DEARBORN – On Thursday, top Biden administration officials met with Arab American and Muslim leaders in Michigan at the Henry Hotel in an effort to mend ties with a community that has an important role in deciding whether President Biden can hold on to a crucial swing state in the November election.
Biden is facingfrom Arab Americans and progressives for his military, financial and political support of the Israeli war on Palestinians in Gaza following the Oct. 7 surprise attack by Hamas against Israel, although Biden recently stated he is trying to minimize civilian casualties in Gaza.
More than 30,000 people, mostly women and children, have been killed in Gaza since Oct. 7, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry in the Gaza Strip. Hamas killed more than 1,200 people and kidnapped about 250 more, mostly civilians, in its attack, according to the Israeli government.
The meetings began Thursday morning and stretched throughout the afternoon and ended at 5 p.m. State Rep. Abraham Aiyash, the second-ranking Democrat in the Michigan House, spoke to The Associated Press following a nearly two hour meeting with the Biden officials, describing the conversations as “intense” but “direct.”
“I relayed the emotions and the concerns of our community, and we gave them tangible steps,” said Aiyash, who is also the highest-ranking Arab or Muslim official in the State House of Representatives. “We want to see a permanent ceasefire. We want to be able to see restrictions and conditions on any military aid that is sent to Israel. And we want to see the United States take a serious commitment towards rebuilding Gaza.”
Aiyash added that “there will not be engagement beyond this if we do not see any tangible changes after this discussion.”
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Thursday that the meetings were “private.”
“We want to give them the space to have a meeting that certainly has candor, certainly where — we can hear directly from them,” Jean-Pierre said.
“We want to hear directly from them. We want to hear their concerns. We believe it’s important for these leaders to be able to speak directly to officials in the White House.”
The Biden team also met with other Arab American and Muslim leaders, including The Arab American News Publisher Osama Siblani, among others., Deputy Wayne County Executive Assad I. Turfe, Michigan’s Deputy Attorney General Fadwa Hammoud, Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Mariam Bazzi, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and
Michigan holds the largest concentration of Arab Americans in the nation and more than 310,000 residents are of Middle Eastern or North African ancestry. More than half of Dearborn’s roughly 110,000 residents claim Arab ancestry.
“Dearborn is one of the few places where you have Arab Americans in such a concentrated area that your vote can actually matter,” said Rima Meroueh, director of the National Network for Arab American Communities. “So it gets the attention of elected officials because if they want to win the state, they’re going to have to address this population.”
After Republican Donald Trump won Michigan by fewer than 11,000 votes in 2016, Wayne County and its large Muslim and Arab communities helped Biden retake the state for the Democrats in 2020 by a roughly 154,000-vote margin. Biden enjoyed a roughly 3-to-1 advantage in Dearborn and 5-1 advantage in Hamtramck, and he won Wayne County by more than 330,000 votes.
The White House — and Biden’s campaign — are keenly aware of the political dynamics in Michigan.
Biden’s campaign manager, Julie Chavez Rodriguez, and other campaign aides came to Dearborn on January 26, but found a number of the Arab and Muslim community leaders unwilling to meet with her and her team. However, Siblani met with Chavez Rodriguez, accompanied by Ed Duggan, Michigan campaign manager of the Biden-Harris campaign, and U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D- Ann Arbor).
“I’m for the dialogue and I believe we owe it to our country and to our community and the people in Gaza to listen and be heard,” Siblani told The Associated Press.
Biden traveled to Michigan last week to court union voters, but did not meet with any Arab American leaders. Pro-Palestinian demonstrations followed him on his trip.
Statement by Mayor Abdullah Hammoud
Hammoud put out a statement following his Thursday morning meeting with the Biden team:
“At 10 a.m. this morning, we represented the voices of Dearborn in a two-hour-long policy discussion with senior advisors — not campaign staff — from the Biden administration.
“For the last several months, it has become increasingly clear that our position and viewpoints on the ongoing conflict have not been accurately captured by mainstream media and have failed to reach the highest office in our government.
“This meeting was held to ensure that the White House and those with the ability to change the course of the genocide unfolding in Gaza very clearly hear and understand the demands of our community — directly from us. We remained uncompromising in our values and our demands for a permanent ceasefire, ending unrestricted military support to the State of Israel and expediting humanitarian aid and funding to UNRWA, among others.
“When I ran for mayor three years ago, it was to ensure the delivery of essential city services, not to be involved in foreign policy discussions. However, when foreign policy decisions directly impact the well-being of Dearborn residents, it is irresponsible to walk away from difficult policy conversations that can lead to saving the lives of innocent men, women and children.
“As citizens of the United States of America and representatives of the city of Dearborn, we have done our duty; now it is incumbent upon the president to do the same.”
Statement by Deputy Wayne County Executive Assad I. Turfe:
“In our pivotal meeting with White House officials, I stood together with other leaders from the Arab American and Muslim community in unwavering determination, pressing for an immediate and irrevocable ceasefire.
“It’s critical to understand that our decision to engage in dialogue with the administration was not taken lightly. We entered this conversation because of the necessity for our voices to be heard. Our community’s pain must be acknowledged. This was about ensuring the administration sees the real impact of its policies, not just on foreign soil but right here, affecting our people, our families.
“We made it clear that any future engagement with the administration is conditional upon real action. The developments in Gaza will serve as the benchmark for evaluating the effectiveness of the administration’s actions. The Biden administration must act swiftly and decisively to end this violence, honoring the principles of justice and human rights.
“Our commitment is steadfast, our demands are clear. We stand united in our call for action and peace.”
Siblani participated in the last meeting with the Biden delegation with seven other Arab and Muslim leaders, including Dr. Iltefat Hamzavi, national board member of Emgage. He also had a separate one-on-one meeting with some of the Biden team, including Stephen K. Benjamin, assistant to a senior advisor to President Biden, and Daniel Arrigg Koh, deputy assistant to the president and deputy director for the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. During the meeting, Siblani handed the members of the delegation a statement detailing seven important issues that the community is concerned about and asked the Biden administration to address them urgently.
Statement submitted by Siblani to the White House delegation, Feb. 8:
“Today, Arab American public officials and community leaders met with a high-profile delegation from the White House to deliver a message and demand an immediate ceasefire, among other points. After consulting with several leaders in our community, here is a brief summary of the points that I will be submitting to the White House delegation during our meeting with them:
1- Immediate and permanent ceasefire in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Yemen and all other areas of conflict precipitated from the war on Gaza. Followed by the release of all hostages/prisoners from both sides, Israelis and Palestinians.
2- The Biden administration has been a partner with the extremist Netanyahu government in killing Palestinians, destroying their livelihoods. Therefore, we demand immediate help from our government to assist the devastated Palestinians in rebuilding their shattered lives and providing them with all necessities for survival, as they face famine, starvation and homelessness.
3- Resume and increase financial support for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) to enable it to provide immediate assistance to Palestinians in Gaza.
4- While acknowledging the symbolic significance of recognizing the establishment of a Palestinian state, we emphasize the need for tangible actions beyond mere rhetoric. Empty gestures are insufficient; genuine efforts toward a sustainable and just resolution of the conflict are imperative for achieving lasting peace in the region.
5- Continued community engagement with the Biden administration will depend on seeing actionable and tangible results from this meeting. Future dialogues hinge on progress on the ground in Gaza.
6- The urgency of the situation in Gaza demands immediate and decisive action. Delayed responses are no longer tolerable. The Biden administration must act swiftly to end the crisis and uphold the principles of justice and human rights.
7- Our community is rightfully angry and will not accept future engagements or dialogues with this administration unless and until an immediate ceasefire is implemented.
“Emgage welcomes and supports the decision of our Michigan community to meet with a senior White House delegation to call for an immediate, mutual and durable ceasefire,” said Senior Advisor Nada Al-Hanooti.
“We are proud of those who participated, especially in light of the pain and trauma they and our collective communities have endured over the past four months. We believe it is essential to speak truth to power and to hold elected and appointed leaders accountable for their decision-making.
“Emgage fully supports participants’ demands for a full ceasefire and the delivery of more humanitarian assistance to help those in need, especially children. We also support calls to resume funding for UNRWA while withholding additional financial assistance to the Netanyahu government given their gross violations of human rights and war crimes against the Palestinian people.
“Emgage supports the participants’ demand to address the root causes of the crisis by ending the Israeli occupation of the Palestinians.”
The White House delegation included Benjamin; Koh; Samantha Power, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development; principal deputy national security adviser Jon Finer; Tom Perez, senior advisor and assistant to the president and director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs; Mazen M. Basrawi, director of Global Engagement, senior advisor and Liaison to Muslim Community and various White House aides.