Opinion: Fight antisemitism in Michigan

Beth Bailey
A man walks through the gate of the Sachsenhausen Nazi death camp with the phrase "Arbeit macht frei" (work sets you free) in Oranienburg, Germany, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Jan. 27, 2019.

Today’s celebration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day marks the passage of three-quarters of a century since the liberation of the largest German death camp, Auschwitz, on Jan. 27, 1945.

Because it follows 15 months of high-profile, and sometimes deadly, anti-Semitic attacks on U.S. soil, many Americans will likely focus their attention on Monsey, Brooklyn, Jersey City, Poway and Pittsburgh.  

Michigan residents should also take a hard look at the antisemitism at work in our home state.  

Throughout Michigan, neo-Nazi activity was highly visible in 2019, according to Anti-Defamation League H.E.A.T. map data. Swastikas were drawn on 12 street signs in Watson Township in April. WILX reported a swastika was drawn on a World War II veterans’ cemetery in Jackson in June.

The Jerusalem Post reported that a neo-Nazi group distributed fliers with antisemitic imagery and verbiage around Oakland County and on the gate of a Jewish cemetery in Birmingham in July, around which time similar fliers were left near the border of Royal Oak and Birmingham.

A temple in Hancock and a sidewalk in Cadillac were vandalized with swastika graffiti in September. In October, swastika graffiti was found on a West Bloomfield trail, and a second neo-Nazi group posted antisemitic propaganda at a Grand Rapids synagogue.

Nazi imagery also appeared in schools. In June, the ADL reported three middle schoolers drew chalk swastikas outside a Warren elementary school, and a student in Birmingham found a swastika drawn in a yearbook. In September, a Nazi flag was raised at a Battle Creek elementary school. A Grand Rapids elementary school student discovered a swastika drawn beneath a desk in October.

The Washington Examiner and Newsweek reported on the most visible neo-Nazi event in June, when 10-15 members of the National Socialist Movement protested at the Detroit Pride Parade. Neo-Nazis in battle dress uniforms wearing swastika armbands carried weapons and shields, and sought to intimidate attendees by making racist and anti-gay comments, ripping apart a pride flag, and pretending to urinate on the Israeli flag. The ADL reported the group shouted antisemitic slurs.

Antisemitic and anti-Israel hate not affiliated with the far-right were also on display in Michigan in 2019. 

On Nov. 15, ADL Michigan tweeted that “The Rock” at Michigan State University was painted with the Palestinian flag and the words “Stop Bombing Gaza” after Israeli attacks on a terror target were followed by rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip on Israeli civilians, according to the Times of Israel. As the ADL explained, such a “one-sided statement” neither educates nor promotes dialogue surrounding the complicated Israel-Palestine conflict.

In August, The Detroit News covered the struggles of Lebanese American Muslim Sam Zahr, who intended to open a franchise of the Burgerim restaurant chain in Dearborn.

More:Burgerim nixes Dearborn location after backlash

Burgerim general manager Rony Younes and founder Sam Zahr with a takeout from one of his other Burgerim restaurants in Oak Park, Michigan  on September 13, 2019.

Because the American chain was founded by an Israeli, a local activist with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel led a “boycott” of Zahr’s franchise. His perceived association with Israel made Zahr the target of vandalism, anti-Semitic harassment and threats that led him to abandon the unopened restaurant, and his $180,000 investment in the location, by summer 2019.

Throughout the year, the ADL recorded intimidation of, and harassment and threats against individual Michigan Jews and against synagogues and Jewish organizations. The latter include “Lier (sic)” painted on a synagogue in Battle Creek in January, and a man “intentionally defecat[ing] on” a Detroit synagogue in May.

On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, it is vital to focus on places where antisemitism has become violent, and even deadly. However, it would be wrong to neglect the places where it is present, but has yet to claim victims.

The genocide of six million Jews did not start with mass killing, but rather with the normalization of the very hate against Jews that Michiganians, and citizens of countries throughout the globe, witnessed in recent years. Now is the time to work toward solutions to counteract rising anti-Semitism, so that the world “Never Again” witnesses another Holocaust.

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