Democrats’ divisions on Israel-Hamas war boil over in Michigan as Detroit-area Muslims feel betrayed

Oct 25, 2023, 9:11 PM

DEARBORN, Michigan (AP) — Many of Michigan’s top Democrats, including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, took part in a huge pro-Israel rally at a suburban Detroit synagogue days after Hamas’ deadly attack on the country earlier this month, with some of them dancing and joining in chants of “Am Yisrael Chai” — Hebrew for “The people of Israel live.”

None of them attended a rally in nearby Dearborn the next day to show support for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip who were being killed or forced from their homes by the Israeli military’s response.

The war between Israel and Hamas has inflamed tensions between Jews and Muslims around the world, including the Detroit area, which is home to several heavily Jewish suburbs and Dearborn, the city with the largest concentration of Arab Americans in the U.S. The strong show of support for Israel by Michigan’s leading Democrats, though, has offended many of their Muslim supporters and could affect how this key bloc votes next fall in the presidential battleground state.

“There is going to be an effort to not support the people who have not supported us. The people that we voted for for such a long time — people that we’ve helped, we’ve donated to and we’ve worked on their campaigns,” said Adam Abusalah, a 22-year-old Palestinian American from Dearborn.

In Dearborn, which borders Detroit, nearly half of the roughly 110,000 residents claim Arab ancestry. Thousands of other Arab Americans live elsewhere in Wayne County, including Hamtramck, which is the country’s first majority-Muslim city and has an all-Muslim city council.

After Donald Trump won Michigan by fewer than 11,000 votes in 2016, Wayne County and its large Muslim communities helped Joe Biden retake the state for the Democrats in 2020 by a roughly 154,000-vote margin. Biden enjoyed a roughly 3-to-1 advantage in Dearborn and 5-1 advantage in Hamtramck, and he won Wayne County by more than 330,000 votes.

Democrats have similarly benefitted from the Detroit area’s heavy support at the state level, regaining full control of the Legislature while already holding the governor’s mansion last year for the first time since 1983.

Ten miles (16 kilometers) north of Dearborn is Southfield, which is home to one of the area’s thriving Jewish communities and where an estimated 2,500 people gathered Oct. 9 for the pro-Israel rally. Among them were a who’s who of Michigan Democrats, including Whitmer, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, two U.S. House members, the secretary of state and the state attorney general.

Whitmer told the crowd that “we stand with Israel” and that “Israel has a right to defend itself.”

She also acknowledged the Palestinian suffering in an email response the following week, telling The Associated Press, “In Michigan, we have so many families who are feeling the trauma and mourning the loss of Israeli and Palestinian lives. Our strength as a state is our ability to bring people together to get through difficult times.”

Robyn Lederman, a Jewish attorney from West Bloomfield Hills who lived in Israel for eight years, said such shows of support are important for the grieving Jewish community. She said her family learned through social media on Oct. 7 — the day Hamas militants rampaged through southern Israel, killing more than 1,400 people and abducting more than 200 others — that a young Israeli woman her family hosted in 2012 was missing. Soon after, they learned that the woman, 25-year-old Maya Puder, was one of the more than 260 people who were killed while at an outdoor music festival.

“This has brought to the forefront where people stand based on their reaction,” said Lederman. “More people must take a stand that is anti-terror against Israel and Jews.”

The state’s Democratic leaders were notably not among the hundreds of people who turned out for the Oct. 10 pro-Palestinian rally at a performing arts center in Dearborn. Three Democratic state representatives spoke at the event, and businessman Nasser Beydoun, a Democratic U.S. Senate candidate whose family immigrated to the United States from Lebanon, specifically called out Whitmer, Peters and Lieutenant Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II for missing the event.

“They’re not here with us today because they were busy dancing yesterday,” Beydoun said as the crowd booed. “I want you to remember that.”

Differences over what’s happening in Israel and Gaza were laid bare in the Legislature, where Democrats have been divided over pro-Israel resolutions like those that some other state legislatures have passed with near unanimity.

In the state House, a pro-Israel resolution that was introduced with bipartisan support is no longer expected to pass due to objections from some Democrats. Abraham Aiyash, the Democratic floor leader in the chamber, strongly opposed the resolution. Aiyash, who grew up in Hamtramck after his parents immigrated from Yemen, said that “if we’re going to condemn terror, we must condemn the terror and the violence that the Palestinian people have endured for decades.”

The state Senate opted to write its own resolution after the House’s stalled for more than a week. It was introduced by the chamber’s lone Jewish lawmaker, Jeremy Moss, and passed easily with bipartisan support.

Moss, a Democrat whose district includes Southfield and other large Jewish communities, criticized what he called “inflammatory responses from House Democrats on Israel’s right to exist.” He told the AP that it was important to stand “in solidarity with a community that’s really hurt.”

The situation in Michigan reflects broader tensions throughout the United States, with smaller disagreements having surfaced among state and local officials in North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin and California.

In Congress, the war has forced Democrats back to a familiar place where the establishment’s history of unconditional loyalty to Israel is being tested. Biden and other top U.S. officials have pledged broad support for the Israeli government. But some in the party’s progressive wing, including U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Detroit, have been calling for cease-fire and a reevaluation of U.S. military aid to Israel over concerns that it could be used to commit war crimes.

Tlaib is the lone Palestinian American in Congress and her grandmother still lives in the West Bank. She has been widely criticized by members of both parties — including fellow Michigan Democrats — who say she hasn’t explicitly faulted Hamas for the Oct. 7 attack.

“We’re in a really tense political environment and I think leaders are supposed to project calm and ease these tensions,” said Moss, whose district Tlaib partially represents. “It’s been very troubling to see responses from my congresswoman on this that I think have heightened the tensions.”

Those tensions are palpable. Many feared the worst when learning that a Detroit synagogue leader, Samantha Woll, was found stabbed to death outside of her home. Police have since said they’ve found no evidence of antisemitism as a motive, but her killing has nevertheless stoked worries about people committing hate crimes in the area.

A 41-year-old man was arrested on Oct. 12 for threatening on social media to go to the Dearborn area to “hunt Palestinians,” according to police. Days later, community and religious leaders gathered outside Dearborn’s police station, where they criticized Biden and other Democrats of neglecting the Muslim and Arab American communities.

“In 2024, Democrats are going to have a problem with Arab Americans. For too long, they’ve isolated Arab American voices within the party. They’ve isolated the perspectives of Arab Americans. And on this specific issue, they’ve denied even recognizing the human rights of Palestinians,” Democratic state Rep. Alabas Farhat, of Dearborn, told the AP.


Fernando reported from Chicago. Associated Press writer Farnoush Amiri in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.


For more AP coverage of U.S. politics and the Israel-Hamas war: https://apnews.com

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Democrats’ divisions on Israel-Hamas war boil over in Michigan as Detroit-area Muslims feel betrayed