ANN ARBOR, MI – After nearly two decades appearing before City Council and calling for a boycott of Israel, pro-Palestinian demonstrators in Ann Arbor are making headway.
Instead of being met with the usual silence, they’ve convinced city officials to consider calling for an end to U.S. military aid for Israel, though opinions are mixed.
The issue has been discussed at recent city meetings & at least two new council members agree the city should consider weighing in on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the form of a symbolic resolution.
“It’s a human rights tragedy over there,” said Council Member Jeff Hayner, D-1st Ward. “And I don’t generally believe that silence is complicity, but in this case it might be.”
Council Member Ali Ramlawi, who is Palestinian, agrees with Hayner the city’s Human Rights Commission should take up the issue and consider forwarding a resolution to council for a vote.
“I believe an injustice anywhere is an injustice here as well,” said Ramlawi, D-5th Ward, council liaison to the HRC.
Ramlawi, owner of the Jerusalem Garden restaurant downtown, said his father fled the West Bank as a refugee in 1948.
Despite objections from HRC Chairwoman Leslie Stambaugh, a majority of commissioners agreed Wednesday, July 10, to further discuss a possible resolution Aug. 14.
Boycott Israel demonstrators Blaine Coleman and Mozhgan Savabieasfahani addressed the commission Wednesday night, after speaking before council last week.
“We have been demanding boycott against the apartheid state of Israel in this room for 17 bloody years, while Israel shoots its way across the Arab world,” Coleman told council July 1.
“Seventeen bloody years, this City Council has fought to block even the slightest symbolic resolution against Israel,” he said. “And that makes this City Council up until right now still an accomplice to murder against the Palestinian people and a danger to 300 million Arabs in this world. You, the City Council, have normalized massacres against the Palestinian people and there’s nothing normal about that.”
Savabieasfahani called Israel “a terrorist state funded fully by the United States of America, bombing its way wherever it pleases.”
“If I cannot appeal to your sense of humanity, that it’s treacherous to live the life of a Palestinian in the West Bank and Gaza, I’m appealing to your sense of money,” she said. “You’re paying for this slaughter.”
She noted Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently announced a new settlement called “Trump Heights,” named after his “great friend” Donald Trump in the Golan Heights territory. Seized by Israel from Syria in 1967, it’s regarded as illegally occupied territory by the global community, CNN reported.
It’s “abominable” that Ann Arbor officials for years have remained silent on “the murder of so many,” Savabieasfahani said.
“For God’s sake, you’ve got to have hearts,” she told council members. “Where is your heart? Where is your humanity? Every time an Israeli soldier shoots a Palestinian child in the face, in the foot, in the arm, it drives a community into panic and pain and suffering for decades to come. For God’s sake, don’t you see that?”
Mayor Christopher Taylor and other council members over the years have declined to take up the issue, some fearing it would divide the community for the city to take a side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and not have much real effect.
“The world is filled with injustices and conflicts, some centuries in the making, and I know that we all want to make a difference, but in the end I believe that local government in Ann Arbor can best effect change by focusing on Ann Arbor ….,” Taylor said this week.
Members of the Jewish community have said over the years the anti-Israel protesters only tell one side of the story and they don’t mention rockets fired at Israel by Hamas.
Criticism of Israel’s policies is not anti-Semitic, but singling out the world’s only Jewish state is troubling, said Eileen Freed, Jewish Federation of Greater Ann Arbor executive director.
U.S. funding of Israel and other foreign policy decisions are made by Congress and it’s not City Council’s role, Freed argues.
Hayner spoke up after the anti-Israel protesters addressed council last week, showing some solidarity.
“I’m not going to sit here silent anymore,” Hayner said. “I’m going to recognize that, for 17 years, these folks have been coming up here and saying this. We don’t agree on everything, but I agree it’s a human rights crisis over there. We’re arming the Middle East.”
He added, “If you’re not working for peace, you’re not working for anything.”
The city’s Human Rights Commission approved a resolution in 2003 calling for ending U.S. military support for Israel, but City Council never took up the issue, Coleman noted, suggesting the HRC should approve a similar resolution and forward it to council.
“It’s the U.S. government that sends billions and billions of dollars to Israel every year, huge amounts of military aid, and it’s a simple matter to just say cut it off,” Coleman said.
Stambaugh argued at Wednesday’s HRC meeting the issue is outside the commission’s scope.
“I personally am very against this,” she said. “I’m against it not because of the issues, but because we are the Human Rights Commission. We’ve got, in some ways, a broad mandate, but it’s not this broad.”
The commission is charged with protecting the human rights of people in Ann Arbor, she said.
City Council passed a resolution for divestment and boycott of apartheid South Africa in the 1980s, Coleman recalled.
There was no quibbling about that, he said, because the way black South Africans were treated directly affected how black people were treated around the world.
“Similarly, I believe the way Palestinians are basically shot down en masse by Israel affects how Palestinians here in Ann Arbor live,” Coleman said.
“It is a human rights issue that directly and acutely affects Palestinians, Arabs and the broader Muslim community right in Ann Arbor.”
It’s within the mandate of every human being to do something about it, Savabieasfahani said.
“We must respond to this atrocity, which we fund,” she said.
Taking a position spreads the movement and raises awareness, hopefully eventually stopping U.S. aid from going toward killing people, Coleman said.
“A situation where Palestinians are no longer being massacred at the whim of the Israeli military, that’s a situation that doesn’t exist yet,” he said. “A situation where Palestinians can walk freely and go anywhere like any other human being, that situation doesn’t exist yet. So basically … we’re promoting a situation of human rights for Palestinians that so far has no actual existence in reality.”
Nine minutes into the commission’s discussion, Stambaugh tried to cut off Coleman and Savabieasfahani, who called Israel a violent, racist state.
“That’s enough. We’re done,” Stambaugh said, attempting to move on to other matters. “I’d rather not talk about this now.”
Julie Grand, another City Council liaison on the HRC, suggested the city’s staff should give the commission a refresher on its mandate.
Noting it’s a matter of city ordinance, City Attorney Stephen Postema said he’d be happy to discuss it at the next meeting.