Election 2020

‘Tired of the Game’: Palestinian Americans Want Trump Out but Have Issues With Biden

In a crucial state like Michigan, Joe Biden will have to convince skeptical Palestinians that he won’t leave them in the lurch—again.

Lebanese, Palestinian, and Iraqi Americans form a human chain during an Arab unity rally in front of Dearborn City Hall in Dearborn, Michigan, on June 6, 2007.
Lebanese, Palestinian, and Iraqi Americans form a human chain during an Arab unity rally in front of Dearborn City Hall in Dearborn, Michigan, on June 6, 2007. Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Many Palestinian community leaders in Dearborn, Michigan—home to the small but vocal Palestinian American community that helped elect Rep. Rashida Tlaib to Congress—are urging voters to turn out for Joe Biden next month with two simple pleas. First, vote out President Donald Trump. Then, after Election Day, begin holding the Democratic ticket’s feet to the fire on Palestinian issues.

The first part of that recipe doesn’t seem too hard. Resentment among Palestinians here runs high against Trump—whose foreign policy has been characterized by unyielding support for Israel, the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid. Palestinians, who say Trump has rewritten the rules on U.S. Israel policy, are particularly frustrated with Trump’s move of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and his 2018 decision to withdraw funding from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. They’re also feeling energized after the George Floyd protests this summer, seeing reflections of Palestinians’ treatment under Israeli occupation in Black Americans’ oft-deadly experiences with law enforcement.    

But the question in this Detroit suburb of nearly 100,000 people—known as the “Arab capital of America”—is whether the cynical message of harm reduction will resonate for the Democratic challenger in must-win Michigan, where some feel that Democrats have long taken Palestinian votes for granted despite doing little to earn them. 

“[We’re] just kind of tired of the game,” said Ahmad Abuznaid, a Palestinian American lawyer and activist born in Jerusalem and now based in Dearborn. “I think most of us are in line with defeating fascism at this moment … but also, none of us are fooled by Biden. Biden is particularly bad on some of our biggest issues.” 

Abuznaid mentioned Biden’s support for the Iraq War and his “unapologetic Zionism” as red flags for the Palestinian American community. Biden’s official platform markets a “stalwart support for Israel” that is “deeply personal and spans his entire career”; the former vice president has also said he’d leave the embassy in Jerusalem. Many see the addition of California Sen. Kamala Harris to the ticket—who has strong ties to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and has pledged to provide unconditional support for Israel—as a sign that these norms won’t be changing anytime soon. 

Still, some Dearborn residents worry that focusing too much on their own disappointments with the Democratic ticket could hand Trump a second term, which they feel would be worse than anything a Biden-Harris administration could do.

“There’s a general sentiment that we can’t risk having the nuanced conversations right now because there are people looking for any reason not to support Biden,” said Tariq Luthun, a Palestinian American data consultant, poet, and community organizer whose family is from Gaza. Even Palestinian leaders in the Palestinian territories, who have traditionally refrained from taking a public stance on U.S. presidential elections, are getting worried about the implications of four more years of Trump. Last week, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh told European leaders that “God help the whole world” if Trump is reelected. 

Most of Dearborn’s Palestinian immigrants came to Michigan in waves, after the Arab-Israeli wars in 1948 and 1967. The two episodes of massive displacement are known to Palestinians as the nakba and the naksa, respectively. In Palestinian eyes, the nakba, which means “catastrophe,” was only the first of further catastrophes yet to come: Many consider the U.S.-brokered 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO to be a turning point that essentially normalized Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, thereby jeopardizing any hopes of a two-state solution. 

Today, though the United Nations and European Union have declared Israeli settlements illegal under international law, Israel still controls more than 60 percent of the West Bank. This trend is only accelerating: Just last week, Israel announced plans to build 4,430 new housing units on Palestinian land.  

With only 18 percent of the West Bank under full Palestinian control (the remaining 21 percent is under joint Israeli-Palestinian control), most younger Palestinian Americans see a two-state solution as obsolete and favor a single, secular state—the solution initially advocated by the PLO in its 1964 charter. And they’re not alone: A 2018 poll conducted by the University of Maryland found that roughly the same percentage of Americans (35 percent) supported a one-state solution as they did a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

“A lot of people don’t know the story of Palestine. They don’t know about our occupation. They don’t know what happened,” said a 23-year-old social worker born and raised in Dearborn who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she does not want to jeopardize her ability to enter Israel and the Palestinian territories. “They think it’s two parties that were [always] there are now fighting over land. … I have to explain to [people] all the time: ‘No, Israel was not a country before ’48!’” 

The social worker, whose family is from the village of Beit Hanina, said she simply wants to be able to “go home”—and for all Palestinians to be able to “go back to our land and our roots,” whether in Haifa or Hebron—that is, the areas of pre-1948 Palestine. “[As] we’ve seen in America, ‘separate but equal’ will never work. If you’re indigenous to the land, you have every right to be there.” She considers Israel’s bifurcated system of rights and land allocation to be tantamount to apartheid.

But Dearborn’s Palestinians don’t expect their right of return to be granted anytime soon, even with a Biden victory. Despite pressure from the progressive wing of the party, the Democratic Party’s official platform does not refer to Israel as an occupying power in the Palestinian territories, making it unlikely any future Biden administration would take decisive action against Israeli settlement expansion—like conditioning aid—much less call for a military withdrawal from the Palestinian territories. 

As a result, most Palestinians regard U.S. politics as an exercise in futility. The United States has been at the forefront of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process since Israel’s inception—and Palestinians’ mass displacement—in 1948, yet U.S. leaders’ reluctance to stand up to Israel has borne little fruit in the way of Palestinian self-determination. Now, 72 years later, Palestinians still aren’t free.

“It’s like people arguing over a piece of pizza, but as you’re arguing somebody’s literally eating the pizza,” Luthun said of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land. “There’s no slices left.”

Allison Meakem is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @allisonmeakem

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