A franchisee has delayed the scheduled opening of his Burgerim restaurant in Dearborn amid backlash from the Arab-American community over the popular burger company's Israeli roots.
Sam Zahr, a Lebanese-American who lives in Dearborn, said he was too worried to open the restaurant on Greenfield Road after his kids were bullied and he received threatening messages from those opposed to the burger chain founded in Israel.
The Dearborn Burgerim location has stirred controversy for months, striking at the heart of the charged debate over Israeli-Palestinian relations. The announced restaurant opening has elicited back-and-forth comments on Facebook posts from those spreading the message to boycott and others just hoping for a good burger.
Burgerim, which means "many burgers" in Hebrew, specializes in mini burgers of different types of meat. It's headquartered in Encino, California, but was founded in Israel with its first location in Tel Aviv. The growing company has franchise locations across the U.S., Israel, and Europe, and has been publicized by media outlets in places like Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Antonio.
A Burgerim location in Royal Oak also owned by Zahr has not experienced as much opposition, he said. He decided to step away from the Dearborn location since he has two others — one in Oak Park and another in Redford Township — scheduled to open this month.
"I think it's only within this area," Zahr said about the pushback. "That's why I figured, let me walk away from the problem."
Burgerim's website lists three other Michigan franchise locations not owned by Zahr, in Livonia, Troy and Bingham Farms, as well as another coming soon in Auburn Hills.
Zahr described several events that led to the decision not to open. In one instance, someone messaged him on Facebook with threatening comments, confirmed by screenshots of the messages.
"I told you, you are not like us," someone wrote in a Facebook message to Zahr. "You have Palestinian and Lebanese blood on your hand if you open up that joint."
In another incident, he set up a tent with free burgers outside the soon-to-open Royal Oak store for Ramadan, a Muslim holiday in April, but he said the tent was destroyed the next morning.
Zahr said he has lost everything after pouring money into the Dearborn location by signing a five-year lease, having the electricity and plumbing installed, purchasing permits and licenses and paying the franchise fee.
"It's just for no reason. Why?" Zahr said. "We're in America. You don't own Dearborn."
Amer Zahr — no relation to Sam — is a Dearborn activist, comedian and an adjunct law professor at University of Detroit Mercy. He has been a leading voice urging his community to boycott the business when it opens because it was founded in Israel on land he says was stolen from Palestinians.
"It was offensive to many members of the community," Amer Zahr said.
Attorneys for Sam Zahr filed a cease-and-desist order against Amer Zahr for "defamatory statements" about Burgerim, which Amer Zahr said was "ridiculous."
"Anyone has a First Amendment right to boycott whatever they wish to boycott and to call for boycotts," Amer Zahr said. "A boycott, of course, comes with the potential of economic damage."
Zahr is a supporter of the Palestinian-led movement called BDS, or Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, that puts pressure on Israel to change its policies and grant Palestinians human rights, according to the movement's website. It was inspired by the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.
When Burgerim first began to set up shop in the neighborhood, Amer Zahr said many people did not know much about it. He felt it was his job to educate people on the history of its founding.
"Building their company on stolen Palestinian land is how they established themselves," Zahr said. "Whether they ended up moving (headquarters) ... it doesn't really matter. The genesis of the company was in Israel."
Amer Zahr said it was very clear from the beginning that the community was not going to support Burgerim in its backyard.
"The Dearborn community overall is very supportive of Palestinian rights in general," he said. "Not everybody is an activist obviously, but everyone for the most part in Dearborn is very supportive of Palestinian rights and our struggle."
Amer Zahr added that his vocal opposition to Burgerim had nothing to do with Sam Zahr. He would have supported the business owner had he opened a burger restaurant "not connected to Palestinian suffering," Amer Zahr said.
"It's not personal against him," Amer Zahr said.
Sam Zahr still has the sign he removed from the storefront on Sunday with the hopes that it will one day be put back up.
"God bless this beautiful country that we all came to to make something out of," Sam Zahr said. "Not to have this kind of hate and this kind of unprofessionalism and just nonsense."