Arab and Muslim-American politicians caught between voters and party on Gaza

Last year’s midterm elections saw a change in US politics, as hundreds of Arab and Muslim-American Democratic legislators were elected to local, state and national office

Pro-Palestinian activists and protesters rally in Washington. EPA
Powered by automated translation

Live updates: Follow the latest news on Israel-Gaza

For decades, Arab and Muslim-American voters have gravitated towards the Democratic Party for its progressive stance on immigration, human rights and more.

But that has been changing due to the party’s support for Israel’s weeks-long bombardment of Gaza that has resulted in more than 11,000 deaths.

Last year’s midterm elections saw a sea change in US politics, as hundreds of Arab and Muslim-American Democratic legislators were elected to local, state and national office.

Many were prompted to take up the political mantle following former president Donald Trump’s so-called Muslim ban in 2017.

But those same representatives find themselves on the receiving end of anger from voters who want the Democratic Party to to do more to protect civilians in Gaza.

Palestinian American Iman Jodeh, who represents a diverse community of voters in Colorado’s state legislature, says she has been getting emails from people across the state who are angered over the Democratic Party’s stance.

“We just had municipal elections in Aurora and when I was doing a TV segment at the mosque, people there were saying, ‘Are these the Democrats? I’m not voting for Democrats,’” she says.

While both the Republican and Democratic parties have sought to support Israel in its war on Gaza, a recent poll found that 40 per cent of Americans think Israel has gone too far.

“My concern is if this continues, how can we, as a community, help get a Democrat elected when they’re not willing to help us?” Ms Jodeh asks.

The latest from the Israel-Gaza war – in pictures

In recent weeks, rounds of meetings between White House officials and Democratic Party representatives and Arab and Muslim-American community leaders have taken place, as the party attempts to gauge the level of anger over events in Gaza.

In Michigan, a crucial swing state President Joe Biden won by only 154,000 votes in the 2020 election, many Arab and Muslim Americans are furious.

Despite being home to the largest Arab community outside the Middle East – a majority of whom vote Democrat – the Michigan Democratic Party’s Facebook page has made no mention of the conflict in Gaza.

About 9,000 Michigan residents reported being of Palestinian descent in the 2020 census. Many have lost family members in Israel’s war.

Last Monday, Palestinian American Rashida Tlaib, a Democratic member of the House of Representative who received nearly a quarter of a million votes in her 2020 election in Michigan, was censured by her colleagues for comments she had made about the conflict.

Only 26 politicians have been censured in the House's 234-year history.

“Instead of attacking me and distorting my words, they should listen to their constituents and call for a ceasefire to save innocent lives,” Ms Tlaib told the Associated Press.

Her comments have split Michigan’s Democrats in what is likely to be a key battleground state in next year’s presidential election.

“I think the fact that 22 Democrats voted to censure her [says a lot]. She is constantly reminding the Democratic Party that their cowardice is a choice,” says Lauren Trendler, co-chairwoman of the Metro Detroit Democratic Socialist of America, of which Ms Tlaib is also a member.

Joe Biden: No chance of a ceasefire in Gaza – video

Joe Biden: No chance of a ceasefire in Gaza

Joe Biden: No chance of a ceasefire in Gaza

Mr Biden won Michigan and the majority Arab-American city of Dearborn by 74 per cent, though that figure is likely to fall next year, say experts.

“There is definitely a lot of talk about not voting for Biden – staying home on election day or not filling out the top of the ballot [in next year’s presidential election],” says Ms Trendler.

“We don’t believe the party’s position represents the stance of voters. Over 70 per cent of Democratic voters polled in Michigan support a ceasefire [in Gaza].”

What’s more, recently elected Arab and Muslim-American politicians who have made political strides at state and other levels may be outflanked in future elections by progressive candidates offering the appearance of being more in tune with the mood on the street.

For many who have worked hard to get elected, any association with Mr Biden is toxic. It is a difficult position for representatives to be in, say observers, with many US media organisations conflating support for Palestinian rights and needs with support for Hamas.

“It puts them in danger within their own party with regard to possible primary challenges,” says Ms Trendler.

“It’s doubly difficult for Arab [and Muslim] American politicians because since 9/11 and beyond, there has been rampant Islamophobia and now it seems like they are alienated even among their own party.”

She says prominent Democrats such as Ms Tlaib have a strong, boots-on-the-ground movement that helped get Mr Biden elected in 2020. The President is already taking a pounding in polls of Arab Americans as a result of America’s support for Israel.

The Colorado Democratic Party’s sole reference on its Facebook page to the conflict was a screengrab of a statement by Mr Biden criticising Hamas on October 11.

“I encourage my community to vote for Democrats but my community, especially the Muslim and Arab community, has very much voiced their concern with Democrats,” says Ms Jodeh.

“Many of them have vowed not to vote for Democrats next year.”

She said that she has not thought about reconsidering her position as a representative for the Democratic Party, nor heard from constituents who have told her they will not vote for her again for being a Democrat.

“I represent a district with a high concentration of Muslims and Arabs and refugees – I have a relationship with them,” she explained.

“But it is going to be difficult in the next [election] cycle to help my constituents and community understand [that] the alternative could hurt us even more. I’m worried that this has completely changed the political landscape for 2024.

“We need to ask ourselves, as Democrats, do we want to be on the right side of history?”

Updated: November 14, 2023, 9:33 PM