As tensions heat up in the Middle East between Israelis and Palestinians, metro Detroit’s Jewish and Arab American communities are reacting with frustration and anger at times, but also are looking at ways to keep the peace among the region’s diverse population.
In Dearborn, Arab American advocates are planning three protests Tuesday against President Joe Biden during his visit to a city that is almost half Arab American. Biden is to speak about electric vehicles during a stop at the Ford Rouge plant, located in a section of Dearborn that’s estimated to be more than 90% Arab American Muslim, many of them strong supporters of Palestinians.
The protests are set for 10 a.m. at the American Moslem Society mosque in Dearborn that sits close to the Ford Rouge plant, 1 p.m. outside the Dearborn Police station on Michigan Ave. and 1:30 p.m. in Lapeer Park in Dearborn. Different Arab American groups are organizing the various protests.
The demonstrations would be the latest of several held in Dearborn over the past week as Arab American activists in Michigan are outraged by Biden’s support of Israel over its attacks in Jerusalem and Gaza, where more than 200 have been killed, most of them Palestinians. Dearborn is 47% Arab American, most of them Muslim, the highest percentage among cities in the U.S. Israeli officials maintain they are defending themselves from Hamas rocket attacks and violence from some Palestinian extremists.
Some on both sides in metro Detroit have loved ones living in Israel and the Palestinian territories they are concerned about.
On Monday, Israel struck in Gaza again, the Associated Press reported.
“There’s a huge concern right now about what’s happening in Gaza,” said Sufian Nabhan, a Palestinian immigrant who is executive director of the Islamic Center of Detroit, a mosque with a majority-Palestinian congregation. “Israel is doing extra force that is not needed. … People are very mad.”
Osama Siblani, publisher of the Dearborn-based Arab American News, expressed frustration with the Biden administration, which had cultivated the Arab American and Muslim vote last year. A clear majority of Arab Americans in Dearborn voted for Biden, according to an analysis of precincts by the Middle East Eye.
“I have never seen our community so angry,” said Siblani, who helped organize a big protest Sunday in Dearborn in support of Palestinians. Loud boos against Biden from the crowd could be heard when his name was mentioned, videos of the event showed.
On Saturday, the White House released a statement on Twitter saying that Biden “reaffirmed his strong support for Israel’s right to defend itself against rocket attacks from Hamas and other terrorist groups in Gaza. …” On Monday, Biden reiterated Israel’s right to defend itself, but called for a cease-fire.
“When they say Israel has a right to defend itself and then don’t give the right of people being occupied to defend itself,” Siblani said, “that doesn’t make sense.”
Siblani, who’s helping organize the 1 p.m. protest at the Dearborn police station, stressed that their protest was not aimed at Ford Motor Co., which is hosting Biden’s visit to promote electric cars.
Emails sent to the White House media office seeking comment on the Dearborn protests were not returned Monday.
Michigan’s two senators, Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, were initially not among the 28 Democratic senators who called Sunday for a cease-fire, disappointing Arab American and Muslim groups who had endorsed their campaigns in previous years. But late Monday night, Peters posted on Twitter that he now supports a cease-fire.
“Hey, Democrats, our votes aren’t cheap,” Siblani posted on Facebook on Monday afternoon. “Watch what we can do in 2022. We won’t forget.”
Census data from 2019 shows there are about 266,000 people living in Michigan with roots in the Middle East, about 6,800 of whom identity as Palestinian. Metro Detroit’s Jewish population is about 72,000, according to the 2018 Detroit Jewish Population Study.
In the Jewish community in metro Detroit, there also is anxiety along with support for Israel.
Rabbi Asher Lopatin, who helps lead a synagogue in Oak Park, said that he has a stepbrother living in the Israeli city of Modi’in. Because of threats of Hamas rocket attacks, the children and some of their friends had to stay in a “secure room because there were missiles targeting them and flying over … near Tel Aviv. It’s just so sad to see the children terrorized.”
Lopatin, who is also the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council/American Jewish Committee of Detroit, said that “people are so sad because of Hamas shooting the missiles indiscriminately, and they’re just sad that there has to be another war. … We’re sad for the deaths on the Israeli side and sad for the deaths on the Palestinian side.”
The tensions in the Middle East led to the temporary cancellation of the sixth annual Muslim-Jewish dialogue in metro Detroit called “A Shared Future” that was scheduled forThursday, online this year because of COVID-19. It will be rescheduled, organizers said.
The dialogue is hosted by the Michigan Muslim Community Council and the Jewish Community Relations Council/American Jewish Committee of Detroit and was to include Howard Lupovitch, a professor of history at Wayne State University in Detroit and the director of the Cohn-Haddow Center for Judaic Studies at the university, and Saeed Khan, who also teaches at Wayne State.
Lupovitch said the event was canceled for now because emotions are running high. They’re waiting for “things to cool down” because it would more productive and sensible to have a dialogue without the “emotional resonance of the conflict” affecting the discussion.
Lupovitch said he’s concerned about the violent incidents in Israel between Arabs and Jews that he said “really hasn’t happened before.”
“This is really the new part of the current conflict,” he said.
Before war broke out this month, Israel was about to have a new governing coalition that involved Israeli Arab leaders, “on the cusp of moving in a remarkable direction” that rejected extremists among both Jews and Arabs, he said.
Now, that future is uncertain, he said.
Nabhan said that Biden needs to intervene and help protect Palestinians.
“Things are getting worse,” he said. “Hopefully, the Biden administration can do something about it. The Palestinian community is not happy with Biden’s statements. He’s trying to play politics to please Israel more than they need. … The aggression has to stop. Discrimination has to end.”
On Sunday night, Biden and first lady Jill Biden released an Eid greeting online, praising the contributions of Muslim Americans and Islam’s holy book, the Quran.
“The values of the Quran … are woven into our history,” Biden said.
He also said that “Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live in safety and security.”
During the protests in Dearborn over the weekend, some chants were criticized by pro-Israel advocates on social media for promoting extremism and an end to Israel’s existence.
But this month and over the years, the Jewish and Arab communities in metro Detroit have avoided violent clashes in Michigan despite fighting in the Middle East, a peaceful history they hope to continue.
Last week, the Michigan Muslim Community Council and the Jewish Community Relations Council/American Jewish Committee of Detroit released a joint statement saying that metro Detroit can serve as a model for interfaith harmony.
The statement read in part: “We pray for the safety and security of all who live in the Holy Land — Muslims, Jews, and Christians and for all the victims of violence.”
“We call for dialogue and mutual respect and for pursuing nonviolent channels for justice. We hope that our model in Detroit, of working in partnership on issues of mutual concern, can inspire those who are fighting to return to a meaningful pursuit of peace and justice for all in Jerusalem and everywhere.”
Rabbi Lopatin said: “We want to keep our beautiful relationship with the Muslim community and our Muslim partners strong.”
Free Press staff writer Miriam Marini and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
Contact Niraj Warikoo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 313-223-4792. Twitter @nwarikoo