(WASHINGTON) — After President Joe Biden’s primetime address from the Oval Office where he announced he was requesting that Congress pass $105 billion in aid predominantly to Israel and Ukraine and expressed his dedication to bringing home hostages, some Arab and Muslim Americans described feeling “dumbfounded” and “disheartened.”
“He doesn’t even mention the U.S. citizens in Gaza. It’s unbelievable,” Chicago-area resident Nabil Alshurafa told ABC News.
Alshurafa’s mom, Naela Elshorafa, is one of 500-600 U.S. citizens that the State Department estimates are in Gaza. Only four hostages, including two from the U.S., have been released by Hamas. Alshurafa says his 66-year-old mom has been a U.S. citizen for over 25 years and went to visit family right before the war broke out.
Alshurafa says his mom is now stuck, huddled in a home with nearly 50 family members in Gaza.
Biden told reporters on his way from Israel on Oct. 18, “I’m hopeful we can get some Americans out as well, out of Gaza.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday, “And to date, at least, Hamas has blocked [Gazans] from leaving, showing once again, it’s total disregard for civilians of any kind who are – who are stuck in Gaza. This is something that we’re working, again, virtually every single day.”
Alshurafa says, “The first time my mother tried to get out, it was Israel that bombed the border. What Blinken is saying is only a portion of the truth. If they had made sure U.S. citizens got out in the very beginning they wouldn’t have been trapped in the first place.”
Alshurafa says there was a major focus and effort to get citizens out of Israel. “You have the U.S., sort of sending U.S. citizens to get out of Israel on a cruise ship with food and Wi-Fi. And then the other citizens on the other side of the border, the Palestinian Americans, who are also U.S. citizens and worthy of life, they’re starving and dodging bombs. Why are we treating one class of citizens differently from another?”
The State Department told ABC News, “There is no higher priority than the safety of U.S. citizens abroad.” It said privacy considerations prevent it from commenting on specific cases, but that the U.S. is working “urgently in partnership with Egypt and Israel to facilitate the ability of U.S. citizens and their immediate family members to exit Gaza.”
Since Oct. 7, at least 1,400 Israelis and close to 5,087 Palestinians have died in Gaza , according to the Israeli authorities and the Palestinian Ministry of Health.
Muslims and Arabs say that even during Biden’s earlier address to the nation on Oct. 10, when 900 Israelis and 700 Gazans had been confirmed dead, he failed to mention that Palestinians had died.
Biden’s message had shifted 9 days later, when he said “We must, without equivocation, denounce anti-Semitism. We must also, without equivocation, denounce Islamophobia. And to all of you hurting — those of you who are hurting, I want you to know: I see you. You belong. And I want to say this to you: You’re all America. You’re all America.”
But some Muslims and Arabs argued this statement came after a 6-year-old Muslim boy near Chicago was stabbed to death and that Biden still did not acknowledge that the numbers of those who died in Gaza were in the thousands.
“It felt like Muslim blood was cheap. All lives are not equal in the eyes of the Biden administration. There’s more precedent given to Israeli lives than there are to Muslim lives,” said Niala Mohammad, director of policy and strategy at the Muslim Public Affairs Council and former senior policy analyst for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
In his speech, Biden acknowledged Palestinian residents in Gaza, saying he was “heartbroken by the tragic loss of Palestinian life, including the explosion at a hospital in Gaza — which was not done by the Israelis.” He also said he “secured an agreement for the first shipment of humanitarian assistance from the United Nations to Palestinian civilians in Gaza.”
Some critics have pointed to the specific language Biden used when speaking about Israelis versus Palestinians. On Oct. 11, Biden said, “I never really thought that I would see and have confirmed pictures of terrorists beheading children.” Although the White House later said the president was referencing press reports and statements from Israeli officials, Israeli government officials never showed evidence that confirmed babies were beheaded.
Biden made it clear he was talking about Hamas, even pointing out the terrorist group “use Palestinian civilians as human shields,” but many Muslims and Arabs felt the word played on the worst stereotypes of the Arab world – which they believe can help justify actions like war – especially if it has not been proven to be true.
“They’re trying to paint Muslims as barbarians by saying that children are beheaded … the damage it does is non-retractable. It paints groups believed to be [wrongly] associated with those individuals as barbarians as well,” said Mohammad.
Biden in his speech Thursday, specified he had been working to secure humanitarian aid to the people in Gaza — which some people describe as not soon enough — saying “I secured an agreement for the first shipment of humanitarian assistance from the United Nations to Palestinian civilians in Gaza.”
But Muslims and Arabs point to words they believe Biden is strategically leaving out. Mohammad points to the United States accusing Russia of a “war crime” when Russia cut electricity to Ukraine, but not using the same words when Israel cut off electricity, water and food to Gaza.
“That’s a selective human rights agenda. And that doesn’t represent what America stands for … The United States stands for democracy, human rights,” said Mohammad.
Biden told reporters “that it is really important that Israel, with all the anger and frustration … they operate by the rules of war … And there are rules of war.” He said he delivered that same message directly to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week.
But those words have not moved the dial for many Arabs and Muslims — especially since he has not called for a ceasefire. There are nearly 3.5 million Muslims in the U.S.
“Biden would be persona non grata if he entered Dearborn, [Michigan] right now,” said Amer Zahr, a Palestinian-American comedian who is also a progressive Democratic activist in Dearborn, Michigan.
Zahr says he uses Dearborn as an example because of its large Arab population — nearly 55% of Dearborn’s roughly 110,000 residents are of Middle Eastern or North African Descent.
Zahr says he believes Biden has lost the trust of the large Arab and Muslim community in the battleground state and beyond.
That trust which started on his first day in office when Biden followed through with a campaign promise to end former President Donald Trump’s so-called “Muslim Ban” which prevented some people from entering the United States from primarily Muslim countries.
“Trump, obviously, was no friend to our community. And people didn’t trust him, but they never felt backstabbed or betrayed. And that’s a much worse feeling,” Zahr says.
Dilawar Syed, deputy administrator of the Small Business Administration and the highest-ranking Muslim in the Biden Administration, was recently booed at a vigil for Wadea Al-Fayoume, a six-year-old who was stabbed to death near Chicago in what police described as a hate crime, when he told a crowded auditorium, “Let me be very clear here, President Biden has been very, very clear, there is no place for hate in America.” Syed continued with his speech, and was met with applause when he said, “The president has and will continue to do everything in his power to fight Islamophobia and antisemitism in our nation.”
“When Arab and Muslim Democrats and independents see people with names like theirs being bombed indiscriminately with U.S funded weapons, they obviously feel negative about the person who they feel is responsible, who’s President Biden,” said Democratic strategist Waleed Shahid. “[They] believe President Biden is overseeing a genocide of Palestinians in Gaza.”
Shahid says, “I think the White House’s attitudes and to some extent the media’s attitudes towards this topic is that many of them don’t personally know an Arab or Muslim American. And so they don’t know how severe the pain and anger is in the community.”
Biden had said during his primetime address last week that “As hard as it is, we cannot give up on peace. We cannot give up on a two-state solution.”
At a large Eid event at the White House earlier this year honoring Muslims, Biden talked about the growing number of Muslims serving in the government. He said, “I’ve appointed Muslim Americans to positions all across the government … Some of you are the first Muslims ever to hold the seats you have. And I’m so proud to see this during my time as President of the United States.”
But some of the very public servants in his administration are the ones pained right now by the president’s words.
Interactions between Muslims within the federal government have increased “tenfold,” said Ahmad Maaty, chair of Muslim Americans in Public Service.
Maaty says the group consists of thousands of members, including federal government employees with top security clearances, in the intelligence community, and foreign service.
He says while some Muslim and Arab employees in the federal government have taken a quiet stance, many want direct action and statements from their leaders. He says others had called for a “potential walkout of federal Muslim employees or potential mass sick leave, or folks to actually resign.”
There are some Muslim and Arab staffers who applaud Biden for his actions as well. One Arab White House staffer told ABC News, “I’ve been actually very impressed with what the administration has done internally and externally to try to make sure that the voices of Arab Americans are heard in both in their messaging but also in their policymaking. “
He says senior advisors to the president held a listening session last Thursday with Muslim and Arab American White House appointees and intend to do so Monday as well for any political appointees who are Muslim, Arab, and Palestinian Americans.
Biden also established a new interagency policy committee to combat efforts to counter anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and other discrimination.
But multiple Muslim federal employees told ABC News he has not gone far enough. They want two things: a call for a ceasefire between Israel and Gaza and a national strategy to combat Islamophobia just as the White House released in May for anti-Semitism.
“It’d be very challenging for the administration to start humanizing or acknowledging the existence of Muslim Americans without doing both,” Maaty says members of his group believe.
Alshurafa says he also wants the government’s help getting U.S. citizens out of Gaza, including his mom. He says he spoke with her Friday morning after she found a location with Wi-Fi to let her son know she was still alive.
“I feel deserted by my government, by Biden,” said Alshurafa. “People are willing to be supportive privately. But when it comes to public action, there seems to be some sort of halt, some sort of barrier that prevents people from acting upon their own humanity and what they know is right … I do feel betrayed.”
On Monday, Alshurafa told ABC News that four of his extended family members had been killed. His mother was still alive in Gaza. “I feel like this administration needs to act fast. Time is running out,” he said.
ABC News’ Ayesha Ali and Ben Gittleson contributed to this report.
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