Beyond Borders: Exploring Detroit’s Arab American and Jewish Perspectives on the Israel-Hamas Conflict
Within Metro Detroit, where Arab Americans and Jews coexist, the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas has incited a series of responses. Against the backdrop of protests, vigils, and political discourse, calls for action characterize the local response to the enduring conflict in the Middle East.
As the conflict unfolds, political figures like Rep. Rashida Tlaib, known for her critical stance on Israel, faced backlash for attributing a Gaza hospital blast to Israel without clear evidence. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned violence against civilians during a visit to Jordan, emphasizing a commitment to political action. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres demanded a ceasefire, highlighting clear violations of international humanitarian law in Gaza. International responses varied, with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemning the attack but asserting that Hamas did not represent the Palestinian people.
Pro-Palestinian demonstrations in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles saw passionate gatherings demanding an end to Israel’s blockade of Gaza. However, the comments aren’t all in agreement, with some participants condemning Hamas for its deliberate attacks on Israeli civilians.
Dearborn, a city boasting one of the largest concentrations of Arab Americans in the U.S., remains concerned about the violence. Dearborn Mayor Abdullah H. Hammoud, addressing the violence, attributed the conflict to Israel’s decades-long occupation. Mayor Hammoud strongly criticized the Biden administration and other lawmakers after a Gaza hospital blast, condemning them for alleged complicity in war crimes funded by U.S. tax dollars. He accused leaders of failing to condemn Israeli actions, particularly the deliberate starvation of Palestinians. Mayor Hammoud highlighted the deep impact on the Dearborn community, urging Michigan officials to call for a ceasefire and justice for Palestinians.
In Southeast Michigan, rallies by both Arab Americans and Jews have called for an end to the violence in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel. Demonstrations began with a vigil at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where Jewish students mourned losses in Israel. On Oct. 7, Hamas launched rockets into Israel and had taken over 200 Israeli hostages to the Gaza strip. Israel claims that the attack killed over 1,200 Israelis. The UM student vigil brought together hundreds of Jewish students and supporters. Rabbi Yitz Pierce led prayers for those held captive, emphasizing solidarity. The vigil concluded with the singing of Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem.
In response to the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas, Israeli military actions have claimed an estimated 11,000 Palestinian lives in Gaza, according to Gaza’s health ministry. As Israeli attacks on Gaza intensified, Muslim and Arab communities organized rallies in Dearborn, expressing concerns and demanding international intervention to prevent further violence. On Oct. 10, over 1,200 individuals gathered at the Ford Community and Performing Arts Center in Dearborn to express solidarity with Palestinians and condemn Israel’s actions in Gaza. The event featured speakers, including Osama Siblani, the publisher of Arab American News, who disputed the characterization of Hamas as a terrorist organization, instead pointing to Israeli leaders. Attendees criticized politicians, including President Joe Biden and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who expressed support for Israel. The crowd called for public advocacy for pro-Palestinian causes and pledged not to support politicians unwilling to denounce Israel’s actions. On Oct. 14 in Plainfield Township, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, a 6-year-old Palestinian-American boy, Wadea Al-Fayoume, was stabbed 26 times and killed. His mother, 32-year-old Hanaan Shahin was also stabbed but survived. Wadea Al-Fayoume’s murder is under investigation by the Department of Justice as a hate crime. The alleged attacker, 71-year-old Joseph M. Czuba, was charged with first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder, two counts of a hate crime, and aggravated battery with a deadly weapon. The alleged motive behind the attack was the victims’ Muslim identity and their connection to the ongoing Middle Eastern conflict. The tragic event has prompted widespread condemnation, including over 100 Jewish American and Arab American groups, emphasizing the urgent need to address and combat hate-fueled violence in the United States. President Joe Biden in a statement said, “As Americans, we must come together and reject Islamophobia and all forms of bigotry and hatred.”
Dearborn police have also apprehended and charged an individual in connection with an online threat targeting Palestinian-American residents. The police received information about the threat through an anonymous tip, leading to an investigation. The arrest, made in Farmington Hills, was related to the use of a computer or electronic device for criminal purposes. Dearborn Police Chief Issa Shahin emphasized the department’s commitment to the safety of residents and increased security measures at places of worship and schools. Dearborn Mayor Hammoud praised the swift police response, stressing the city’s dedication to maintaining strong interfaith relationships despite the actions of a single individual. An ongoing investigation is underway.
Muslim and Jewish civil rights groups have reported a significant rise in harassment, bias, and physical assaults against their communities since the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks. The Anti-Defamation League and the Center on American-Islamic Relations noted an increase in reported instances involving violence or threats at rallies supporting Israel or Palestinians. The Council on American-Islamic Relations received 774 bias-related reports between Oct. 7 and Oct. 24, with 110 direct reports to the national headquarters during this period.
In Michigan, tensions have increased among Muslim and Jewish residents since the Hamas attack, with Democratic leaders drawing criticism for their strong support for Israel. Reports of anti-Semitism have risen, prompting calls for public officials to condemn hate and terrorism. The Anti-Defamation League recorded 312 anti-Semitic acts between Oct. 7 and Oct. 23, compared to 64 during the same period in 2022. Jewish civil rights organizations worldwide have reported similar increases in anti-Semitic acts.
Dr. Sally Howell, Director of the Center for Arab American Studies and a professor of history at the University of Michigan - Dearborn, cautions not to jump to conclusions about the conflict in Gaza.
Dr. Howell questioned President Santa Ono of the University of Michigan for his immediate condemnation of Hamas without acknowledging Palestinian lives or the historical context. She remarks, “The comments made by the President of the University of Michigan really condemned Hamas, referred to the attacks as terrorist attacks, and offered full-throated support for whatever Israel wanted to do in retaliation, making no mention of Palestinian lives or losses.”
Dr. Howell highlights the significant efforts, including demonstrations, resolutions, and fundraising events, uniting diverse voices in a call for a ceasefire. “People are calling for a ceasefire. Representative Rashida Tlaib has officially put forward a resolution in Congress to insist on a ceasefire,” she notes.
Dr. Howell underscores the importance of supporting civil rights organizations combating anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. She emphasizes, “Criticism of Israel is not criticism of Jews. It is not anti-Semitism to criticize the state’s actions. We need to separate these issues.”
Dr. Howell acknowledges the fear among younger Arab Americans of speaking out due to potential repercussions. She encourages individuals to study the conflict, understand the Orientalist stereotypes perpetuating misinformation, and become storytellers to share the Arab American experience. “We need novelists, filmmakers, and actors to tell our stories. It’s crucial to have diverse voices,” she urges.
Congress members advocating for a ceasefire, like Representative Rashida Tlaib, face extreme backlash, including death threats and malicious TV commercials. Dr. Howell urges community support for these representatives, emphasizing their vulnerability. “Look at who is supporting Representative Tlaib and the call for a ceasefire. Support them in their campaign for re-election,” she advises.
Dr. Howell criticizes mainstream media biases that hinder alternative narratives from reaching the masses. She commends the Detroit Free Press for its editorial support of Representative Tlaib, highlighting the importance of understanding a representative’s policies and constituency work. “We’ve got this consolidation of news, making it very difficult to get alternative narratives out there,” she observes.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) Michigan is a chapter of the larger CAIR organization dedicated to promoting and defending the civil rights of American Muslims. Operating in Michigan, CAIR-MI works to enhance understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, and advocate for justice. On their website, you can find information about their mission, initiatives, and the services they provide to the Muslim community. CAIR-MI is actively involved in addressing issues related to discrimination, hate crimes, and advocating for policies that uphold the rights and dignity of Muslims in America. Through education, outreach, and legal advocacy, CAIR-MI seeks to foster a more inclusive and tolerant society.
Nour Ali, Director of Safe Spaces for CAIR-MI, has observed that since Oct. 7, CAIR-MI has experienced an unprecedented surge in complaints. Ali reveals, “Our office received the most complaints in a two-week span, and our caseload has tripled.”
The discrimination isn’t confined to adults; students in middle and high schools are also facing censorship for expressing their support for Palestine. Ali emphasizes the gravity of the situation, stating, “We have a huge uptick in censorship, people who are being fired, or students who are being censored for sharing their support for Palestine.”
Ali acknowledges the collective grief experienced by many, especially those closely connected to the ongoing conflict. Despite the sadness, the Muslim community has demonstrated unwavering support for Palestine. “Pretty much every mosque I go to has held specific prayers for Palestine. Everyone I know has been donating to UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency]. So, on the ground, what’s happening right now is collective grief and sadness, but it’s also being geared into doing actual work,” she states.
CAIR-MI is actively involved in assisting students facing viewpoint discrimination. Ali details their approach, saying, “We’re going into these schools, communicating with administrators, letting them know that what they’re doing is completely wrong, completely inappropriate.” The organization aims to resolve issues through mediation, avoiding formal legal action when possible.
Ali underscores the importance of media engagement to ensure accurate and balanced portrayals of the local Muslim and Palestinian communities. She highlights CAIR-MI’s collaboration with various groups, including Jewish Voice for Peace.
Ali encourages individuals to speak up and report incidents promptly. She says, “I really do genuinely see more people being vocal about what they’re going through. I don’t want people to wait until things get so bad before they report it. If you are a victim of anything on any level, whether you’re a student or an employee, you should speak up about it as soon as possible.”
Information on reporting incidents to CAIR-MI is available at cairmichigan.org. Jewish Voice for Peace can be reached at jewishvoiceforpeace.org.