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Muslim leaders decline White House Ramadan invitation

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A group of six Muslim leaders will meet with President Biden and Vice President Harris on Tuesday evening to discuss U.S. policy in the Gaza Strip, after they were invited for a small Ramadan dinner but rejected such a gathering as inappropriate given the administration’s continued support of Israel amid devastation in the territory.

Biden initially invited the leaders for iftar, the meal in which Muslims break their fast during the holy month of Ramadan. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday that the leaders “expressed the preference” of a policy meeting, and the White House adjusted its plans to accommodate their request.

The leaders’ refusal to have a dinner at the White House underscores the significant challenges Biden faces with the Arab American and Muslim communities seven months before the presidential election. Salima Suswell, leader of the Black Muslim Leadership Council, said in an interview that she and other Muslim leaders were invited to dinner at the White House this week but declined the offer, instead asking to speak with the president and other White House officials about the war in Gaza and other issues in their community.

Suswell, who has organized events in Philadelphia in support of Palestinians, said she felt torn about whether to attend the policy meeting Tuesday or boycott the event entirely. She said she ultimately decided to travel to Washington because “I have been consistent in my position that engagement is very important right now.”

Some activists “speculate that there will be no positive result from speaking with the president,” she said. “But to turn down that opportunity and boycott — you know definitively that there will be no change.”

Tuesday will mark the president’s first meeting with Muslim leaders in about five months. Biden first met with a handful of Muslim leaders in late October, about three weeks into the Israel-Gaza war, where attendees voiced their unhappiness with what they saw as the president’s insensitivity toward Palestinian civilian deaths.

Since then, Biden has had few interactions with the Muslim and Arab American communities, while protests over his support of Israel have grown. The anger in those communities over Biden’s staunch support of Israel as tens of thousands of Palestinians have died and a rapidly deteriorating humanitarian catastrophe unfolds has posed a political challenge, especially in states such as Michigan, which is home to about 300,000 people who claim ancestry from the Middle East and North Africa.

The White House last year did not host an iftar, but it invited more than 300 people to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan.

“This was actually a request from members of the community. This is what they wanted, and we understand that,” Jean-Pierre said of the decision to host a meeting instead of an iftar. “We listened, we heard and we adjusted the format to be responsive so we can get feedback from them.”

This is not the first time that Arab Americans and Muslims have showed their displeasure by declining invitations from Biden and his team. In February, community leaders in Michigan sat down with Biden national security officials — but only after they had first declined to meet with Biden’s campaign manager, Julie Chavez Rodriguez, saying they wanted to talk to policymakers rather than a political operative.

Tuesday’s meeting also highlights the tensions prominent Arab Americans and Muslims must navigate as some in their communities disapprove of any meetings with Biden and his team, and others advocate for continued engagement to try to change policy.

A person familiar with the planning, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a private event, said White House officials asked community members what event format they preferred and a consensus emerged around a working meeting to discuss policy, particularly about Gaza. The person added that the number of people who declined coming to the event was small.

In Michigan and elsewhere, Arab Americans and Muslims have organized movements urging members of their communities — as well as progressives, people of color, young voters and others dissatisfied with Biden’s support of Israel — to vote “uncommitted” in their states’ Democratic primaries, as a way of warning Biden that he must change course to win their votes in November. That effort garnered more than 100,000 “uncommitted” votes in Michigan, a swing state crucial to Biden’s reelection that is expected to be tightly contested.

In addition, since Israel launched its war in Gaza in the aftermath of Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks in Israel, Biden and other Democrats have faced protesters at virtually all of their public events and appearances.

Israel launched its war in Gaza after Hamas militants rampaged through the Israel-Gaza border fence and killed 1,200 people, many of them civilians, and took some 250 others hostage. In response, Israel has launched a military campaign in Gaza that has killed more than 32,000 Palestinians, and the territory is on the brink of famine as Israel has severely restricted the delivery of humanitarian aid.

Israel and its defenders say the country is doing what it can to protect civilians, but that Hamas routinely embeds its fighters, weapons and operations centers in civilian areas. Human rights groups contend that there is little justification for the scale and lethality of Israel’s military incursion.

Emgage, a Muslim voting group, wrote in an email to members that it received an invitation to Tuesday’s dinner but decided not to attend. It called for the Biden administration to exercise its leverage over Israel to bring an end to the conflict by calling for an immediate and permanent cease-fire; unfettered access for humanitarian aid convoys; the resumption of funding for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency; an end to Israeli plans to invade Rafah, where some 1.3 million Palestinians are sheltering after fleeing there under Israeli orders; and steps toward the establishment of a Palestinian state.

A person familiar with the planning said Emgage was among the groups that said they preferred a working meeting, but ultimately declined to attend.

“We share our community’s deep pain over the Biden administration’s continued unconditional military aid to Israel,” Emgage chief executive Wa’el Alzayat wrote in the email. “A humanitarian catastrophe of epic proportions has been unfolding with millions now facing famine and disease. In this moment of tremendous pain and suffering, we have asked the White House to postpone this gathering and to convene a proper policy meeting with representatives of the community’s choosing.”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post