How Dearborn became the epicenter of Biden's 2024 headaches over Israel

  • The Uncommitted movement includes a broad swath of Democratic voters upset with Biden over Israel.

  • But Arab and Muslim Americans — particularly in Dearborn, Michigan — have been leading the movement.

  • For the first time, these voters could play a decisive role in a presidential election.

Abdullah Hammoud was not elected to be a spokesperson for a national political movement.

The 34-year-old mayor of Dearborn, Michigan took office in 2022 after a campaign focused on the nuts and bolts of local government: lowering property taxes, improving city services, and strengthening public safety.

But Dearborn isn’t like other cities. A majority of its more than 100,000 residents are Arab Americans, and the city and its environs are home to the largest Muslim population in the United States.

Not coincidentally, it’s also the birthplace of the Uncommitted movement, which is urging Democratic voters to cast “uncommitted” ballots to protest President Joe Biden’s ongoing support for Israel. Movement leaders are demanding a permanent cease-fire in Gaza and an end to US military support for Israel in exchange for their votes this November.

Dearborn is also one of the few places in the country — along with Dearborn Heights and Hamtramck, two nearby townships that similarly boast large Arab American populations — where the movement has garnered an electoral majority: 56.2% of Dearborn voters cast “uncommitted” ballots on February 27.

When I spoke with Hammoud during my trip to Michigan last month, he was eager to point out that the movement extends well beyond Arab and Muslim Americans.

“I think the media tends to overlook how multiracial, multigenerational, multifaith, multi-ethnic the movement turned out to be,” he said. “It downplays the issue of Gaza as solely an Arab and Muslim issue.”

Coffee shops in Dearborn are bustling well into the night, particularly during Ramadan.Coffee shops in Dearborn are bustling well into the night, particularly during Ramadan.

Coffee shops in Dearborn are busy well into the night, particularly during Ramadan.Bryan Metzger

Layla Elabed and Abbas Alawieh, two leaders of the “Uncommitted National Movement,” made the same point. After all, the vast majority of the more than 100,000 “uncommitted” votes cast in the Michigan primary didn’t come from Dearborn. The movement registered more than 10% of the vote in the vast majority of Michigan’s 83 counties, with particularly strong showings in university towns like Ann Arbor.

“If Layla and I were to walk into some of the counties where we earned more than 10% of the vote, the percentage of Arabs and Muslims in that county would go up by 200%,” Alawieh quipped.

It’s an understandable tack for them to take. If the movement were made up solely of Arab and Muslim Americans, then perhaps Biden could afford to just write the community off and hope to garner enough former Nikki Haley supporters to make up the difference.

Yet it’s undeniable that the Uncommitted movement represents something new: the emergence of Arab and Muslim Americans as the leaders of a decisive voting bloc in a presidential election.

While these voters have been dependable members of the Democratic coalition in recent years, owing in large part to former President Donald Trump’s policies, the ongoing death and destruction in Gaza is driving movement leaders to change course and explicitly leverage their growing political clout.

“Our community has never had this much power and leverage,” said Alawieh. “Part of the reason why our power is growing is because we are stepping into the power of our expertise as people who have been most harmed by pro-war US foreign policy.”

While the issue of Gaza — where over 33,000 Palestinians have been killed since October 7, and where hundreds of thousands more have endured displacement and looming famine — is likely top of mind for these voters, the movement also provides an avenue to express other frustrations with the political system.

“It might be the driving force behind the movement, but it’s much bigger than Palestine,” said Lexis Zeidan, another Uncommitted movement leader. “We can fund war, but not reinvest in our communities here?”

All of this is despite the community’s cleared-eyed view of what a second Trump presidency could mean, including an even more deferential relationship with Israel’s hard-right government and a potential revival of the “Muslim Ban.”

‘An existential knowledge that’s not with anybody else’

By virtue of its large Arab and Muslim population, Dearborn is one of the most unique places in America — all the more so during the holy month of Ramadan, when the city is relatively sleepy during the day, only to bustle with energy at night.

Immigration from the Arab world began in earnest in the 1920s, when many came for jobs in the burgeoning automotive industry. That existing community then became a magnet for further waves of immigration, particularly in the 1960s and 1990s.

Among Dearborn’s Arab residents are Palestinian Americans, like Elabed and Zeidan, who may have relatives facing dire conditions in Gaza. Others are Lebanese Americans, like Alawieh and Hammoud, whose families have experienced Israeli occupation. There are also Iraqis, Yemenis, Syrians, and Egyptians who have faced the consequences of America’s foreign policy in the Middle East in a way that others simply have not. The city is represented by Elabed’s older sister, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who is the sole Palestinian American in Congress and arguably its strongest critic of Biden’s ongoing support for Israel.

“We have an existential knowledge that’s not with anybody else,” said Hammoud, referring to his city’s residents. “We can tell you exactly how the villages are shaped because we’ve driven those roads. We’ve shopped at those markets. We have phone calls with people there as frequently as we have phone calls with our family members here.”

Many shops and restaurants in Dearborn advertise in Arabic alongside English.Many shops and restaurants in Dearborn advertise in Arabic alongside English.

Many shops and restaurants in Dearborn advertise in Arabic alongside English.Bryan Metzger

But while the Arab American community is particularly concentrated in the Detroit area, with implications for 2024 in a closely-watched swing state, there are plenty of Arab American voters scattered in competitive states around the country. The Arab American Institute estimates that there are 206,000 such voters in Florida, 134,000 in Virginia, and 126,000 in Pennsylvania.

“Michigan is a bellwether for what will happen elsewhere,” said James Zogby, the president of the institute. “It’s a canary in the coal mine for other states.”

But the key to the movement’s ongoing success has been coalition-building with other communities, including African American voters, young voters, and progressive Jewish voters.

“Thirty-six times in the Torah, it says in one way or another, love the stranger as yourself, treat the other as you want to be treated,” said former Rep. Andy Levin, a prominent progressive Jewish backer of the Uncommitted movement in Michigan. “If you want to be a serious person of faith, who’s our most important other? Duh, it’s the Palestinian people.”

‘The Uncommitted campaign of the 80s’

Zogby, who’s been active in Democratic politics for decades, sees the Uncommitted movement as the second major wave of Arab American political organizing.

The first wave, in his telling, took place over the course of the 1980s, when he served as deputy campaign manager for Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign. Both that year and in 1988, Jackson explicitly courted Arab American votes and spoke openly about Palestinian rights. In 1988, amid the First Intifada, organizers passed pro-Palestinian resolutions at 11 state Democratic party conventions — not unlike the cease-fire resolutions that have passed in over 100 municipalities across the country since October 7.

Organizers with the Listen to Michigan campaign following election results during a watch party in Dearborn, Michigan on February 27, 2024.Organizers with the Listen to Michigan campaign following election results during a watch party in Dearborn, Michigan on February 27, 2024.

Organizers with the Listen to Michigan campaign following election results during a watch party in Dearborn, Michigan on February 27, 2024.Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images

“It was the Uncommitted campaign of the 80s,” said Zogby. After founding the Arab American Institute in Washington, DC in 1985, he and others worked in the intervening decades to build up Arab American power. Much of that work included registering voters and raising political consciousness in places like Dearborn, where non-Arab mayors had at times sought to fearmonger about the growing Arab American population.

That work also took place against the backdrop of the post-9/11 era, when Arabs and Muslims in the US faced discrimination and political marginalization after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. That marginalization persists, albeit in a lesser form, to this day; in February, a Wall Street Journal opinion writer described Dearborn as “America’s Jihad Capital,” prompting Mayor Hammoud to announce increased security measures in the city.

Decades of organizing created the conditions for what’s emerged today — a voting bloc that not only poses a possible threat to Biden’s reelection, but that in recent months has rejected what leaders view as political pandering.

Indeed, while organizers have been clear that they’re seeking specific policy changes from Biden, there’s been a perception that an increasingly nervous presidential campaign has merely been making a play for votes. And there have been prominent missteps by Biden’s administration and campaign, including a White House statement marking 100 days since October 7 that made no mention of the tens of thousands of Palestinians who had died.

Yet even amid those missteps — interpreted often as disrespect – there’s a sense of empowerment that comes with holding the fate of the election in your hands.

“People understand that the Michigan Muslim and Arab community is large enough,” said Hammoud, “maybe not to elect a president, but maybe to make one lose.”

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