Here in the metro Detroit area, we have been fortunate when it comes to inter-group and inter-religious relations. Civility between diverse ethnic and interfaith groups, including members of the large local Arab American community, has largely been maintained throughout the most difficult of times, even when ethnic, religious and cultural conflicts flare in other parts of the world.
That is, until recent days. What I heard and saw at recent anti-war rallies in Detroit and Dearborn went far beyond the pale.
I was among the thousands who attended a rally in Dearborn on July 18, and I never felt so alone in my life. I understand tensions are high in the Arab-American community. I sincerely sympathize with the deep concern for family and friends in Lebanon; I, too, worry about family and friends in Israel. Yet it is one thing to criticize Israeli policy, and quite another to compare Israeli actions to Nazi Germany's final solution that exterminated 6 million Jews.
As I walked among the rally participants, several thoughts rushed through my mind. The first was how young many of them were. A whole generation of metro Detroiters — our future neighbors, schoolmates, co-workers and leaders — will remember this day forever.
Second, I struggled to come to grips with how Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah could be so glorified. Nasrallah heads an extremist terrorist group that frequently calls not only for "death to Israel," but also "death to America." Hezbollah is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American soldiers in Lebanon, and hundreds of innocent civilians. As an American and a Jew, it is difficult for me to understand why so many Arab Americans in my community venerate him and others of his ilk.
Finally, the antisemitic placards at the rally were a horrendous display of Israel as Nazi obsession. Signs compared President Bush to Adolf Hitler and equated Stars of David with Nazi swastikas; one sign read, "Israel Nazi Are the Same Thing." This ugly comparison demeans the victims, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, of Nazi genocide, demonizes Israelis, and dehumanizes those who support Israel. Had the July 18 rally been held in Europe instead of Dearborn, it would likely have been officially classified as an antisemitic event.
After so many years promoting tolerance and the need for understanding among Detroit's rich mosaic of ethnic, racial and religious groups — and it pains me to say this — the Jewish community here should be alarmed about what the future will be like for our children, and their children, in metro Detroit. The Arab Americans' youthfulness and sheer numbers must be noted. They are learning quickly about political activism in America, and have connections with activist groups throughout the world.
We cannot afford to ignore their anger and misguided messages. We need to think long and hard about future interactions.
On the one hand, we cannot continue relationships with individuals who refuse to acknowledge certain fundamental realities and core values that we hold so dear. We must stand fast to these core values. Israel has a right to exist. Debates pertaining to Israel must not include incendiary rhetoric and demagoguery. Hamas and Hezbollah engage in terrorism. Israel has not only the right but the obligation to protect itself. And Israel and the terrorist organizations it combats are not moral equivalents.
However, we cannot and must not cut ourselves off to all interactions with our Arab American neighbors. We must be receptive and open to the moderate courageous voices — and there are such voices — who reach out and accept these core values. We must shore up those in the Arab American community who seek to become partners.
We must acknowledge and thank those who make the quiet phone calls or send the private letters, but who are not yet ready to challenge the status quo in their own community. We will also need to develop our own courage to take risks in reaching out when the time is right, and we will need to do our homework. But above all we must have patience, a lot of patience.
Sharona Shapiro is Michigan area director of the American Jewish Committee.
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