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The White House plans a smaller Ramadan gathering as the war in Gaza continues

Muslims gather to hold a demonstration to demand ceasefire for Gaza in front of the White House on the first day of the holy month of Ramadan on March 11.
Anadolu
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Getty Images
Muslims gather to hold a demonstration to demand ceasefire for Gaza in front of the White House on the first day of the holy month of Ramadan on March 11.

Updated April 1, 2024 at 11:29 PM ET

President Biden plans to meet Tuesday with a small group of Muslims and Arab Americans at the White House, including community leaders and doctors who have recently aided patients inside Gaza, according to two people familiar with the White House plans. They spoke on the condition of anonymity ahead of a public announcement.

The gathering is in lieu of the traditional Ramadan iftar dinner or Eid celebrations the White House usually hosts with Muslim leaders, and it comes amid ongoing political tensions given the war in Gaza.

The goal, according to people familiar with the plans, is to allow guests to have a "substantive" conversation with the president about the situation in Gaza. Vice President Harris and national security adviser Jake Sullivan will also attend, the sources said. Biden last met with Muslim and Arab-American leaders at the White House in late October.

The sources said the White House had initially planned to host a small, solemn Ramadan dinner Tuesday evening, but plans changed after a number of Muslim invitees said they did not feel comfortable dining at the White House while scores of Palestinians are on the brink of starvation.

The White House still intends to host a small iftar dinner later Tuesday evening for a dozen or so Muslim staffers — a scaled-down version of the traditional celebration.

White House officials appear to be trying to balance competing pressures by hosting events that reflect the somber mood in the Muslim community because of the war and also curb the possibility of public interruptions or protests.

Asked during Monday's White House press briefing about plans for an iftar dinner on Tuesday, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre did not have any further details, though last week she said the White House was "committed" to marking the Muslim holidays.

The White House has wrestled for months with growing discontent from a subset of Democratic voters over the president's Middle East policies.

During the Michigan primaries in February, there was an organized effort to vote "uncommitted" to pressure the Biden administration to call for a cease-fire. Similar efforts cropped up in primaries that followed around the country.

Last month, when senior administration officials traveled to Chicago — the site of this summer's Democratic convention — one of the meetings had to be canceled because local leaders refused to sit down with White House staff. Some Muslim and Arab-American leaders declined invitations to meet with campaign officials in Michigan in January too.

There's been ongoing debate among Muslim and Arab-American community leaders about the merits of engaging with this White House, after more than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza and the United States continues to supply weapons to Israel unconditionally.

Some Muslim leaders insist talking to the president and his team is the best way to push for foreign policy changes.

Still, agreeing to meet with administration officials has become akin to crossing a picket line; Muslims who do can face immense community pressure. There remains internal community pressure on some Muslim invitees to not attend this week's event.

White House iftar celebrations date back to the Clinton administration, though the tradition was interrupted by former President Donald Trump, who didn't hold one during his first year in office, after issuing an executive order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries.

In previous years, the Biden administration held larger Eid celebrations, marking the end of Ramadan. That didn't seem appropriate this year, according to people familiar with the plans, and the White House debated how else to mark the Muslim holidays, a source said. There had been discussion of holding a smaller Ramadan iftar with foreign diplomats from Muslim-majority countries; that would have been similar to how Trump marked the holidays in 2018.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Asma Khalid
Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.