Detroit – While wild claims of moral equivalency between Hezbollah terrorism and Israeli self-defense are fashionable these days among Arab leaders and liberal journalists, it is not something one hopes to hear in the halls of Congress. This week, however, Michigan’s most senior congressman, Democrat John Dingell, created a firestorm of controversy by declaring himself ambivalent about which side he was on in the current Mideast showdown.
”I don’t take sides for or against Hezbollah, or for or against Israel,” Dingell said in response to a question from a Detroit TV reporter.
Dingell’s extraordinary comments once again called into question Democratic leaders’ commitment to the War on Terror — but also highlighted the strong, pro-Hezbollah feelings of many Arab Americans, thousands of whom live in Dingell’s district.
Dingell’s troubles began in late July when he was one of only a handful of congressmen to vote against a House resolution supporting Israel. His vote was largely ignored by the mainstream media, but his Sunday-TV comments caught fire in the blogosphere. By Tuesday, Dingell was forced into “Mel Gibson mode” — desperately reaching out to local Jewish leaders to explain his actions.
Writing in the Detroit News, Dingell boasted of his pro-Israel resume, including his support for aid to Israel, America’s “moral imperative” to defend Israel, and his firm belief “that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization.”
But in an interview with the Detroit Free Press, Dingell also defended his vote against the House resolution. “His remarks and his decision,” reported the Free Press, had to be taken in the context of his “consideration of his responsibilities to the tens of thousands of Arab Americans he represents. . . (many of them) Lebanese Americans with roots in the Shia community of Lebanon.”
Significantly, Dingell’s district west of Detroit includes the town of Dearborn, home of one of this country’s largest Arab populations.
Since Israel’s response to Hezbollah’s cross-border kidnapping of Israeli soldiers, Dearborn’s streets have been alive with pro-Hezbollah demonstrations and fiery rhetoric from its community leaders.
The biggest of those protests was a 10,000-strong march on July 18. Speaker after speaker took the stage to denounce Israel before the cheering throng.
“This is terror,” cried Osama Siblani of the Congress of Arab-American Organizations. “We know that the president is being bought by the Zionist lobby. We know that the Congress is being bought by the Zionist lobby.”
At one point, a speaker held up a portrait of Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah as the crowd roared its approval. “The U.S. is just as guilty as Israel is. History will not forgive, nor will it ever forget, these crimes,” said Rana Abbas-Chami, deputy director of the Michigan Chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
On the airwaves, in the streets, the anti-Israel rhetoric continues unabated. Imad Hamad, head of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, on July 24 decried Israel’s “genocide against the Lebanese people.” Concluded Nassar Beydoun, chairman of the Arab Chamber of Commerce, last weekend: “As the onslaught continues, you see Hezbollah gaining the moral support of this community.”
Passion for outlaw causes is no stranger to Michigan.
For example, when Michigan native Tim McVeigh bombed the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, many Michigan militia members cheered him as a symbol of resistance against a federal government they claimed had abused its power in Waco and Ruby Ridge.
But no congressman equivocated out of “consideration of his responsibilities” to his pro-McVeigh constituents as Dingell has done with Hezbollah supporters.
With emotions running so high, this is a time for leadership by congressmen like Dingell, as other members of Detroit’s diverse community look on nervously at the pro-Hezbollah demonstrations.
“No one wanted this war,” Wendy Wagenheim, president of the Jewish Community Council, told the Free Press. “And certainly, emotions are running very high at this point. But there is nothing that will be served by importing the tensions apparently in the Middle East to metropolitan Detroit.”
Watching a 50-year congressional veteran like Dingell spin his way through the Lebanon crisis this week has been painful to watch. This should be his moment of leadership. This should be his moment to explain why it’s important that all Americans pick the right side. That Dingell is squandering this moment calls into question whether Democratic leaders — outside say, Joe Lieberman, who some prominent Dems are actively working to defeat — understand what is at stake in this global war on terror.
– Henry Payne is a freelance writer in Detroit and editorial cartoonist for the Detroit News.