White House hosts downsized Ramadan gathering


Washington — Last year, President Biden hadn’t even spoken a word at the White House celebration of Ramadan before someone shouted out “we love you.” Hundreds of Muslims were there to mark the end of the holy month that requires fasting from sunrise to sunset.

There are no such joyous scenes during this Ramadan. With many Muslim Americans outraged over Mr. Biden’s support for Israel’s siege of Gaza, the White House chose to hold a smaller iftar dinner on Tuesday evening. The only dinner attendees were people who work for his administration.

“We’re just in a different world,” said Wa’el Alzayat, who leads Emgage, a Muslim advocacy organization. “It’s completely surreal. And it’s sad.”

Alzayat attended last year’s event, but he declined an invitation to break his fast with Mr. Biden this year, saying, “It’s inappropriate to do such a celebration while there’s a famine going on in Gaza.”

After rejections from Alzayat and others, he said the White House adjusted its plans Monday, telling community leaders it wanted to host a meeting focused on administration policy. Alzayat still said no, believing that one day wasn’t enough time to prepare for an opportunity to sway Mr. Biden’s mind on the conflict.

“I don’t think the format will lend itself to a serious policy discussion,” he said Tuesday afternoon.

In a statement to CBS News, a White House official said Mr. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris hosted a meeting with Muslim leaders and were joined by senior administration officials.

Mr. Biden and Harris “know this is a deeply painful moment for many in the Muslim and Arab communities,” the statement said. “President Biden made clear that he mourns the loss of every innocent life in this conflict. The president also expressed his commitment to continue working to secure an immediate ceasefire as part of a deal to free the hostages and significantly increase humanitarian aid into Gaza.” 

Dr. Thaer Ahmad, a Palestinian-American ER doctor based in Chicago who recently went to Gaza, attended the meeting.

He told CBS News Mr. Biden spoke first, delivering “very vague comments.”

Ahmad said he spoke next and then walked out in protest after handing the president a letter he said was written by an 8-year-old orphaned girl named Hadeel who is now sheltering in the southern Gaza town of Rafah. He told CNN he was disappointed that he was the only Palestinian who had been invited to the White House.

Democratic sources told CBS News that a number of Arab Americans who supported Mr. Biden in 2020 were disappointed that they weren’t invited to the meeting and suspect they were excluded because of their recent social media posts about the president’s Israel-Hamas war policies. 

It wasn’t clear how the White House selected the attendees.

Political clouds thickening

The refusal to break bread — or even share a room — with the president showed how fractured the relationship between Mr. Biden and the Muslim American community has become in the six months since the latest Israel-Hamas conflict began.

When the Democratic president took office three years ago, many Muslim leaders were eager to turn the page on Donald Trump’s bigotry, including his campaign pledge to implement a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”

But now Democrats fear that Mr. Biden’s loss of support among Muslims could help clear a path for his Republican predecessor to return to the White House. This year’s election will likely hinge on a handful of battleground states, including Michigan, which has a large Muslim population.

“There are real differences between the two,” Alzayat said. “But emotionally, there may be no differences for some folks. And that’s the danger.”

He added, “It’s not good enough to tell people Donald Trump is going to be worse.”

Several Muslim leaders attended Tuesday’s meeting. The White House wouldn’t name them.

Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said “community leaders expressed the preference” of having a “working group meeting,” which she described as an opportunity to “get feedback from them.”

As far as the iftar, Jean-Pierre said Mr. Biden was “going to continue his tradition of honoring the Muslim community during Ramadan.”

No journalists were allowed to capture either the iftar or the meeting with community leaders, a departure from previous years. Neither was listed on the president’s public schedule. Some people who had attended events in previous years, like the mayor of Dearborn, Michigan, Abdullah Hammoud, weren’t invited.

Outside the White House, activists gathered in the rain for their own iftar on Tuesday evening in Lafayette Park. Organizers distributed dates, a traditional food for Ramadan, for people to break their fasts at sundown.

US Israel Palestinians
Protesters pray during a demonstration in support of Palestinians on April 2, 2024, at Lafayette Park across from the White House in Washington.

Jose Luis Magana / AP


The boycotting of Mr. Biden’s invitation is reminiscent of a trip that White House officials took to Detroit earlier this year. They faced an icy reception from Muslim American community leaders in the swing state, where more than 100,000 Democratic primary voters cast protest votes for “uncommitted” as part of an organized showing of disapproval for Mr. Biden’s approach to the war.

A similar campaign was underway in Wisconsin, another political battleground. Organizers encouraged residents to vote “uninstructed,” the equivalent of uncommitted, in Tuesday’s Democratic primary.

The fighting began on Oct. 7, when Hamas killed 1,200 Israelis in a surprise attack. In response, Israel has killed roughly 33,000 Palestinians. The number comes from the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry. It’s unclear how many were combatants, whom Israel accuses of operating in civilian areas, but the ministry said two-thirds of the dead were women and children.

The Biden administration has continued to approve weapon sales to Israel even as the president urges Israeli leaders to be more careful about civilian deaths and encourages them to allow more humanitarian assistance into Gaza.

Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said he encouraged other Muslim leaders to decline invitations to the White House if they received them.

The message, he said, should be “unless he calls for a cease-fire, there will be no meeting with him or his representatives.”

“I believe that the president is the only person in the world who can stop this,” Awad said. “He can pick up the phone and literally tell Benjamin Netanyahu, no more weapons, just stop it, and Benjamin Netanyahu will have no choice but to do so.”

Awad has previously clashed with the White House over his comments on the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas. Gaza has spent years under an effective blockade by Israel — with help from Egypt — and Awad said he was “happy to see people breaking the siege” so they could “walk free into their land that they were not allowed to walk in.”

After the comments were circulated by a Middle East research organization founded by Israeli analysts, the White House issued a statement condemning “these shocking, antisemitic statements in the strongest terms.”

Awad called it a “fabricated controversy” and said he had criticized the targeting of Israeli citizens in his same speech. 



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