote for Trump. It's that they won't vote at all. He says the 150,000 votes that Biden won by in 2020 is actually a relatively slim margin in a state with some 10 million residents.

"I don't see how you win the presidency without winning Michigan," Levin said. "And so then, here's the kicker: I don't think he can win Michigan unless he changes course."

This issue is also personal for Levin. His synagogue, housed in a church, displays a large banner in Hebrew and English, reading: "Jews & Christians praying for ceasefire now."

"I know Joe Biden understands this conflict and I know he cares a lot about it," Levin said. "My desire to see him lead on this and change course is both because it's what must happen to achieve a secure homeland for my people and the Palestinian people and for his own politics so he can be re-elected and we don't descend into fascism in America."

Congregation T'chiyah & the First United Methodist Church flies a banner calling for a ceasefire in Ferndale, Mich.
/ Sylvia Jarrus for NPR
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Sylvia Jarrus for NPR
Congregation T'chiyah & the First United Methodist Church flies a banner calling for a ceasefire in Ferndale, Mich.

More than 40 Democratic elected officials in Michigan have pledged to vote uncommitted. Among them is Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud, the first Arab mayor of this majority-Arab city.

He says his city — home to residents who have family living through strikes in Gaza, the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq — is not sleeping, and he wants the president to know that.

"For us here in Dearborn, we don't wonder what it's like," he said. "Not only did we live under those similar conditions — whether it was occupation, apartheid, war, besiegement — but also the people who are dying, these are our family members and our friends, people who we know directly."

He knows that his city, along with the wider community of Arab Americans and American Muslims in Michigan, aren't seen as kingmakers in the electorate.

"We're not sizable enough to make a candidate win," he said. "But we're sizable enough to make a candidate lose."

He says if Biden calls for a full ceasefire tomorrow it doesn't automatically repair the damage, but earns the president "another conversation at the table."

Every minute counts, Hammoud said, and it's not too late for Biden to take action to prevent additional civilian deaths in Gaza. Israel's military kills an average of 250 Palestinians a day, a higher rate than any other major 21st century conflict, according to Oxfam.

"There's always time to do the right thing. But this has to happen outside of the context of, does that mean it moves the needle for what you're going to support in November?" he said. "Because I refuse to believe that Palestinian lives only are important in the context of polls and outcomes of elections."

Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud sits at Jabal Coffee House in downtown Dearborn on Thursday.
/ Sylvia Jarrus for NPR
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Sylvia Jarrus for NPR
Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud sits at Jabal Coffee House in downtown Dearborn on Thursday.

As he spoke, he walked through a shopping district in west Dearborn, where restaurants serve up everything from Detroit-style pizza to shawarma and Yemeni coffee. He brought a team from NPR's Morning Edition to this district to show off the small businesses that reflect his city, but he also wondered if the nation or the administration would care about its pain if an election weren't at stake.

"It feels like this is a new caliber of dehumanization," he said. "I think many of us who have children often wonder what world our children are going to grow up in?"

People are in pain and want to be heard

In a few weeks Ramadan begins, the Muslim holy month when those who observe fast from dawn to dusk. In recent years, Dearborn has drawn hundreds of thousands of people to the nighttime festivals.

This year, all of that is canceled because of the war.

"People are not in the mood to be at these celebratory events," said Hammoud.

While the pain in Dearborn is predominantly about what residents are seeing in Gaza, it also comes from the increased hate at home.

More than 40 Democratic elected officials in Michigan have pledged to vote "uncommitted" in the upcoming Michigan primary.
/ Sylvia Jarrus for NPR
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Sylvia Jarrus for NPR
More than 40 Democratic elected officials in Michigan have pledged to vote "uncommitted" in the upcoming Michigan primary.

Since a Wall Street Journal opinion piece maligned this entire city as "America's jihad capital" earlier this month, threats have poured in, including to the mayor himself, who is Lebanese American and Muslim.

Hammoud didn't expect to find himself in the middle of this fierce geopolitical battle when he was elected in 2022.

"I mean, I ran on the prospect of making sure your garbage is picked up on time. I never imagined myself in a room with senior officials leading conversations on foreign policy," he said. "But when that foreign policy directly impacts your constituents, I think it's irresponsible if you walk away right now."

After Tuesday, what changes?

The message of uncommitted is resonating in Dearborn.

Outside a popular brunch spot, two sisters, Anem Khan and Huma Shahzad, who always vote Democrat, say on Tuesday they'll check uncommitted because of the daily horrors they're seeing in Gaza.

"Everything I feel ... my mood, my day, everything is based off of what's going on in Palestine," Khan said. "It's not about religion. It's about kids and adults and parents and families being eliminated."

What upsets them the most is that their tax dollars are paying for many of the bombs being used in Gaza. They say Biden needs to publicly call for it to stop.

Anem Khan and Huma Shahzad, pictured in a parking garage in Dearborn on Friday, say they will be voting uncommitted in Tuesday's primary.
Rachel Treisman / Treisman
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Treisman
Anem Khan and Huma Shahzad, pictured in a parking garage in Dearborn on Friday, say they will be voting uncommitted in Tuesday's primary.

"Killing innocent people is not the answer to anything, ever," Khan said. "Unless he calls for a ceasefire, I don't think that anyone would vote for him."

But even that might not get their vote.

"I'd need to see action," said Shahzad.

In Dearborn that sentiment seems to cross religious and racial lines, but it's unclear if it's gaining traction beyond the metro Detroit area.

Biden's administration is hoping it will win back a sizable share of younger voters ahead of the general election, thanks to his position on issues like climate change and abortion — and the fact that he's not Trump.

Supporters of the uncommitted campaign in Dearborn bristle at the suggestion that their refusal to vote for Biden is a vote for Trump, or that things could be "worse" under a president who has tried to enforce a travel ban on several Muslim majority countries — known as a Muslim ban — and threatened to bring it back if reelected.

For Shahzad, who is 27, she says her student loans that Biden promises to forgive and her personal safety under a possible Trump presidency are less important than changing the daily reality for Palestinians in Gaza.

"We do have more of a protective layer around us here in America because we are sheltered," she said. "Where in Palestine they have nothing. They just have the clothes on their backs."

Dearborn mayor Hammoud asks, what is he supposed to say to his constituent who lost 80 loved ones in Gaza?

"I think people fail to explain that, they can't contextualize that for us," Hammoud said, adding, "I don't think there is a worse."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Rachel Treisman
Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.
Leila Fadel
Leila Fadel is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Reena Advani
Reena Advani is an editor for NPR's Morning Edition and NPR's news podcast Up First.
Ziad Buchh
Ziad Buchh is a producer for NPR's Morning Edition and Up First. In addition to producing and directing the broadcast, he has also contributed to the show's sports, tech and video game coverage. He's produced and reported from all over the country, including a Trump rally, and from the temporary home of Ukrainian refugees.