Chanting "Free Free Palestine," more than 1,200 Arab Americans jammed an auditorium in Dearborn on Tuesday evening to show their support for Palestinians as the death toll increased in Gaza after Israeli strikes.
A night earlier, an estimated 2,500 Jewish people packed a historic synagogue in Southfield to show their support for Israel, which on Saturday faced its worst single-day attack in at least 50 years.
The two rallies revealed how emotional and intense the past few days have been for many in metro Detroit, which has sizable Arab American and Jewish communities. In Dearborn, speakers focused on decades of suffering among Palestinians and ripped into politicians for supporting the right-wing Israeli government, while in Southfield, the focus was on the suffering of Israelis as speakers described the opposition as evil.
Some of Michigan's leading Democrats, including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Democratic U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, attended the Monday rally in Southfield, declaring they stand with Israel. At one point, some elected officials danced with Jewish leaders in the aisle as they chanted in support of Israelis.
"Let's say very plainly a few fundamental truths," Whitmer said on stage to 2,500 people at Congregation Shaarey Zedek, the oldest and largest Conservative denomination synagogue in Michigan. "We here in Michigan condemn this vile act of terrorism. We stand with Israel. And Israel has a right to defend itself."
In contrast, the Dearborn rally did not include political heavyweights like Whitmer and Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, who had campaigned last year in Dearborn at Arab American events, but avoided the large gathering Tuesday night. Whitmer, Peters and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist were booed when their names were mentioned by Dearborn businessman and U.S. Senate candidate Nasser Beydoun. Speakers attacked President Joe Biden, who was also criticized in May 2021 in Dearborn during an Arab American protest when he visited a Ford auto plant during an Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Don't vote for Democrats or Republicans, Osama Siblani, a longtime Arab American leader and publisher of the Dearborn-based Arab American News, told the crowd. He said Hamas was "not a terrorist organization."
"They say Hamas is a terrorist organization," Siblani said to the crowd. "... The terrorist is (Israeli Prime Minister) Benjamin Netanyahu."
Siblani told the Free Press afterward there are some groups even more radical than Hamas. If Hamas and other Palestinian groups keep getting attacked, it will lead to further radicalization and more violence, he said. He argued that attacks on Gaza hurt both Palestinians and, ultimately, Israel also.
Imam Imran Salha of the Islamic Center of Detroit, a Palestinian-majority mosque, gave a fiery speech, warning that Israel will burn, saying it has committed atrocities against Palestinians.
The elected officials who attended the Dearborn rally included state Rep. Alabas Farhat, D-Dearborn, who spoke to the crowd; Wayne County Deputy Executive Assad Turfe, who blasted the media for what he said was inaccurate coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; Wayne County Commissioner Sam Baydoun; state Rep. Erin Byrnes, D-Dearborn, who called for an end to occupation of Palestinians, and state Rep. Karen Whitsett, D-Detroit, whose district includes part of Dearborn.
Other imams also were on stage in support, including Imam Husham Al-Husainy of the Karbalaa Islamic Education Center in Dearborn and Imam Mohammad Mardini of the American Muslim Center in Dearborn.
The Dearborn rally was emceed by Amer Zahr, a Dearborn attorney and Palestinian-American activist who often helps lead protests for Palestinians in the Detroit suburb where 54% of the residents are Arab American and often has rallies in support of Palestine.
"Please help us defeat Trump," Democratic leaders asked Arab American voters in 2020, Zahr told the crowd. "Joe Biden sits in that White House because of Arab Americans. They asked us to save America for Donald Trump. And now we're asking everybody to save Palestine from Joe Biden."
Zahr said that civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks would support Palestine today.
"And make no mistake: If Jesus were here today, he would say, 'Free, Free Palestine.'" Zahr said.
The Southfield rally on Monday included a talk by an Oakland County woman who lost her brother.
Standing in front of the flags of the United States and Israel, Lior Zisser-Yogev, of Bloomfield Hills, spoke while holding back tears as she announced to gasps from the crowd that her 27-year-old brother serving in Israel's military, Eli Zisser, was killed while battling Hamas fighters. Zisser-Yogev, who used to live in Israel, had spoken Sunday to the Free Press about her worries for her parents, brother and friends still living there. On Monday, her fears were realized when she learned her brother, who once attended a summer camp in Michigan, was dead after taking part in an operation to free hostages in Kibbutz Kfar Aza.
"He was called to his unit on Saturday morning at the brink of war," Zisser-Yogev said to the crowd at Congregation Shaarey Zedek. "We hadn't heard from him ... but his wife told me and my parents were calm. They said, if we haven't heard anything, it means there's nothing to report. He spent the last 10 years in military service. He's a skilled fighter, officer and commander."
Because he had returned safely from previous battles, the family assumed he would be OK this time, too, "but we were wrong," she said.
"On Saturday morning, he led his team in an operation," she said. "He was attempting to rescue families and civilians held captive by terrorists. He was hit and killed, along with other soldiers. ... As of last night, our forces were struggling to evacuate civilians and to locate all the soldiers who fell in the battle to liberate the kibbutz. That is why only today, they managed to identify my brother and to inform the family two days after he was killed."
At the Dearborn rally, many expressed frustration with Democratic leaders.
"They're not welcome in our community anymore," one speaker said to cheers. "I would rather vote for Mickey Mouse."
At the rally, many waved Palestinian flags and the flags of other Arab nations, such as Lebanon, Morocco, Iraq, and Yemen, in addition to the American flag.
At one point, some members of the crowd were so passionate they tried to shout down a speaker they thought was insufficiently opposed to Israel.
"The killing of innocent civilians no matter their ethnicity or background must be universally condemned," Commissioner Baydoun told the crowd in what appeared to be a condemnation of Hamas attacks on civilians as well as Israel's killing of civilians.
There was no applause or cheers from the crowd after his comment, and then a man sitting in an upper deck shouted out: "Netanyahu is a terrorist."
Baydoun proceeded with his remarks, saying "more innocent people will be killed."
But the shouting at him continued, as Zahr tried to get the crowd to quiet down.
"Cut the (expletive)," a man shouted at Baydoun. Several then started a chant in Arabic that said: With our blood and souls, we will defend Al-Aqsa, referring to a historic mosque in Jerusalem that has become a flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Wayne County official Turfe, who recently traveled to Lebanon with Wayne County Executive Warren Evans to meet with some Lebanese officials, spoke at the rally, trying to give context for the conflict by highlighting the suffering of Palestinians.
"The Gaza strip has 2 million people living in an area that is about 140 square miles, about the size of Detroit," Turfe said. "Imagine 15-feet walls with barbed wire that prevents from leaving or even entering. You're in prison. It's the largest open-air prison in the world. The Israelis control what goes in ... they control how much water goes into Gaza, they control how much electricity goes into Gaza, they control much food goes into Gaza."
Farhat told the crowd: "How many people in this room are still ready to fight for a free Palestine?"
"From the river to sea, Palestine will be free," the crowd chanted at one point. They also chanted in Arabic a few times about defending Al-Aqsa mosque with their blood and their souls.
Siblani said to the crowd their concerns are not motivated by hate.
"We don't hate anybody," he said.
A speaker with the group Jewish Voice for Peace, David Finkel, also addressed the crowd, saying he supports Palestinians. The crowd applauded in approval. Detroit activist Sam Riddle also addressed the crowd, saying he supports Palestinians.
Other rallies and news conferences in support of Palestinians are planned in Dearborn and Detroit this week, including a Saturday rally at Ford Woods Park in Dearborn.
About 71,000 Jewish people live in metro Detroit, according to the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. The 2020 U.S. census counted Michigan's Middle Eastern population at 310,087, including 2,564 Israelis.
Pro-Palestinian rallies have been part of Dearborn for half a century. The rally was held in Michael Guido Theater, named after the former mayor of Dearborn who came to power in the 1980s after running on what Arab American advocates said was a racist campaign attacking them in a flier that read: Let's talk about the Arab problem.
In 2021, voters elected Abdullah Hammoud, who is the first mayor of Arab descent to lead the city known as the hometown of Henry Ford. Hammoud and members of Dearborn city council did not appear to be on stage alongside other elected officials who attended.