Metro Detroit, home to hundreds of thousands of Arabs and Jews, grapples with violence in Gaza and Israel
Thousands of people have rallied in Southeast Michigan over the past week, calling for an end to the attacks in Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel.
The area is home to cities with some of the largest populations of Arab Americans in the U.S., and the University of Michigan has one of the largest Jewish student populations among the country’s public universities. So the news from Israel and Palestine carries a heavy emotional weight.
There have now been 13 days of violence in Palestine and Israel after an attack by Hamas that Israeli officials say killed 1,400 people and took hundreds of hostages. As of Thursday, Israel's military response has killed 3,785 people and injured 12,493 more in Gaza, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health.
This violence – and the potential for more to come – has driven members of Arab, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and other communities to gather for demonstrations calling for increased security and taken an emotional toll on people who have ties to Palestine and Israel.
The local demonstrations began with a vigil at the University of Michigan more than a week ago. Hundreds of Jewish students and supporters gathered on the Diag to seek shared comfort as they grieved Israeli losses.
Israel’s military retaliation was still in its early stages, but people at the vigil said they were expecting the country to mount a strong response.
Alexia Steinberg said it was comforting to see so much support from fellow Jews and the university and Ann Arbor communities.
"Not being in Israel right now is something that's really hard," she said. "I have friends and family who are there, and who are going to be fighting on the front lines."
Days later, as Israeli attacks on Gaza intensified, Southeast Michigan’s Muslim and Arab communities began organizing demonstrations and protests.
Nour Jouhni and her young son were at a Dearborn rally last Friday organized by Al-Quds Committee. She said she lived through Israel's 2006 war on Hezbollah in Lebanon before moving to Dearborn. Jouhni said she wants the international community to prevent more people from experiencing similar violence.
“I've witnessed bombs in front of me, and my mom almost got also bombed in front of my eyes. And so if you have not lived those things, you will never truly know what it is to live a war – like, ongoing war,” she said.
Jouhni said people who care about Palestinans need to speak up, post on social media and continue to show up to rallies. Hundreds of people showed up to this Dearborn rally.
Miriam Sulaiman was one of them. She said she hasn’t felt safe since Israel began its military response against Hamas, which has included airstrikes and artillery bombardments in Gaza. And she said President Joe Biden’s statements of support for Israel make her feel vulnerable in the face of prejudice.
“I feel like if anything were to happen, we don't have a voice anymore. Who's to save us? You know … if our cops aren't saving us, if the president isn't with us. Who's to say that we're safe, you know? Even us living in America, we really aren't safe anymore.”
The chants, repeated in Dearborn and across many protests, were “Free, free Palestine. From the river to the sea. Palestine will be free. Free, free Palestine. Free, free Palestine. When people are occupied, resistance is justified.”
On Saturday, hundreds gathered at Ford Woods park in Dearborn for a youth-led rally that organizers said they were holding in solidarity with Palestine. Students and families with young children marched in the rain, many holding Palestinian flags and wearing black and white keffiyeh, a symbol of Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation.
One of the protest organizers, Sherine, who asked us to only use her first name out of fear for her safety, denounced the U.S.’s financial ties to Israel. Last year the U.S. sent at least $3.3 billion to Israel, almost all of which was in the form of military assistance. Sherine said that aid is being used to displace her family and sever ties to the region.
“I also carry a Palestinian citizenship. … Palestine is about 5,000 miles away from here, but there are Palestinian Americans who are living in diaspora here. We still have a connection to our land. We still have a connection to our people.” she said. “Even though I was born and raised here [in the U.S.] … my tax money also is funding this genocide, which needs to be put to a stop.”
Even though Dearborn is home to one of the country's largest Muslim populations per capita, organizers of local rallies said anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice is still pervasive in the broader community.
For this reason, Mohammad, another organizer of the protest who asked us only to use his first name out of fear for his safety, noted the importance of educating all people in Michigan about what’s happening in Palestine.
“If you're a Michigan resident and your neighbors are Palestinian and, you know, you're not educated … you’re not being a good neighbor to a certain extent. So it's important to spread awareness, have people understand what the struggle is,” he said.
On Monday, a group of metro Detroit Jews gathered in front of the McNamara Federal Building in downtown Detroit echoed that sentiment. The group called on Michigan’s U.S. senators to do more to demand a ceasefire in Israel and Gaza.
Dozens of people gathered to rally and speak up for Palestinians and to deliver letters to the officers of Senator Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow.
Security only allowed a group of ten to speak with the senator’s representatives. Organizers of the rally say the senators “failed to respond to the letter’s demands or provide a response from Senator Peters. His staff said he was traveling. The group of ten, known as a minyan in Jewish tradition, recited the Mourner’s Kaddish and left. Outside, protesters spoke, sang, prayed, and chanted for a cease fire, and end to the genocide of Palestinians, and an end to apartheid.”
Dana Kornberg was one of the Jewish organizers who spoke at the rally.
"Last week triggered memories of the Holocaust for many Jewish people. But this does not mean that we are still there. Israel has long been the largest recipient of billions of unconditional U.S. dollars."
She said past experience with genocide should have more Jewish people standing up for the rights of Palestinians.
"Unlike Palestinians, Israelis live in a world full of options,” she said. “Criticizing a government for violence with weapons ... terrorism tactics and a lack of water and basic medical care is not anti-Semitic. It is an act of conscience.”
Lior, who chose not to share their last name out of concerns for safety, said their family survived the Holocaust.
“There's a photograph on the mantle of my parents' home of my mother's father's family. There's about 20 people in the picture, mostly young people. Six years later, only three survived. This is what we're doing to Palestinian families today.” they said. “I know what genocide looks like. And I know what it sounds like when it's being denied.”
Throughout the rally, people shouted, “Not in our name!” and “Never again means never again.”
Zoe, another Jewish Detroiter, called for an end to Israel’s attack on Gaza and West Bank. She didn’t want to share her last name out of concerns for her safety.
“The state of Israel claims to speak for Jewish people and Jewish safety, but we have to say no. No genocide in our name and no apartheid in our name. We have to say it loud and we have to keep on saying it. We don't want to regret what we did in this crucial moment,” she said.
Dearborn’s Ford Woods Park was the site of another pro-Palestine rally on Wednesday, followed by a silent march. The event was organized by Palestinian American comedian and activist Amer Zahr, who said Arabs and Muslims in the U.S. and worldwide are also under threat from Islamophobic violence.
Zahr pointed to the murder of a 6-year-old Palestinian American boy by his family’s landlord outside Chicago last week. Joseph Czuba attacked Wadea Al-Fayoume and his mother with a knife, while reportedly shouting “all Muslims must die.” The Associated Press reports that the boy died after being stabbed 26 times.
Zahr called children from the crowd to surround him onstage, then made this pledge: “We are going to take care of our kids,” he said. “They are going to be safe on our watch. We are not going to let politicians and the media create a dangerous environment for our children.”
Zahr and other speakers decried what they call dehumanizing rhetoric against Palestinians, which they said serves to justify Israel’s bombardment of Gaza and what they called ethnic cleansing.
Lexis Zeidan, a Christian Palestinian American from Dearborn, responded with what she called a “love letter” to Palestine and its people.
Fighting through tears, Zeidan recited: “You are the roses that grow through concrete. You are not a statistic. You are not a number. You are not a barbaric animal or sub-humans. You are not terrorists, and you surely don't represent hate.”