Illinois primary vote will see Arab Americans turn their backs on Biden

Muslim and Arab Americans have been organising for the presidential election to send a unified message on their demand for Gaza ceasefire

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators rally outside of Chicago's City Hall in January. Anti-Biden Democrats are planning to cast blank ballots in the Illinois primary. Getty via AFP
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Anger at US President Joe Biden's handling of the Israel-Gaza war is expected to be on full display in Illinois on Tuesday, when hundreds of thousands of Arab and Muslim Americans will be among those voting in the state's primary.

To protest against Mr Biden's resolute backing of Israel over the past five months as it has flattened Gaza in response to the October 7 attacks, many Democrats say they can no longer back the President.

“We have a unified message that we will not support President Biden as long as he does not support a ceasefire and, more importantly, enact it,” Rush Darwish, a Palestinian American and community activist, told The National.

To make their disgust known, anti-Biden Democrats are planning to cast blank ballots or write in “Gaza” as a way of protesting.

The idea is similar to protest campaigns in primaries in Michigan and Minnesota, where about 145,000 people in the two states voted “uncommitted”, which was an option on the ballot, instead of putting a tick next to Mr Biden's name.

The ballots in Illinois do not have an “uncommitted” option, so voters will use other tactics as they try to show the President that his policies on the war in Gaza, where local authorities say the death toll has passed 31,700 people, will cost him their votes.

The city of Chicago and its surrounding suburbs are home to an estimated 150,000 Palestinian Americans. About 250,000 Arabs, mostly Lebanese and Jordanian Americans, also live in the state.

Activists say the state also has the largest per capita Muslim population in the country.

Like many Arab Americans, Mr Darwish has long supported and voted for the Democratic Party. He campaigned for Mr Biden in 2020, and has run for office as a Democrat.

He once led a group called Arab Americans for Biden.

Soon after October 7, the group was renamed Arab Americans Forward, and became an empowerment and advocacy organisation.

“All signs indicate that this could be the highest turnout ever of Arab and Muslim Americans in Illinois that will go vote, and we'll write in ‘Gaza’ or leave it blank,” Mr Darwish said.

He said it was strange that as a promoter to get his community to vote, he is seeing more enthusiasm than ever when not voting for an actual candidate.

The Chicago metropolitan area, known as Chicagoland, and the south-west suburbs of Bridgeview and Orland Park, are home to a distinct Arab-American culture, with hundreds of Arabic restaurants and shops, and vibrant festivities, especially during Ramadan.

It is also a centre for political action and activism, and since the war's start, there have been almost daily protests and rallies.

Mr Biden “has lost our trust. He's letting a genocide happen on our tax dollars", said Deena Habbal, from the Muslim Civic Coalition-Activate, a group taking part in the protest vote.

“It's been a complete shift,” Ms Habbal tells The National. “Lifelong Democrats are now saying that they're independent. I was a Democrat and I'm saying now I will never be a Democrat.”

But unlike the states of Michigan and Wisconsin, which are critical swing states that Mr Biden must win in November if he is to secure a second term in office, Illinois is reliably Democratic.

And Mr Biden officially clinched the Democratic presidential nomination last week after he won in the state of Georgia.

Inside the Arab American campaign to unseat US President Joe Biden in 2024

Inside the Arab American campaign to unseat US President Joe Biden in 2024

In the 2020 presidential election, Mr Biden won more than 57 per cent of the vote against Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for 2024. It is about the same margin Hillary Clinton won in 2016.

The community was hit hard shortly after the start of the war, when six-year-old Palestinian-American Wadea Al Fayoume was stabbed to death and his mother severely wounded in an attack in their home in Chicago by their landlord.

Police said it was an Islamophobic attack sparked by the Israel-Gaza war.

Hatem Abudayyeh, executive director at the Arab American Action Network (AAAN), says his community's plan for their primary ballots is deeply meaningful and significant.

“It becomes another example, even if the state is not in play,” Mr Abudayyeh says.

He says the White House has contacted members of the community to set up meetings, although many have refused to attend.

“When the Democratic party and its president abandoned us, people from the community are going to say, 'We don't support you',” Mr Abudayyeh tells The National.

“This movement actually is working, and it becomes another state that has decided that it is not going to support Biden's policies on Palestine – it's going to just continue to build momentum.”

Updated: March 19, 2024, 4:34 PM