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Muslim Americans increase advocacy in Senate as Gaza war takes its toll

Some senators have yet to reach out to Muslim advocacy groups, but many are hearing the concerns about the carnage in Gaza, Eric Garcia reports

Thursday 30 November 2023 14:51 GMT

Multiple Democratic Senators say that they have met with Muslim-American advocates amid the carnage in Gaza that came to a halt in the recent pause in violence in exchange for the release of some of the Israeli hostages kidnapped in the 7 October attack.

The US Senate has so far been much slower than the US House of Representatives in endorsing an outright ceasefire ever since the attack on Israel wherein Hamas killed 1,200 people and took around 240 hostages. Last week, Israel and Gaza began a humanitarian pause that allowed for the exchange of hostages and the delivery of resources to Gaza.

More than 14,000 Gazans have been reported killed in Israel’s response to the most violent single day in Jewish history since the Holocaust.

Sen Tim Kaine (D-VA) told The Independent that he has had three sessions with Arab Americans, Palestinian Americans and Muslim Americans in northern Virginia and Richmond.

“They're very worried about being pressured and intimidated at home because of who they are, or because of a position that they take,” Mr Kaine, who is up for re-election next year, said. “And they are very concerned about their loved ones and family members in Gaza and the West Bank.”

Muslim-American and pro-Palestinian groups are not as entrenched in American political life as their pro-Israel counterparts. In 2022, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) spent $2,723,081 in lobbying, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. By comparison, the Muslim Public Affairs Council reported spending $35,000 in lobbying in 2019, the most recent year for data.

Similarly, a rally earlier this month opposing antisemitism and supporting Israel featured Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson.

Robert McCaw, the director of government affairs for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told The Independent that his organisation, EmgageUSA, American Muslims for Palestine and the Jewish Voice for Peace have sent out a total of one million digital messages to Congress on the issue.

“What we’ve seen in meeting with members of Congress is all the milquetoast talking points in support of Israel is gone out the window when they have to confront people who have lost family members and loved ones in Gaza,” he said.

Mr McCaw also noted how younger voters are overwhelmingly supportive of Palestinians compared to Israel.

“This has been a jarring experience for America’s political establishment, Congress and the Biden administration,” he told The Independent. “No amount of money or media bias can dissuade the youth from learning the lived experiences of Palestinians that are suffering.”

Many groups supportive of Palestinian rights have expressed disappointment that even some of the most progressive senators in the Democratic caucus opposed a ceasefire. Indeed, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois stood alone for a long duration when he called for a ceasefire.

“I think the message is fairly consistent that there are too many innocent Palestinian victims, and the situation is getting worse,” Mr Durbin, who also serves as the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told The Independent.

Sen Jeff Merkley of Oregon, who became the second senator to come out in support of a ceasefire wherein all hostages would be released, told The Independent he had heard about the “extreme” impact of the war and Palestinian movement in Gaza as well as Islamophobia at home.

On Tuesday, Sen Peter Welch of Vermont called for an indefinite extension to the ceasefire in Gaza. This last weekend, three Palestinian college students were shot in Mr Welch’s state.

“We’re all heartsick about what happened to those three Palestinian Americans who were shot,” he told The Independent, saying he spoke to the families.

But Sen Bernie Sanders (I-VT), the senior senator from the same state, has not supported a ceasefire. Sen Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has not either but said that she had spoken regularly with Muslim Americans in her home state.

“Many feel unheard and isolated in their communities,” she told The Independent. “We've had long in depth conversations, to try to talk about the next steps. Not only in the Middle East, but here at home.”

Sen Alex Padilla of California told The Independent that he had been in regular contact with Muslims in the Golden State.

“I think they share their concerns about it the safety and security of Palestinians with the response to the violence from October 7,” he said.

Two senators who hail from states with large Muslim American populations said they have been speaking with Muslims in their home state.

“We have regular communication,” Sen Gary Peters of Michigan, who is also the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Committee, told The Independent.

Similarly, Sen Tina Smith of Minnesota noted she has spoken with Muslims in the state about the surge in Islamophobia.

“And absolutely, you know, Minnesota has a very large and important Muslim community,” she told The Independent. “We're the largest communities of Somali people outside of Mogadishu.”

Historically, engaging with Muslim-Americans has been a minefield for Democrats, with Republicans accusing them of being weak on terrorism. But even some Democrats who are running for re-election from swing states said that they are speaking with Muslim Americans. “I sure have,” Sen Jon Tester of Montana, which voted for Donald Trump by 16.4 percentage points in 2020, told The Independent.

Sen Jacky Rosen of Nevada told The Independent said she had not met with Muslim advocates in her state recently but said combating Islamophobia mattered.

“We have to be sure is that hate doesn't stand anywhere because it doesn't stand,” Ms Rosen said. “We don't can't stand for hate in the form of antisemitism. We can’t stand for hate in the form of Islamophobia. We're gonna do everything we can try to educate people and help them understand that this time these kinds of engagements this kind of conversation is hateful and should not be tolerated.”

Sen Jon Ossoff, the youngest US senator who is also the first Jewish senator from Georgia, delivered a speech on the Senate floor calling for “mercy” for the people of Gaza despite not explicitly supporting a ceasefire.

“I've spoken extensively with Jewish American and Muslim American leaders and constituents in the last six weeks,” he said.

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