Opinion: There’s no excuse for ‘death to America’ chants, and Dearborn agrees

Editor’s Note: Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is the host of SiriusXM radio’s daily program “The Dean Obeidallah Show.” Follow him on Threads. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.

People at rallies are obviously capable of yelling out whatever they want. It’s how leaders of the event and the community involved respond that is defining. That is why the response of local Arab and Muslim leaders who vocally slammed a “death to America” chant by a few attendees at an April 5 rally in Dearborn, Michigan, was so vitally important.

Dean Obeidallah - CNN
Dean Obeidallah - CNN

This despicable chant was heard as part of an annual Al Quds Day (Jerusalem Day) event intended to show support for Palestinians. This year, given Hamas’ brutal October 7 terrorist attack and the war in Gaza in response that has seen thousands of Palestinian civilians killed including an estimated 13,000 children, the utter devastation of large swaths of Palestinian homes and the onset of famine confirmed by USAID, passions were undoubtedly very high.

But still there is absolutely no place for a chant in Arabic of “death to America” — nor for “death to Israel” — that was started by one person who event organizers said was “unaffiliated and unknown” to them.

The video of this chant was shared by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), whose executive director Steven Stalinsky wrote a February Wall Street Journal op-ed titled “Welcome to Dearborn, America’s Jihad Capital” that sparked a backlash. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said the op-ed was a “really abhorrent” piece and “total misrepresentation” of that community’s Arab Americans and President Joe Biden declared that “blaming a group of people based on the words of a small few is wrong” and “can lead to Islamophobia and anti-Arab hate, and it shouldn’t happen to the residents of Dearborn — or any American town.”

So when MEMRI circulated the rally video, it was especially telling that the leaders of Dearborn didn’t attack the messenger. Instead, they denounced the horrible message of the chant at the Al Quds event.

Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud responded on social media to the video in which “some attendees were chanting statements that were unacceptable and contrary to the heart of this city.” He added, “Dearborn is a city of proud Americans; the hateful rhetoric heard on [April 5] does not reflect the opinion of the members of this community.”

Imad Hamad, the executive director of the American Human Rights Council in Dearborn, was at the rally and responded to the chant with a statement released on behalf of a group of Arab American and Muslim leaders. “We, as a community, unequivocally denounce the inflammatory speeches and chants that emerged from that gathering… your messages of extremism do not resonate with us,” said the joint statement. “In condemning these actions, we reaffirm our commitment to Dearborn as a city that embodies diversity and inclusivity.”

Osama Siblani, a well-known Arab American activist in the area who was also involved with the AHRC statement and is publisher of the Dearborn-based Arab American News, wrote on Facebook, “To the speakers who incited the despicable chants at the alQuds rally in Dearborn last Friday… Your pathetic ill speeches and the disgusting chants that you incited and invited are totally and unequivocally rejected by all Arab Americans and Muslims in Dearborn and everywhere.” He added, “Dearborn is the Arab American capital and has no place for people like you. It is a diverse and a proud city and will continue to be a welcoming city that represents the hope and aspiration of all its residents regardless of their ethnicity, religion or color.”

And the organization that sponsored the event, Al Quds Committee Detroit, responded that the comments were “wrongful” and “a mistake.” One of the organizers of the event, Sheikh Usama Abdulghani — who was born in Washington, DC, and educated in Iran on Islamic law — said in a video response that “we were all quite surprised when on the (Al) Quds Day rally, someone who was in the rally started chanting ‘death to America.’” He added, “Why would somebody do that on this day?”

As someone active in both the Arab and Muslim American communities who has spoken at and attended hundreds of events in recent years, I’ve never heard anyone say or chant either “death to America” or “death to Israel.”  And if anyone did, the backlash would be swift.

Criticism of the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration — especially now given the horrific suffering his military has caused to innocent people in Gaza — is more than justified, it’s demanded of all who value humanity. And the freedom to criticize Biden or any US president’s policies with which a person doesn’t agree is a cornerstone of our democratic republic.

But language that dehumanizes and creates a climate of hate or fear must be denounced as it was in Dearborn by Arab and Muslim American leaders.

It’s also vital that hate peddled by foreign actors that can impact communities in the United States be loudly condemned, whether it’s antisemitic speech from Iran or the demonization of Muslims and Arabs by Israeli extremists. That’s why it was important that we saw the Biden administration condemn chants of “death to Arabs” by thousands of right-wing Israelis in May 2023 as part of that nation’s Jerusalem Day celebration. This annual event marks the day the Israeli military captured East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 war. Last year’s Jerusalem Day march featured thousands of Jewish supremacists taunting Palestinian Christians and Muslims with chants like “may your village burn.”

While such vile chants by right-wing Israelis have been heard for years in Israel — even at sporting events — last year’s Jerusalem Day rally was even more alarming given a member of Netanyahu’s cabinet, national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who was convicted in 2007 of inciting racism against Arabs in Israel and supporting a terrorist organization with a sign at a protest, marched along with these hate-filled bigots. And the day after the rally marked by these despicable taunts that grabbed headlines, Netanyahu didn’t denounce the hate but instead called the march “a splendid day on which to celebrate our return to our eternal capital.”

Passion and the Middle East conflict go hand in hand. But when that passion manifests as hate and dehumanization it must be loudly denounced. That is true regardless of who is the person or group peddling the toxic message. Dearborn leaders showed how to take a stand and not tolerate this kind of message in their own community.

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