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Democrats’ rift over Israel turns physical, leading to black eyes in Detroit

Protestors stand outside restaurant
Protestors pounded on windows this weekend at an event for U.S. Rep. Shri Thanedar, D-Detroit, leading to a melee that injured one Democratic activist. (Screengrab)
  • Progressives who support Palestinians interrupted an event for U.S. Rep. Shri Thanedar, leaving one Democrat with a black eye
  • The fracas highlights divisions about the war between mainstream Democrats who support Israel and progressives who favor Palestinians
  • Jews and Muslims are reliable Democratic voters, and the split could hurt the party’s chances in November

DETROIT — Tensions among progressives over the Israel-Hamas war turned physical during an event last weekend for U.S. Rep. Shri Thanedar, highlighting deep divisions that could spell trouble for Democrats come fall.

A group of 20 to 30 pro-Palestinian protesters disrupted a Dec. 16 private holiday party of around 200 hosted by the 13th Congressional District Democratic Party. Demonstrators with the Palestinian Youth Movement and Party for Socialism and Liberation entered the event at a bar and confronted Thanedar, D-Detroit, over his support for Israel. 

A Democratic activist, Bobbie Johnson of Detroit, was hospitalized and suffered two black eyes during the fracas, and videos posted to social media depicted a brawl that started when party attendees tried to remove protesters who were chanting and pounding on windows.

As pro-Palestinian demonstrations become more vocal and persistent, the issue has Democrats in a tight spot. Michigan is home to 90,000 Jewish residents and more than 300,000 residents of Middle Eastern descent

Both are reliable Democratic blocs, but there is little middle ground in the war. Some Arab-American leaders are threatening to withhold support for President Joe Biden in the 2024 election over his support for the Israeli government. 

At a rally last month in Detroit, demonstrators chanted, “Biden, Biden, you can’t hide. We charge you with genocide.”

“The tension here is even heightened more than maybe any other metro area in the country,” state Sen. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, who is Jewish, told Bridge Michigan Monday.

A November poll of Michigan Democrats from the Washington, D.C.-based Democratic research firm Lake Research Partners found that a majority support a ceasefire, particularly among Arab and Muslim American voters and voters under 30. 

A separate poll for the Arab American Institute showed Biden’s approval ratings among Arab Americans nationally dropped from 59 percent in 2020 to 17 percent this year. 

Metro Detroit has the largest population of Arabic speakers in any U.S. metro area, and voters in Arab-American counties favored Biden — and down-ballot Democrats — by more than 70 percent of the vote in 2020.

That margin helped propel Biden to win Michigan by 154,000 votes, but current polls show him trailing Republican challengers including former President Donald Trump and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.

“I do believe that the Israeli war has taken a toll on his numbers,” said Bernie Porn, president of polling firm EPIC-MRA. 

Protest turned confrontation

Sammie Lewis, a Detroit activist, described the divisions over Israel and Hamas as generational. Many Democrats like Thanedar and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer have long supported Israel, while progressives typically favor Palestinian independence. 

“Our perspective is the older Black people who are more conservative Democrats in the 13th District, they don't represent Detroit,” Lewis said. 

“They are bourgeoisie people who are complete traitors to the working class and the majority of Black people who are struggling. They don’t represent the majority of Black people in Detroit, they represent the system we’re fighting against.” 

Lewis was among the pro-Palestinian protestors who disrupted the Thanedar event last weekend. Jonathan Kinloch, chair of the 13th Congressional District Democratic Party, on Monday denounced the protestors as “rioters.” 

Speaking at a Monday media event, Kinloch said event organizers politely asked demonstrators to leave multiple times. Their refusal “angered the event attendees, who then forced the protestors” out of the restaurant to protect seniors and disabled attendees, Kinloch said.

Event attendee Valeria Berra said she was shoved against the bar by a man who “initiated” the violence. Fellow attendee Sterling Jackson said he and his brother made the first move to push out protestors when they refused to leave. 

“I started it because I couldn’t believe they were doing this and nobody was doing anything,” Jackson said.

Lewis, the protestor, said the demonstration was peaceful until Democratic attendees started pushing. Lewis, whose glasses broke in the fray, said protestors were given “no warning” before being shoved. 

“We were met with violence for calling for an end to genocide,” Lewis said. “One part of our messaging is the Democrats are taking a page out of the Zionist book — they are essentially assaulting us and playing the victim.” 

Jackson’s mother Bernice Smith, a former Detroit police commissioner, was captured on video hitting protestors with her cane. Smith said she acted in self-defense. Other attendees were “terrified” while waiting for police to arrive, she said. 

Thanedar said he was awakened later that night to the sound of honking cars and protestors chanting outside his home. He said neighbors called the police, but the protestors left before authorities arrived. 

Kinloch, who said the holiday gathering was intended to focus on Democratic unity, acknowledged the party is divided on Israel. 

“It’s not productive,” Kinloch said. “At the end of the day, I’ve got a whole bunch of Black issues, a whole bunch of issues where people can only try to have conversations. I have great conversations with Arab communities, even after what happened Saturday.”

    After getting hurt in the melee, Johnson is home from the hospital and said many issues are important to Detroiters besides the Middle East. 

    “I live in a community that’s diverse, I do a lot of work in the Muslim community,” Johnson said. “It’s unreal. Right now, a lot of us are going through a lot of things. Black people care about what’s happening over there. I have nothing against Muslims. I just don’t see why (they decided to protest) in Detroit.” 

      Controversy in Congress

      Detroit’s two members of Congress have polar opposite views on the war in Gaza — and both will likely have to answer for their positions in primary challenges come 2024. 

      U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib is the only Palestinian American in Congress and one of only two Muslims in the chamber. Vocal in her support of Palestinian independence and a ceasefire, she’s been consistently critical of Biden’s handling of the war and support to Israel.

      Thanedar’s stance has evolved; as a member of the Michigan Legislature, he supported a resolution that labeled Israel as an apartheid state and called for ending U.S. military funding to the Jewish state.

      Man stands in front of flag at a podium
      U.S. Rep. Shri Thanedar, D-Detroit, held a Dec. 18, 2023, media event to address a clash between Wayne County Democrats and pro-Palestinian protesters. (BridgeDetroit photo by Malachi Barrett)

      In Congress, he’s become a staunch supporter of Israel and traveled there this year with a group affiliated with the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The pro-Israel lobbying organization in 2022 funded Thanedar’s primary opponent, former state Sen. Adam Hollier, who is preparing to challenge him again. 


      Thanedar opposed supporting a potential ceasefire when asked Monday. 

      “The focus needs to be eliminating Hamas and a ceasefire will not accomplish that,” Thanedar said. 

      “I did ask for a humanitarian pause so we can get critical supplies (like) food, essential things, because I do support that. A ceasefire is basically saying to Hamas that what they did (attacking Israel on Oct. 7) was OK, and we won’t punish them anymore. That will just give them time to regroup and this will keep happening.” 

      The Detroit City Council passed a resolution calling for a ceasefire in November. Kinloch is also a Wayne County commission member and says he plans to support a similar resolution before the panel this week.

      Thanedar said he’s spoken with Muslim leaders and is committed to hold a town hall in 2024 to discuss his position with constituents. Thanedar said he’s received thousands of letters from pro-Palestinian Americans. It hasn’t changed his support for Israel. 

      “My position is that Hamas need to be eliminated from the face of this Earth,” Thanedar said.


      Advocates with the Islamic Center of Detroit and Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations have called for Michigan Muslims to abandon support for Biden’s reelection.

      Thanedar said he’s unsure how the frustration with Biden will impact his campaign.

      “The election is almost a year away, so I don't think we are focused on that as much,” Thanedar said.

      Meanwhile, pro-Israel political groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee are taking steps to support primary challengers to Tlaib and other officeholders critical of the Israeli government.  

      Two Democratic U.S. Senate candidates in Michigan, actor Hill Harper and business owner Nasser Beydoun, said they were approached by a donor they said was connected to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee who offered $20 million for them to drop their Senate bids and challenge Tlaib. Both declined. 

      The U.S. House last month voted to censure Tlaib for her comments on the Israel-Hamas war, particularly for using footage in a social media post of a crowd chanting “from the river to the sea” during a pro-Palestinian protest. 

      Many Jewish people, including Moss and Attorney General Dana Nessel, called the phrase inflammatory and antisemitic and refers to pushing Jews out of Israel. (Palestinians say it refers to independence.)

      On Monday, Moss told Bridge that he and others in Tlaib’s district feel “we have absolutely gone unheard” in Congress. 


      “This particular episode was really the first big test of, ‘How is she going to represent the voices of our district that she chose to run in?” Moss said, noting, “we'll see what happens between now and the filing deadline” when asked whether he was aware of any primary challengers coming forward.

      Tlaib said on the House floor that she would “not be silenced” and said “the cries of the Palestinian and Israeli children sound no different to me.” 

      “The idea that criticizing the government of Israel is antisemitic sets a very dangerous precedent, and it’s being used to silence diverse voices speaking up for human rights across our nation,” she said. 

      Divisions in Legislature

      At the state level, Michigan Democrats have clashed over how and whether to weigh in on the issue.

      The state Senate on Oct. 18 adopted a bipartisan resolution sponsored by Moss to condemn Hamas’ killing of hundreds of civilians on Oct. 7, support the Israeli government’s right to defend itself and call for the release of hostages and safety of innocent civilians. 

      A similar resolution was introduced in the state House, but ultimately was not taken up for a vote by Democratic leaders — a decision legislative Republicans criticized.

      “The entire way that this has been handled by our Legislature is just a mess, and it’s disappointing,” said Rep. Bill Schuette, R-Midland. 

      House Majority Floor Leader Abraham Aiyash, D-Hamtramck, told reporters at the time that if the Legislature was going to condemn terror, “we have to call out and condemn the apartheid regime, we have to call out and condemn the violence, we have to call out and condemn the occupation.”

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