Letter from Detroit: The Midwest Peace Process
Home to more than 350,000 Arabs and a strong Jewish community, Michigan’s largest city has long been a beacon of hope for coexistence. The reality is disappointing.
Ruth Shayne loved to eat at La Shish, a popular chain of Middle Eastern restaurants in Metro Detroit known for fresh pita and great food. But all that changed last summer when news spread that the owner had allegedly fled to Lebanon with millions of dollars to evade taxes, and that some of the money had funded Hezbollah-affiliated charities.
“It just left a bad taste in my mouth,” Shayne said, expressing the feelings of other Jewish Detroiters who have stayed away, too. “I’m afraid to go into any Lebanese-owned restaurant because I don’t know their feelings or if the money is going to terrorism. I know not all Arabs are terrorists, but a few extremists spoil it for everyone. You just don’t know who to trust.”
Such is the hesitancy and fear many Metro Detroit Jews feel toward their Arab and Muslim neighbors. Shaken by the vocal and broad local support for Hezbollah and Hamas in their battles with Israel last summer, and by the lack of voices challenging them, fractured relations between Jews and Arabs continue to be collateral damage.
Metro detroit is seen as the proving grounds of Arab and Muslim integration into American society. More than 350,000 Arabs live in the area, making it home to the largest concentration of Arabs outside the Middle East. While most are Christian Maronites from Lebanon and Syria or Chaldeans (Christian Iraqis), the fastest-growing segment is Muslims, led by highly visible Shiite Muslim clerics. Non-Arab Muslims from India and Pakistan as well as a sizeable black Muslim population have organized their own mosques and community groups, but do not yet have the profile or activism of the Arab groups.
Turning from the Southfield Expressway onto Warren Avenue in Dearborn, the heart of Arab Detroit, one immediately notices billboards and neon signs in Arabic advertising everything from lawyers and dentists to restaurants. Women in headscarves dart from store to store, and bakeries boast names such as Shatila, Cedarland, New Yasmeen and Patisserie Alhajj.
Four out of five in the Arab population are American citizens; three out of four were born abroad, and many still have family overseas. Several Lebanese whose attempts to flee Southern Lebanon were publicized on television last summer were trying to get back to Michigan.
Meanwhile, the Jewish community, at 72,000 one-fifth the size of the Arab population, is highly organized and well-established despite aging and shrinking. Most Jews live in affluent northwest suburbs such as Farmington Hills, West Bloomfield Township and Bloomfield Hills—where many have Chaldean neighbors—and the older and more Orthodox Southfield and Oak Park. These towns are about 20 minutes from Dearborn.
Relations between the Arab and Jewish communities have long been workmanlike. The two sides have cooperated on issues of mutual concern apart from the Middle East, including minority rights, civil rights, separation of church and state, immigration reform, immigrant rights, fighting hate groups and obtaining government political and financial support for social service agencies.
For years, the local organization arab and jewish friends socialized and provided scholarships to youth from both faiths while strictly avoiding politics. Following the signing of the Oslo Accords in the early 1990’s, American Jewish, Lebanese and Jordanian businessmen looked at cooperative ventures that could help, and profit from, peace. Seeds of Peace garnered support from both communities for projects for Arab and Israeli youth. But all of these efforts died years ago.
“[During the Oslo years] there were lots of young Jews who wanted to get to know their Arab and Muslim counterparts,” recalled Sharona Shapiro, director of the Michigan Chapter of the American Jewish Committee. “It was the semi-golden era of relationships.”
Only a few hardy idealists and professionals persist in coexistence efforts. But last summer’s events in the Middle East dealt the harshest blow.
A July 18 rally in Dearborn against Israeli retaliation in Lebanon—and the United States for supporting it—drew an estimated crowd of 10,000, including many young people. Photographs of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah were held aloft and signs equating Israel with Nazis and President Bush with Adolph Hitler were paraded down a main Dearborn avenue. Rally organizer Osama Siblani told the crowd that the “Zionist lobby” had bought control of the Congress and the president.
Shapiro, long a proponent of dialogue and cooperation, was appalled at what she heard and saw as she listened and watched from her position near the stage.
“I never felt so alone in my life,” she told the Detroit Jewish News. “The Jewish community here should be alarmed about what the future will be like for our children, and their children, in Metro Detroit. These memories will shape [local Arabs’] future relationships with Jews.” She was also troubled that the moderates she knows at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Arab-American Chamber of Commerce and non-Arab Muslims at the Unity Center in Bloomfield Hills did not speak out against the extremism.
During the war, “the bridges were on fire,” said Robert Cohen, executive director of the Jewish Community Council of Metropolitan Detroit. Fairly new to his job when the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers led to the fighting in Lebanon, Cohen planned to have lunch with Arab community leaders, and he called his counterparts to suggest moving the meeting out of Dearborn. After all, “we couldn’t make believe it wasn’t happening,” he explained. The answer came back that it would be best not to meet at all.
“We recognize we need to live peacefully and productively side-by-side,” Cohen said with conviction. “It is our community’s interest to re-engage carefully, with the appropriate people on a careful timetable and at the appropriate pace. We can rebuild the bridges while remaining staunch supporters of Israel.”
Community concerns led to the establishment last spring of a Detroit branch of StandWithUs, a Los Angeles-based Israel-advocacy body whose method is to challenge anti-Israel activity in a public way, setting it apart from established organizations that tend to manage situations privately. In Detroit, StandWithUs has partnered with synagogues and community groups to offer showings of Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West with guest speakers Nonie Darwish, author of Now They Call Me Infidel: Why I Renounced Jihad for America, Israel and the War on Terror (Penguin), and Itamar Marcus, founder and director of Palestinian Media Watch; both appear in the film. The group has also openly challenged public school districts on book selections and worked with students on college campuses to bring in speakers outside of the Hillel framework.
Pressure has come from more liberal elements of Metro Detroit Jewry as well. While accepting the 2006 interfaith partner Award from the Council of Islamic Organizations of Michigan in October of last year, Brenda Rosenberg thanked prominent imams for their friendship, including several who are no longer considered partners for peace. To Mohammed Ali Elahi of the Islamic House of Wisdom, a public defender of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, she pledged, “We may not always agree, but I know we will always keep talking.”
“I think there is nothing more important than Jews working with Muslims and Christians to stop the storm of hate,” Rosenberg proclaimed. “It happens one person at a time.” She says her pet project, an Arab-Muslim-Jewish-Christian youth dialogue program that developed into Reuniting the Children of Abraham, has fostered personal relationships that provide hope for peace. Thousands in the metro area and beyond have been exposed to it.
But the new realism, and dissatisfaction from the grass roots, is leading to change.
In a striking departure from past practice, top lay leaders of the AJC, the Jewish Community Council and the Anti-Defamation League laid out the community’s concerns in an opinion piece last July in the Detroit Free Press. Calling for Arabs, Muslims and Jews to “set an example for the rest of the world by speaking in harmony, by embracing each other, confronting intractable problems together,” it outlined shared values, but then identified “certain fundamental realities everyone must face if there is to be any purpose to a dialogue.” The leaders argued that Israel’s right to exist must not be questioned, nor its right to defend itself. They also said that debates must not “include incendiary rhetoric and demagoguery,” nor equate Israel with any terrorist organization.
The leaders committed themselves to work with any group that publicly acknowledged its agreement. They received no responses.
Imad Hamad, director of the Detroit American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, speaks passionately about dialogue and cooperation, but says a new relationship is needed. “We both failed, and failed terribly, to address the most sensitive issues,” he said. “We failed to come together and lead.” Hamad maintains the Jewish community has made things worse by criticizing what was said and done in opposition to the war.
“There is a real resentment in the Muslim American and Arab American community,” he noted. “There is opposition to this relationship at this point in time. The concept of peace was somehow rejected…. We have to grant each other an open line of communication and not simply be politically correct.”
He says Muslim attitudes leave leadership no choice. “What is the value of leaders talking to each other if they don’t have the support of their community?” he asked. But while Rabbi Joseph Klein of Temple Emanu-el in Oak Park agrees that honesty is the key, he sees the situation quite differently. In his Yom Kippur sermon last year, he asked his congregation’s forgiveness for involving them in dialogue with a prominent imam who subsequently failed to return calls asking to talk about the Iranian president’s remarks on Jews, Israel and the Holocaust.
“I made the mistake,” Klein said, “of hoping that here in Michigan, Muslims and Jews could together affirm values of truth and righteousness and justice, of hoping that we, Muslims and Jews, could find common ground to get along, even though we support opposite sides in the Middle East.”
Klein has no regrets about going public with his concerns. He hopes he can direct the dialogue to religion rather than politics. “It has nothing to do with Israel, Lebanon, Hezbollah or the Palestinians,” he explained. “We are never going to agree with the American Muslim community about the politics of the Middle East, but we ought to be able to come to agreement on the dangers of a religious extremism [to] any pluralist democracy.”
“It’s not the fundamentalism that is the problem,” Klein continued. “It is the militant extremism that condones violence when threatened or challenged.”
But while jewish leaders try to find a path to reconciliation and cooperation, the Jewish community remains largely despondent. Showings of the film Obsession continue to unreel at rented movie theaters and a number of synagogues, raising awareness of real issues but promising only more difficulties ahead.
For Jeannie Weiner, a dialogue veteran who maintains friendships with Arabs and Muslims from her years with Arab and Jewish Friends and as a community activist, the local and international challenges are very real, but they require action, she believes, not withdrawal.
“It’s like a marriage,” she said. “Sometimes you fight, and sometimes you don’t want to talk with each other and you go off into separate rooms. But, eventually, you calm down and say ‘we need to talk about it.’
“The only way things can be accomplished,” Weiner added, “is through talk, talk, talk. But it must be the right people in the right way. We need to get more involved in our organizations and synagogues and get out of our chairs to help strengthen [Arab] moderates. They’re out there and we need to find ways to work with them.”
Don Cohen is a journalist, organizer and activist who formerly headed the Anti-Defamation League’s Michigan office.