Michigan Jewish leaders mourn, but remain determined, after Hamas attacks in Israel ⋆
“It feels genocidal.”
That’s how state Rep. Noah Arbit (D-West Bloomfield) — who is Jewish and who represents the most heavily Jewish state House district in Michigan — described his reaction to the surprise assault on Israel by Hamas militants this month.
“The idea that this past Saturday [Oct. 7] saw the most Jews murdered since the Holocaust is incomprehensible,” he told the . “What can I say? As a state representative? As a Jew? How about as a human being? I have nothing to say. Words fail me in a way they have not before.”
Hamas militants based in the Palestinian territory of Gaza launched air and ground attacks on multiple Israeli cities and villages beginning on Oct.7. Israel has since issued a formal declaration of war against Hamas, followed by air strikes and an expected ground invasion in the coming days.
The death toll has surpassed 3,600 people, with the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) reporting 1,300 people have been killed in attacks on Israeli targets and the Palestinian health ministry reporting more than 2,300 people in Gaza have been killed.
Meanwhile, the American death toll from the attacks stands at 29, while more than a dozen other Americans remain unaccounted for.
For Arbit, the images and reports of atrocities by Hamas are beyond anything he could ever have imagined.
“They were hunting Jews like animal trophies,” he said. “I saw a photo of a couple my age burned alive. Their flesh had completely carbonized. You could see the expression on their faces as they died, turned upwards to the sky in pain, their eyes wide and mouths open, screaming in agony.”
Police Officer walks near a police station that was destroyed after a battle between Israeli troops and Hamas militants that have take the station on October 8, 2023 in Sderot, Israel. On Saturday, the Palestinian militant group Hamas launched the largest surprise attack from Gaza in a generation, sending thousands of missiles and an unknown number of fighters by land, who shot and kidnapped Israelis in communities near the Gaza border. The attack prompted retaliatory strikes on Gaza and a declaration of war by the Israeli prime minister. | Footage by Amir Levy/Getty Images
Arbit says that before he ran for office, and even before he became involved with the Democratic Party, his focus on advocating for Israel was for a two-state solution.
“I did not grow up in an environment that naturally exposed me to evidence of Palestinian suffering,” he said. “I sought it out. I learned. I did the work. I understand now that Palestinians’ demand for sovereignty and liberation is a just one.
“But this atrocity is not about Palestinian statehood. Hamas has never championed a two-state solution. Hamas has never championed a democratic Palestinian state. Hamas has only championed an Islamic theocracy consecrated in the blood of 8 million Jews. A second Holocaust, if you will. The way I see it, the atrocities on [Oct. 7] mark the opening salvo in that effort.”
He says Hamas is holding the people of Gaza hostage, and instead of leading them to liberation, it is leading them to death and despair — and for that, he is sorry.
“But to those on the left who seem completely incapable of condemning these brutal terrorist attacks, these atrocities, these crimes against humanity, I have nothing to say,” continued Arbit. “To those who argue that these unspeakable crimes against humanity (rape, [murdering] infants, gunning down concertgoers) are merely the justified and inexorable primal screams of a downtrodden and oppressed people, I ask, ‘Where has your humanity gone?’”
Arbit was likely referring to comments made Sunday by U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) in which she said she grieved the loss of “Palestinian and Israeli lives” but did not mention Hamas, while calling for “ending the occupation, and dismantling the apartheid system.”
Those comments by Tlaib, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants who’s a frequent critic of Israel, were condemned by Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike for not condemning Hamas.
However, on Wednesday she first told the Advance: “I do not support the targeting and killing of civilians, whether in Israel or Palestine,” she said. “The fact that some have suggested otherwise is offensive and rooted in bigoted assumptions about my faith and ethnicity.”
… This atrocity is not about Palestinian statehood. Hamas has never championed a two-state solution. Hamas has never championed a democratic Palestinian state.
– State Rep. Noah Arbit (D-West Bloomfield)
Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly), who is also Jewish, noted that the scale of the attacks has kept people on edge, both in Israel and in the United States.
“We mourn with the Israelis who are trying to figure out what to do,” she said. “You know, in raw numbers this would be as if 30,000 Americans were killed on 9/11. I mean, it really is a significant impact and a very new and different thing for Israeli citizens.”
Slotkin, a former CIA analyst and Defense Department official, also said her office has been “inundated” with calls from not just her district, but also from across the state and elsewhere of people desperate to help their loved ones who are either stuck in Israel or who have gone missing.
“I have been really struck by how many Michiganders have personal connections to people in Israel, to people in the Palestinian Territories, to people who have been wounded, to people who are living in fear right now. I think we shouldn’t underestimate how many Michiganders have personal connections to the crisis that’s going on over there,” she told reporters during a teleconference call last week.
Slotkin said among those seeking assistance were members of a Novi Church who were visiting Israel, as well as individual tourists from the Lansing area, who were assisted by her office in exiting Israel through Jordan.
“We just have a whole range of people who found themselves over there and then found themselves unable to get on a plane back because they were on an American airline, or they were bumped from their seat or their plane was canceled,” she said. “Certainly, we should anticipate that as Israel continues to plan a ground operation in Gaza, that there’s going to be more American citizens who are seeking to come out of that area and come home. So it’s, I think, very personal for people, very raw for people. And obviously there’s been devastating videos coming out of that terrorist attack, and so I think it’s really affecting people in a very personal way.”
Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield | Getty Images
That feeling was seen in an emotional gathering Monday night when 2,500 people attended an event in support of Israel at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield.
Among those in attendance were Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Lt. Gov. Gil Gilchrist, as well as U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp), U.S. House Rep. Shri Thanedar (D-Detroit) and U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Birmingham).
“Tonight, in the face of unimaginable horror, we declare unequivocally: Detroit stands with Israel,” said Steve Ingber, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. “Our brothers and sisters are facing a nightmare of historic proportions. Our hearts break for the victims and their families.”
The federation on Wednesday posted on social media that a 2012 participant in one of their summer camp programs, Maya Puder, had been killed in the attack.
“May her memory be for a blessing,” stated the post. “The toll of this tragedy upon the Israeli people is truly unfathomable. We will keep them all in our hearts.”
Also at the Monday gathering was Rabbi Jeffrey Falick with the Congregation for Humanistic Judaism of Metro Detroit, who wrote about it in a commentary to his congregation.
“Last night, I attended the Detroit solidarity gathering which called on attendees to ‘stand with Israel,’” he wrote. “Throughout many years of Zionist activism, I frequently echoed that sentiment. However, as time went on, my alignment with that call diminished with my growing disappointment in Israel’s direction. Despite that, in this very moment, I hear the cry of our people to stand by their side. And so today, I stand with Israel.”
Falick told the Advance that while he has been outspoken in the past about his opposition to Israeli policies, he is disheartened that there are those who can’t, or won’t, see the actions of Hamas for what they are: evil.
“I don’t withdraw any of my criticism [of Israeli policies], but to see those in the world try to excuse what happened as part of the resistance, when it was the greatest day of Jewish deaths since the Holocaust … piles of corpses and some of the most inhumane and ugly things that anybody’s ever done. And to do it in front of a camera proudly? This is not how the Palestinian people should be seeking their sovereignty, their state, their freedom,” said Falick. “This is the absolutely most counterproductive thing that anyone could have done. And Hamas knows that, because Hamas doesn’t care about its own people.”
I don’t withdraw any of my criticism (of Israeli policies), but to see those in the world try to excuse what happened as part of the resistance, when it was the greatest day of Jewish deaths since the Holocaust … piles of corpses and some of the most inhumane and ugly things that anybody’s ever done.
– Rabbi Jeffrey Falick of the Congregation for Humanistic Judaism of Metro Detroit
In his commentary, Falick further detailed that point.
“Hamas is not a liberation organization,” he wrote. “Hamas is a death cult of evil religious fanatics who would put every Israeli Jew to death and every Palestinian Muslim under repressive religious control if it could. … They are not resisting the occupation. They feed off it like mother’s milk.”
State Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield), who is Jewish, similarly emphasized that point on the Senate floor on Tuesday.
“This is not like any war we’ve ever seen before,” he said. “This is not the effect of a resistance. This does not serve to advance the cause of the Palestinians who seek to live in peace. These are horrific scenes that more closely align with what is housed in Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to the Holocaust.”
Moss further expanded on that point Thursday on social media.
“The Hamas terrorist attack is not like any war Israel has experienced,” he said. “Yes, this was an attack on Israel, which has a right to defend itself, and we grieve with Israelis. It was also an attack on Judaism itself.”
Meanwhile, Slotkin said with tensions so high, there is concern that the violence in Israel could play out in the U.S. in a number of ways.
“I’ve been in touch with the FBI … just sort of asking what they’re seeing and thanking them for being vigilant right now,” she said. “I certainly am concerned about an increase in antisemitism. I’m also worried about an increase in anti-Muslim violence and anti-Arab violence. We saw that after 9/11, right? People indiscriminately targeted because they happen to be Muslim or happen to be Arab. So we just want to be prepared and vigilant about people’s security, the security of religious institutions.”
Rep. Elissa Slotkin introducing former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Feb. 19, 2020 | Andrew Roth
On Thursday, a Farmington Hills man was arrested after making online threats against Palestinians.
Slotkin said the Biden administration announced that they’re going to put additional money into a Department of Homeland Security program that allows religious institutions to get more support for their physical security, adding that she has used that same program for mosques that are in her district.
“So we are watching this very closely and I think what’s important is to make sure that we are treating antisemitism, anti-Arab and anti-Muslim behavior evenly, no matter who says it, no matter whether it comes from the right or the left, no matter what your political persuasion is, hatred and bias should not be permitted no matter how friendly you might be with the person who’s espousing it. And that’s what I’d ask people to really consider is have an even hand when you see it,” she said.
Arbit agrees that the horrific attacks by Hamas can in no way justify bigotry or hatred.
On Tuesday, he and fellow Democrat, Rep. Abraham Aiyash (D-Hamtramck), the first Muslim to serve as House majority floor leader, called for the passage of the Hate Crimes Act and the Institutional Desecration Act in response to a proposed Republican-led resolution on the Hamas attack.
“If they are serious about addressing these issues, there’s an opportunity to do that instead of trying to bring an international issue and politicizing (it) here,” said Aiyash, who reiterated that point on Thursday at the close of the House session.
“If my Republican colleagues are serious and want to stand morally upright and say they are against hate and violence, they had an opportunity to do so earlier this term, and a majority of their caucus refused to do so,” Aiyash said.
A vote was not taken in the Democratic-controlled House on the pro-Israel resolution, sponsored by state Rep. Bill G. Schuette (R-Midland), which instead was referred to the House Government Operation Committee where bills usually languish without votes.
The hate crimes bills were sponsored by Arbit and passed the state House in June, but remain in the Senate Civil Rights, Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, much to his frustration.
I certainly am concerned about an increase in antisemitism. I’m also worried about an increase in anti-Muslim violence and anti-Arab violence. We saw that after 9/11 …
– U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly)
Arbit also said it was “offensive” for lawmakers who aren’t Jewish to speak on the behalf of the Jewish community.
“I’m quite sick of colleagues who are not Jewish trying to speak on behalf of the Jewish community and not giving deference to Jewish members who are actually experiencing the pain of this moment and actually responding to the pain and concerns of constituents in this moment,” Arbit said. “Having other colleagues speak on behalf of those communities. I find it personally offensive. … I think it has no place in a body that is supposed to be filled with mutual respect.”
Arbit said his focus in this moment is on the violence directed at his fellow Jews in Israel.
“I am proud to be a Jew. I am proud to be a Zionist. And yes, I am proud to represent the most Jewish state House district in Michigan, and my constituents in greater West Bloomfield know that I stand with Israel always, even if I do not always support or agree with the decisions of its leaders,” he said. “I stand, too, with my many Arab and Muslim constituents who see themselves reflected in Palestinians’ suffering.”
Arbit notes that the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah, which is Hebrew for “The Hope,” says, “Our hope is not yet lost, our hope of 2,000 years, to be a nation, free in our own land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.”
“I desperately want to believe it,” he said. “But right now, I am numb. I pray for an end to violence. I pray that one day soon these two nations may live freely, in peace, dignity and sovereignty.”
State Rep. Noah Arbit (D-West Bloomfield) speaks during a Lansing press conference on bills to strengthen hate crime laws, April 26, 2023 | Laina G. Stebbins
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