Amid Heated Debate on Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Some Local Groups Face Backlash For Call for Peace
By Beth Milligan | Nov. 15, 2023
A community event called “Crisis in Palestine and U.S. and Media Complicity” – planned for tonight (Wednesday) at 5pm at the Traverse Area District Library – has generated intense scrutiny, the latest in a series of charged local discussions around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Though the event calls for “a peaceful, respectful uplifting of Palestinian and Jewish voices for ceasefire” and is not sponsored by TADL – which must provide wide access for groups to use its spaces – library staff have received enough perceived threats to necessitate a police presence. The enhanced security points to the backlash many local organizers and advocates face trying to address the war, no matter how focused their messages are on peace.
Mideast Just Peace is hosting tonight’s event, which includes a community discussion on what residents in “northern Michigan can do” in response to the war crisis. Panelists – most of whom are appearing by Zoom – include Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Palestinian-American attorney and human rights activist Huwaida Arraf, Electronic Intifada Director Ali Abunimah, and Mideast Just Peace co-founder Gina Aranki. After some initial backlash on the Palestinian slate of presenters, the event was updated to also include Jewish Voice for Peace.
Aranki, whose parents have Palestinian roots, says her group doesn’t “make any bones about the notion that we exist in order to raise up Palestinian voices for peace and justice and for their human and civil rights.” But those are also “the same desires for Jewish people everywhere,” she notes. “It doesn’t have to be one or the other. It needs to be both.” The goal of the event is to promote a ceasefire “so that no more people have to die,” Aranki says, and to “engage in conversation that’s peaceful and respectful and might lead to greater understanding.” She adds: “it’s easier to dehumanize or delegitimize people on social media who you don’t know. When you look people in the eye and can recognize your common humanity, perhaps we can start to talk about ways to make real change on the ground.”
Anyone making antisemitic, anti-Arab, or any other racist or violent comments tonight will be immediately cut off and potentially asked to leave, Aranki says. Both Mideast Just Peace and TADL emphasize the desire for a peaceful event. But Library Director Michele Howard says TADL – which provides space to a broad range of groups under First Amendment speech protections, a requirement that doesn’t mean the library endorses their viewpoints – says TADL has never hosted “an event that’s received this much vitriol” in her tenure.
“It happened pretty quickly, getting phone calls and emails that included pretty violent language,” she says. “Someone said we were encouraging a pro-terrorist rally. Someone said the blood of innocent Jewish life was on my hands. We got calls from people who said they were ‘patriots’ and would ‘come down and take care of it’ if the event wasn’t cancelled. That made a lot of people nervous.” To err on the side of safety, both the library’s security team and the Traverse City Police Department (TCPD) will be present at the event. While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “is such a volatile subject that it seems hard to have an important discussion about it,” Howard acknowledges, the role of libraries is to be a safe place where community members can exchange ideas and information. “It’s important we protect that right,” she says.
TCPD Captain Keith Gillis is careful to distinguish between active threats and people voicing their opinions; he believes it’s primarily the latter in this case. But he confirms the department will have a “uniformed presence inside and outside the building” tonight from the beginning to the end of the event. “I would rather be more cautious in using an officer presence and letting everyone know we're going to be there,” he says. “Regardless of their opinions, we want to make sure everybody is safe and that they can exercise their rights.”
Other community groups and businesses have called for peace in the Middle East and carefully tried to share their viewpoints about the war and faced backlash. Potter’s Bakery closed its doors on November 9 as part of a global event called Shut it Down for Palestine. Co-owner Mike Potter posted a statement on Instagram saying he’s rarely put his “personal or political agenda out there” through his business. But Potter said he’s been an advocate of “freedom and justice for the Palestinians all my adult life.” With “both Jewish and Palestinian friends who I love here and abroad,” Potter called for a “ceasefire on all sides.” He wrote that he’d been accused of “supporting terrorism” for his views but said: “I know I am putting my business at risk, and if I lose it over this, I will be able to sleep at night knowing that I did what I feel is right.” He invited others into an open dialogue, adding: “Maybe, we can help each other out and learn from each other.”
Peter Kobs, a member of Grace Episcopal Church, helped organize an Open Space event last month called “Prayer for Israel” shortly after the Hamas attack on Israel. Rabbi Laibel Shemtov from Chabad Traverse City and then-Mayor Richard Lewis spoke at the event. Police were requested to be at the event to avoid it devolving “into a shouting match,” Kobs said, but no protestors attended. He estimated the peaceful crowd of 30 was a mix of primarily Jewish and Christian attendees, though he said all faiths were welcome. “I made it really clear it wasn’t an us-versus-them political rally,” he says. “It was an interfaith prayer.” Kobs says the chasm that has “developed so quickly in our country between people who are pro-Israel and pro-Palestine...doesn’t lead anywhere good. It always leads to bad things when you get that kind of angry dehumanization of different people.”
Hexenbelle – co-owned by head chef Christian Geoghegan, who is of Palestinian descent – has been a local focal point since the start of the conflict. “We’ve personally received some threats and harassment,” Geoghegan says. “Things can get pretty tough online. But the flip side is we’ve also experienced incredible support from the community.” For Geoghegan, who has displayed a Palestinian flag at the restaurant long before the conflict, the war has taken an emotional toll but also provided a reminder of the importance of celebrating and keeping alive Palestinian culture.
“There’s this weird inherent political issue with being Palestinian, because for our whole lives, before we’ve had a chance to show who we are as individuals, people have a very definitive view of us in their heads because of how politicized our existence is,” Geoghegan says. The restaurateur later noted: “I’m proud of where I come from. I’m proud of my family. I’m not going to hide that. We’re human beings, who have families and loved ones. All we’re trying to do is exist.”
In addition to hosting a community gathering in October “for anyone in the community who is struggling to process, find meaning, understand, or needs support and comfort from others,” Hexenbelle has been collecting donations for the Middle East Children’s Alliance and provided food for a sold-out event last week at The Alluvion. That event featured a screening of The People and the Olive – a locally produced documentary by Aaron Dennis and Jacob Wheeler – about a group of marathoners, mostly from Traverse City, who ran across Palestine in 2012 with On the Ground to raise funds and awareness for olive farmers in the West Bank region.
More than 100 people attended the event, according to Wheeler. A “lively” interfaith discussion following the film “did grow tense at times,” he acknowledges. “In the room were Palestinians, Arab Americans, Jewish Americans, and Israelis. Before the event began, someone guerilla-style dropped about a dozen leaflets on the stairs leading up to the second floor of the Commongrounds building. The leaflets were posters featuring some of the Israeli hostages kidnapped by Hamas on October 7.”
As co-organizer and moderator, Wheeler says it was “extremely important to me that our event be inclusive, tolerant of criticism, and a safe space for emotions and dissent.” Wheeler gathered the leaflets and brought them into The Alluvion for the post-film discussion “so we could all reflect, as well, on these Israeli victims of this terrible war.” Musician Jeff Haas, a Jewish American and partner in The Alluvion, spoke about his own family’s loss during the Holocaust and played his adaptation of “Yom HaShoah,” a remembrance of the Holocaust. “I don't recall ever being as affected by a piece of music as I was that night,” Wheeler says. The event showed that “one can stand for the dignity of Palestinians and statehood and call for a ceasefire in Gaza without being anti-Israeli,” Wheeler says. “One can stand for the Israeli state and the desire of Jews to live in peace without being anti-Arab.”Comment