In the weeks since Israel suffered the deadliest attack in its history, U.S. President Joe Biden has pledged his unfettered support to the country and its people. “President Biden loves Israel, loves the Israeli people, and has our back,” Amir Tibon, an Israeli journalist who survived Hamas’s Oct. 7 massacre, said following a meeting with the president earlier this month.
Not everyone feels the same. Back in the U.S., Palestinian and Arab Americans have expressed outrage over Biden’s response to Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, which has killed more than 8,000 people, more than a quarter of them children. The first national poll of Arab Americans since the war in Gaza began shows how deep that sense of betrayal goes, with only 17% of Arab American voters saying they will vote for Biden in 2024—a staggering drop from 59% in 2020.
“This is the most dramatic shift over the shortest period of time that I’ve ever seen,” James Zogby, the founder and president of the Arab American Institute, which released the poll on Tuesday, tells TIME.
The damage isn’t limited to Biden: Just 23% of Arab Americans identify with the Democratic Party, marking the first time a majority did not claim to prefer the Democrats since the institute began tracking party identification in 1996. Those identifying as Independents rose to 31%, the highest it’s ever been.
The poll results are likely to increase concerns among Democrats about Biden’s standing with Arab Americans heading into 2024, particularly in Michigan, where roughly 277,000 Arab Americans call home, and Biden won in 2020 by 155,000 votes. But the smaller Arab American populations in Pennsylvania and Georgia were also larger than Biden’s margins of victory there. All three states are ones Biden flipped after Trump won them in 2016.
Although the roughly 3 million Arab Americans residing in the U.S. today are hardly a monolith, more than half of them voted for Biden in 2020. In places such as Dearborn, Michigan, which boasts one of the largest Arab American populations in the country, the overwhelming majority did so. Arab American community leaders and activists tell TIME that this wasn’t because they had any illusions about Biden’s pro-Israel stance. Rather, it was because they believed that he would be better than Trump, whose xenophobic and Islamophoblic policies disproportionately affected the Arab American community.
Even though 2024 appears likely to present a rematch between Biden and Trump, Arab Americans insist Biden cannot take their support for granted. None of those who spoke with TIME say that their lack of confidence in Biden means that they’ll be inclined to vote for Trump. But some remain conflicted about whether the situation would be any worse under the former president either. “Look, we’re not silly—we know what Trump has done to our communities,” says Amer Zahr, the president of the Dearborn-based New Generation for Palestine. But when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he continues, “The policies are basically the same. Except when Trump does it, you get some pushback from the Democratic Party.”
Zahr, who was a national surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2020, eventually supported Biden to keep Trump from winning another term.
“If Trump were president and all of this was going on right now, we would probably get a lot more Democratic politicians at our rallies,” Zahr says. “But Biden doing it means that we don’t.”
As others see it, though, the question of whether Trump would be better or worse right now is immaterial. “Joe Biden is president right now and the genocide is happening right now—every other hypothetical is of no concern to me,” says Maysoon Zayid, a Palestinian-American comedian, disability advocate, and longtime Democratic Party activist who campaigned for Biden in 2020. When asked whether there was anything Biden could do to win back her support, she was unwavering. “There’s absolutely nothing that man could do. I mean, my God, what could ever bring back those kids? Nothing.”
Zogby, a decades-long member of the Democratic National Committee, notes that the shift away from the Democratic Party among Arab Americans can be seen across the board: among the old and the young, the naturalized citizens and the native-born Americans, as well as among Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and Muslims. “The community is feeling a certain sense of cohesion, and Joe Biden and Israel brought them together,” he says.
The reality, of course, is that Arab Americans base their vote on more issues than just the Middle East. The economy, education, and climate change are likely to be among their concerns next November. But the duration of the war, and the extent to which Biden is seen to enable it, could lead to that issue carrying more weight than it has with many voters in previous elections.
“It’s never a bad bet to bet that foreign policy issues don’t dominate in an election,” says Matt Duss, the executive vice president of the Center for International Policy and a former chief foreign policy advisor to Sen. Sanders. “But I do think we do see evidence here and there that for certain voters, it does matter. And ultimately, we’re talking about a few hundred thousand voters in a few key states. That’s what this election is going to come down to.”
Efforts by the White House to repair the relationship through meetings with Arab and Muslim American leaders appear to have borne little fruit thus far, according to The Washington Post, with one such meeting being described by one of its attendees as “a sh*t show.”
According to the Arab American Institute poll, 68% of Arab Americans support an immediate ceasefire. Biden has proposed only a “humanitarian pause” in the bombardment in order to allow for the flow of aid into Gaza and the exit of American and other foreign nationals from the Strip. Arab Americans also want him to take the issue of rising Islamophobia and anti-Arab discrimination more seriously and do more to make substantial and meaningful progress towards a permanent peace deal. “Just changing his tone—that’s not enough,” says Sami Khaldi, the president of Dearborn Democratic Club and a former 2020 Biden delegate. “Every president comes here and says the best solution for the Middle East crisis is to have a two-state solution, but you don’t see anyone have the courage to do it. We need him to do that.”
Restarting the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the space of a year is a tall order, not least because Biden has spent much of his first term disregarding the issue. Of the litany of challenges that would need to be overcome—among them the accelerated expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, the Israeli government’s hardline stance against Palestinian statehood, and Palestinians’ own growing dissatisfaction with the Palestinian Authority—would be Biden himself. “This is an issue on which Joe Biden’s views have not evolved,” says Duss, who supported Sanders in 2020. After Sanders ended his bid, Duss recalls helping draft the Democratic Party’s 2020 platform and facing pushback from Biden’s foreign policy team over using the term “occupation” to describe the Israeli military’s control over the Palestinian territories that began in 1967. “That was too far for them,” Duss adds. “If you’re not going to even say the word occupation, in my view, this is like an oncologist who won’t say the word cancer.”
Zahr and others warn that while the appeal to save America from Trump may have compelled them to support Biden in 2022, that argument won’t have the same effect after Gaza. While those such as Duss may disagree with the idea that Trump is worth that risk, he says that those opposed to Israel’s invasion deserve to have that view better represented in the next election.
“Arab Americans should not be put in this position by President Biden,” he says. “And I think if [Democrats] now turn and say, ‘Well, you got no choice—it’s us or Trump,’ if that’s the best argument they have, well, that’s a verdict on this administration too. I don’t find that to be a very inspiring bumper sticker.”