Opinion: Boycott of Israel threatens Dearborn businessman

Beth Bailey

A recent “boycott” in Dearborn has demonstrated the danger that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (known as BDS) movement poses to Americans and their businesses, as well as the impact such activities have on a community and its members.

In July 2018, Sam Zahr prepared to open a Burgerim franchise on Greenfield Road, which straddles the border of Dearborn and Detroit. He intended to bring a diverse selection of halal burgers — and about 20-30 jobs — to neighboring residents.

When Palestinian-American comedian, BDS supporter and adjunct professor at University of Detroit Mercy, Amer Zahr, who is unrelated to Sam Zahr, learned the American company had been founded by an Israeli, he prepared to mobilize a BDS boycott of Sam Zahr’s Burgerim franchise, the Arab American News reported in September.  

Sam Zahr soon learned what Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-New York, explained in a July 22 Fox News piece: That BDS boycotts often “use harassment and intimidation.” The movement’s efforts, Zeldin continued, usually “apply maximum, harmful pressure on the Jewish State of Israel, and oftentimes on Jewish people specifically.” In this instance, the BDS’ campaign of intimidation targeted Lebanese-American (and Muslim) Sam Zahr.

He said most threats against him came through Facebook. Nearly every one mentioned BDS.

By perpetuating allegations that companies like Burgerim “built their wealth on stolen Arab and Palestinian lands and lives,” Amer Zahr continued to push the boycott, which escalated in intensity during Ramadan in May, when a tent outside Sam Zahr’s still-unopened franchise was destroyed, according to news reports. 

The threats against Sam Zahr soon became so frightening that he filed a report with the FBI. Not long afterward, his lawyer sent Amer Zahr a cease and desist order, to no avail.

Finally, after months of postponing his opening and hoping his situation would change, Sam Zahr gave up on the Dearborn area franchise, and the $180,000 he had spent there. He turned his efforts to developing his other Burgerim locations in Royal Oak, Oak Park and Redford.

Increased media attention to the “boycott” in passing weeks has brought some community members to Sam Zahr’s defense. Among them is Ali Jawad, founder of the Lebanese American Heritage Club. Jawad expressed disappointment about the situation. “Food should bring us together, not divide us,” he told me.

The Anti-Defamation League has also backed Sam Zahr. As ADL’s regional director Carolyn Normandin said: “The actions of a few who want to prevent this businessman from having a business in their community are hateful. ADL is always going to come down against hate. ADL stands behind Mr. Sam Zahr.”

Some in Dearborn insist Sam Zahr’s failure to open his restaurant is a BDS victory.

Throughout Sam Zahr’s struggles, one voice has been absent. He said Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, never responded when he reached out to her office about a month ago. 

On July 23, Tlaib was one of only 17 House representatives to vote against House Resolution 246 to condemn BDS for the nature of their activities. Tlaib was the second U.S. lawmaker to publicly support BDS last December.

More:House measure opposing boycott of Israel splits Michigan Democrats

Detroit-area U.S. Rep Rashida Tlaib becomes emotional as she addresses the media.

The global BDS movement wrought dissension and fear in the diverse community of Dearborn. It had an economic and a highly emotional impact on an American businessman and his family. Americans should question any elected official who supports a group whose activities give rise to the mobilization of hate.

Beth Bailey is a freelance writer living in southeast Michigan. Her work can be found in the Federalist and the Washington Examiner.