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War Half a World Away Hits Home in Detroit

  • Quinn Klinefelter

The conflict in Lebanon is creating another kind of clash - between people of Jewish and Middle Eastern heritage living in the United States. Nowhere is the battle more apparent than in metropolitan Detroit, where thousands of people are struggling to define what it means to be an Arab or a Jew - and still be an American.

Chants denouncing Israel fill the hot air, and sweat pours down the mass of impassioned faces in a crowd lining broken pavement, under street signs printed in Arabic. It could be a scene from Lebanon or anywhere in the Middle East. But it's actually happening in Dearborn, Michigan, not far from the headquarters of an American icon: the Ford Motor Company.

Thousands of Arabs call this Detroit suburb home. Many came from southern Lebanon, and still have family there. And at this rally, speaker after speaker questions why Washington isn't taking an even-more active role in quelling the war. "How do you define terrorism Mr. President?" asks one. "What is happening in Lebanon…can only be described with one word: Terror. Terrorism… Mr. President. Stop it!"

Like many in the crowd, Lebanese-born Abed Hammoud has a very personal stake in the conflict. His parents and children remain in Lebanon. Hammoud is a county prosecutor, and says he can't stand by while America aids and abets what he calls the murder of innocents. "We're very loyal to America…we're very good Americans. That's why we don't accept America being involved in crime," he explains. "It's my American mind… speaking, not my Arab heart. My American mind tells me this is not right…regardless of whether it's my kids or all kids of Lebanon or Palestinians there. All life is precious."

Some Lebanese in the crowd defend Hezbollah. They're not terrorists, they say, but freedom fighters who aid widows and orphans. But almost everyone in the crowd echoes the sentiments of Imad Hamad, who says the widespread civilian casualties in Lebanon are an affront to the democratic laws and values of both America and Israel. "This is total destruction of a whole population and the infrastructure of a whole country. It's the new genocide of the century. Unfortunately those who were victims of the Holocaust at one time are now causing a new Holocaust for Lebanon…and Palestinians as well."

But a few miles north, at a synagogue in the Detroit suburb of Southfield, America isn't seen as aiding another Holocaust, but rather preventing one. The American and Israeli national anthems play back-to-back before hundreds rallying at the synagogue. It's one of many reminders on display here that the U.S. and Israel are bound together, by tradition, democracy and shared defense.

Even the minister of a black church in Detroit tells the crowd that African Americans and Jewish Americans have known the same threat: enemies who want to eradicate them simply because of who they are. "And I'm here to tell you," the Reverend Glenn Plummer declares from the pulpit, "that kind of sick thinking has been in existence ever since the Bible was written. And you know what? They all have found their same end and that is the way of the earth!"

Like the Arab Americans in Dearborn, many of the Jewish Americans here also have personal ties to the region. A half-dozen years ago, some Jewish community groups declared Detroit a 'sister city' of several towns in northern Israel and began a friendly exchange of goods and information. The head of the Jewish Federation of Metro Detroit, Bob Aronson, says now the Central Galilee is suffering under a rain of Hezbollah rockets. "But they are strong Israelis," he insists. "And they are drawing strength from our love and our connection and our support." He draws sustained applause with the announced that the Federation has just wired a million dollars to the three municipalities. The applause changes to laughter as he adds, "We haven't raised it yet but we sent it anyway."

Outside the rally, Jewish Community Council President Wendy Waggonheim says she fears for those in Detroit's sister communities, many of whom she's dealt with for years. And she says she's dismayed by the widespread international condemnation of Israel. "Nobody wanted this war. It's the result of an unprovoked attack and Israel must defend itself. All they want right now is a secure border. And we all want peace."

But the primary message Jews gathered at the rally say they want to send Israelis is that their long-trusted ally America is with them, emotionally and financially. There have been few reports of financial aid being sent from the Arab community in Dearborn to Lebanon - perhaps because there is little chance at the moment to rebuild anything in a war zone.

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