White House Ramadan dinner highlights Biden’s struggles with Arab, Muslim voters

April 8, 2024

The efforts of President Biden and White House officials to reach out to the Arab and Muslim American communities in the wake of the war in Gaza have fallen short, highlighted last week by an at times tense, scaled-down iftar event compared to previous years.

The relationship with the Arab and Muslim American community has been fraught in the six months since the war began, with many protesting or fully withdrawing support for Biden over his pro-Israel stance since the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks. White House officials have held a handful of meetings with leaders but are sometimes met with invitations that are rejected. Biden himself has not engaged much directly with the community.

The strained relationship was on full display after a meeting with community leaders in which a Palestinian American doctor who had worked in Gaza walked out. The administration was faced with tough questions after the incident, including whether that was the first time Biden had ever engaged with someone who had actually been in the devastated enclave.

It once again underscored the risks Biden faces heading into election season, where a swath of disaffected voters upset over his handling of the war in Gaza could be enough to cost him key battleground states.

The small dinner and meeting were held this year in place of the nearly 350-person reception to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, which falls on Tuesday to mark the end of Ramadan, that the White House hosted last year. 

Thaer Ahmad, an emergency medicine physician who worked in Gaza in January, told CNN he was the only Palestinian in the room at the stakeholders meeting and that he shared with Biden: “Out of respect for my community, out of respect for all of the people who have suffered and who have been killed in the process, I need to walk out of the meeting.”

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters afterward the president respected Ahmad’s right to peacefully protest, and officials understand the strong feelings around the war in Gaza.

Jean-Pierre offered little insight into how the White House built its guest list for the more intimate event, which was not publicized, but she said the smaller setting was intended to foster a more direct, honest conversation. She confirmed there were three doctors in attendance who recently returned from Gaza at the dinner who shared their experiences with Biden.

“We’ve done outreach for [the] past several weeks, several months to the Muslim, to the Arab community, Palestinian community and heard from them directly,” Jean-Pierre told reporters. “And they spoke; we listened. And we hope that they feel like they had an opportunity to express themselves and had an opportunity, in front of the president and the vice president, to talk about an incredibly painful time.”

Additionally, a source familiar told The Hill that Ahmad has been to the White House on multiple occasions to meet with White House officials about the situation in Gaza.

Since the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attacks, Biden has been adamant that Israel has a right to defend itself and that the U.S. would provide support. But in recent months, he has been more outspoken that Israel has not done enough to protect civilians and humanitarian workers as thousands of Palestinians have been killed. 

Last Thursday, Biden’s tone significantly shifted, however, when he said future U.S. support may change if Israel does not take concrete actions following a drone strike that killed several World Central Kitchen workers in Gaza.

Outside of Washington, White House officials have met with members of the community in Michigan and Illinois in recent months. There has also been outreach to elected officials who are Arab Americans or Muslim Americans, or who represent large areas with large populations, including the mayors of Dearborn, Mich., Gainesville, Fla., and Patterson, N.J. 

Within the White House, chief of staff Jeff Zients hosted a listening session with Muslim, Arab, and Palestinian staff in recent months. And, the White House offices of Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Engagement has consistently engaged with Churches for Middle East Peace, interfaith leaders from Pilgrimage for Peace, and a coalition from the National Faith Table.

Campaign officials have also reached out to community members in Michigan and other states to foster conversation and listen to their concerns. Biden himself did not meet with Arab American community members during recent trips to Michigan.

But some in the community think that outreach hasn’t been enough.

Hassan Abdel Salam, an Abandon Biden co-founder and Sociology professor at the University of Minnesota, described to The Hill that the White House’s outreach to the Muslim and Arab American community as “tone deaf” and that Biden has “alienated” people in the community.

He said that two Abandon Biden leaders based in Michigan had been contacted by the White House to meet in recent months, but the organization’s position is not to meet with the White House and to only contact them unless a permanent cease-fire in Gaza is called. 

And, another time there was outreach to the group was in December when a Democratic-operative “doing the bidding of the White House” asked them to cancel a press conference they were hosting in Dearborn, Mich., with swing state leaders, he said.

Protesters have interrupted numerous Biden events and gathered outside fundraisers for months to express their discontent with the president’s handling of the war in Gaza. Demonstrators interrupted Biden’s high-profile fundraiser last week with former President Obama and former President Clinton, with one yelling “Shame on you, Joe Biden!”

Obama jumped in to defend Biden, telling demonstrators, “You can’t just talk and not listen…That’s what the other side does.”

But the political risks to Biden are clear. Thousands of voters have cast protest ballots during the Democratic primaries over his handling of the war in Gaza, including last week in Wisconsin, where nearly 50,000 people voted for “uninstructed.” While Biden won the primary easily, if even a fraction of those protest voters stay home in November or back a different candidate, it could cost him in the Badger State, which he won in 2020 by slightly more than 20,000 votes.

The Abandon Biden movement, which has been behind the protest vote efforts in Democratic primaries, declared Biden’s overall outreach to the Muslim and Arab community a failure this week.

“The Biden administration needs to understand the unequivocal message we are sending: they do not have our vote. The attempt to engage our community has not only fallen flat but has also served to further galvanize us towards ensuring accountability and seeking justice for our people,” the group said in a statement. 

Abandon Biden said the boycott of the Ramadan event at the White House was “a significant juncture in the American political landscape.”

“Our community’s refusal to be used for public relations maneuvers by the Biden administration became resoundingly clear on Tuesday night,” the organization said. “This defining moment was not just about the decline in participation by numerous Muslim American leaders—motivated by principle or the fear of backlash—but it also saw the outright cancellation of what would have been a token iftar, replaced by a policy discussion that failed to address our concerns adequately.”