Whitmer's trip to Israel draws criticism as gov seeks stronger business ties

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — A human rights group and some Arab American groups in Michigan are expressing disappointment with the timing of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's trade mission to Israel.

On Sunday, Whitmer's administration announced she would visit Israel this week to strengthen Michigan's "business ties" with the Middle East country.

Comedian Amer Zahr, left, Arab American Civil Rights League Chairman Nasser Beydoun, center, and Osama Siblani, publisher of Arab American News, stand together at a press conference Thursday at LaPita in Dearborn.

The trip comes after Israeli air strikes on the Gaza Strip more than a week ago and as President Donald Trump's administration announced it will no longer consider Israeli settlements in the West Bank a violation of international law, according to the Associated Press. The Trump administration's decision frustrated Palestinians and reversed a longstanding U.S. policy.

The Dearborn-based American Human Rights Council said in a statement that it is "deeply concerned" that Whitmer's visit to Israel will be "perceived as acquiescence, if not approval of U.S. abandonment of its longtime policy and of Israeli repressive policies."

"For the sake of advancing justice and peace, we urge Gov. Whitmer to consider the impact of her visit on Palestinians in Palestine and on Arab and Muslim Americans in Michigan" added Imad Hamad, the council's executive director.

Whitmer "supports all members of our diverse state," spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said.

"Further, Michigan governors have a rich tradition of traveling to Israel to strengthen our business ties and meet with leaders to discuss how we can partner to attract more businesses and jobs to our state," Brown added.


Israel has defended its airstrikes, which included what its military called a "surgically targeted" strike that killed Gaza's Islamic Jihad commander Baha Abu Al Ata, who was responsible for hundreds of terror attacks on civilians and soldiers. Barrages of rockets were fired at Israel in response.

Whitmer is not responsible for another country's policies, said Noah Arbit, chairman of the Michigan Democratic Jewish Caucus.

“Anyone who is trying to score political points about the trip isn’t really focused on what she’s there to do," Arbit added.

Whitmer is there to advance the interests of Michigan and strengthen business ties, Arbit said. He called Whitmer a "great supporter of the Jewish community."

But Sufian Nabhan, director of the Islamic Center of Detroit, said he was "stunned" by Whitmer's decision to visit Israel after the Muslim community supported Whitmer in 2018. Her administration hired a number of Arab Americans, he added.

"We thought we had a mutual good relationship with her," Nabhan said.

On Thursday, representatives from the Arab American Civil Rights League, New Generation for Palestine, Arab American Political Action Committee and the Council on American-Islamic Relations also spoke out against the governor’s trip.

The groups held a press conference in Dearborn, where Osama Siblani, publisher of the Arab American News, and Amer Zahr, a Palestinian-American comedian and University of Detroit Mercy law professor, said they wished the community was consulted and could have expressed their concerns.

"The timing of the governor’s trip could not be worse," Zahr said, reading from a statement.

The trip is happening at the invitation of the Israeli government and hosted by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. The Jewish Federation didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment.

Whitmer is traveling between Tel Aviv and Bethlehem to meet with government, business and nonprofit leaders to "strengthen relationships and build business ties," according to a press release.

In Bethlehem, Whitmer will meet with Vera Baboun, a representative of the Palestinian Authority, according to the release. Zahr said later that Baboun is not an a Palestinian Authority official. She is the former mayor of Bethlehem. 

The Whitmer administration had been meeting with Mobileye, an autonomous vehicle technology company in Israel, according to a Thursday announcement. State officials and the company reached an agreement on a pilot program to install advanced driver assist systems equipment in up to 100 fleet vehicles.