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Taking Heat on Gaza, Biden Reminds Voters of Trump’s Muslim Ban

Democrats are trying a way to address the backlash to the president’s handling of Israel’s war in Gaza.

A protester holds a sign during a 2017 demonstration to denounce President Donald Trump's travel ban from Muslim-majority countries.
Then-President Donald Trump’s enacted his first travel ban from Muslim-majority countries in January 2017. Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

In his first run for president, Donald Trump promised a Muslim ban. Now, nearly seven years after Trump’s administration enacted a travel ban from several Muslim-majority countries, Democrats and Joe Biden want to be sure voters remember.

Biden and his allies are highlighting the former president’s treatment of Muslims as the current president deals with his own struggles with Muslims and Arab Americans over his handling of Israel’s war in Gaza.

“The more it becomes that binary choice between someone who is going to implement a Muslim ban on day one versus someone who is trying to develop a two-state solution,” one Biden ally told NOTUS, “there is really no choice.”

“There are a lot of strong feelings on this issue,” Rep. Debbie Dingell of Michigan said in a CNN interview this week. “But remember we’re talking about the opponent of President Biden being someone who once banned Muslims. You’ve got to remind people of that.”

Democrats have plenty of ammunition. Trump’s travel bans in office, targeting Muslim-majority countries, created chaos and trauma for many Muslim families. Trump bashed Muslim Americans, including the parents of a fallen U.S. soldier. His State Department stopped funding the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. He also recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city, moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv. And, in 2020, he released a Middle East peace plan that would have been a major win for Israel and given Palestine a sovereign state but little control.

As he campaigns for another term, Trump has said he would institute a travel ban “even bigger than before,” barring entry of people from Syria, Somalia, Libya and Yemen, and deporting anyone with “jihadist sympathies.”

In his first official campaign statement after launching his reelection bid, Biden in December slammed Trump’s ban: “It stained our national conscience. It was cruel.”

And, in early January, Biden highlighted Trump’s more extensive travel ban plans when asked if he was concerned about Arab American support in the general election.

“The former president wants to put a ban on Arabs coming into the country. We’ll make sure he — we understand who cares about the Arab population, number one,” Biden said. “Number two, we got a long way to go in terms of settling the situation in Gaza.”

The comments frustrated many pro-Palestinian communities. For one thing, Biden conflated Arab ethnicity and Muslim religion, noted Dr. Hanna Hanania, the former president of the group American Federation of Ramallah, Palestine. And he considers the binary choice a false one.

“The idea of Trump versus Biden is at this point going to be, in my opinion, a big failing strategy,” Hanania told NOTUS. “The community feels that the Democratic Party takes us all for granted. And especially now. Now they try to keep saying that the Democrats are better than the Republicans but they’re still very bad — like to pick the best of the worst, isn’t going to fly this year.”

Arab Americans were a significant force in Biden’s election in 2020, holding sizable populations in key battleground states like Arizona, Georgia, Virginia and Michigan. Losing even a sliver of those voters in a place like Michigan would decimate Biden’s blue wall. (As Axios reported in November, Biden won Michigan by a little more than 150,000 votes.)

Polls vary across the country on what the electoral cost could be to Biden for his significant support for Israel, which has included both military aid and diplomatic shielding. In a December New York Times/Siena College Poll, 57 percent of voters said they disapproved of Biden’s handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Arab American defection coupled with young people defection, that is a very serious problem,” said Celinda Lake, a renowned Democratic pollster. Lake told NOTUS that the results from her firm’s survey in Michigan should give Democrats pause.

And, a poll commissioned by James Zogby’s Arab American Institute in November showed that Biden’s support among the key group had plummeted to just 17%, a major departure from the 59% Biden enjoyed in 2020.

“I see not only no change [in opinions], but I see a hardening of views,” Zogby told NOTUS in an interview. A longtime Democrat who attended a meeting with the Biden administration following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, Zogby has been critical of the White House’s lack of direct outreach to the Arab community.

Protesters interrupt President Joe Biden as he speaks during a United Auto Workers' political convention.
Protesters interrupt President Joe Biden as he speaks during a United Auto Workers’ political convention. Alex Brandon/AP

The discontent from voters has been obvious at numerous Biden events in recent weeks. Protesters calling for Biden to demand a ceasefire in Gaza disrupted the president’s first major campaign rally on Tuesday.

“They feel deeply,” Biden said in Manassas, Virginia, after his speech was interrupted several times. “This is going to go on for a while. They’ve got this planned.”

The following day, when Biden spoke at a United Auto Workers conference, protesters interrupted him once again. These disruptions, which threaten to follow Biden up until the November election, are sometimes organized but oftentimes are loosely planned shows of raw anger from Arab Americans and other pro-Palestine supporters over the Israel-Hamas war.

And the protesters aren’t convinced by Biden pointing to Trump as worse.

“This binary system in America isn’t supposed to be deduced to choosing between the lesser of two evils,” said Tamara, a Palestinian organizer who disrupted a Biden event at Charleston, South Carolina’s Mother Emanuel AME Church earlier this month and asked to be identified by only her first name. “Nor is it supposed to exploit the lives of Muslim and or Palestinian Americans and or Arab Americans, because they’re not all the same thing votes, just as a ploy to gain more votes for you to continue to be in office.”

A protester who interrupted Biden’s speech on Tuesday put it more bluntly: “It’s not only ineffective, it’s insulting.”

The Biden campaign is still ramping up and planning out where to deploy both Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. Asked on Wednesday when Arab communities can expect a visit from Biden, campaign officials said it would be boosting its outreach.

“The president, this administration and this campaign will continue to engage in conversations with the Arab American community because we believe that it’s important to have consistent conversations with folks, even when they disagree with you on policy positions,” said Michael Tyler, the campaign’s communication director.

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Privately, Biden aides said they believe that the threat Trump poses to the Arab community goes well beyond the Muslim ban and that the campaign will step up its efforts to contrast the current and former presidents as November nears.

But Zogby and Hanania said the Arab community needs to see a drastic change in the president’s position on Israel if he wants to make inroads with voters who are still potentially persuadable.

“There are some very fatal wounds here,” Zogby said. “That may not heal, but that’s no reason not to make an effort.”

Jasmine Wright is a reporter at NOTUS.

NOTUS reporter Oriana González and Tinashe Chingarande, a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow, contributed reporting.