Resisting Dispossession: Palestine and Detroit, 1967

By Julia Kassem


The summer chaos of 1967 raged outside Detroit corner stores while the third Arab-Israeli War exploding on the other side of the world. The Detroit Rebellion and the Six-Day War were the result of campaigns designed over the course of decades to disempower these communities. Segregation and exploitation of Detroit’s African-American community mirrored the gradual yet violent theft of Palestinian land abroad. Many political organizations emerged to protest these assaults. In the beginning of the 20th Century, organizations thrived in Detroit, with the Nation of Islam and Garvey movements paralleling the anti-colonial sentiments of al-Nahda, an awakening of Arabist identity during the fall of the Ottoman empire, which solidified into pan-Arabism in the Nasser era.


Mid-century Cold War anxieties fueled Western world fears of an independent and economically self-determined Arab and Muslim world.  Within the United States, this same fear was expressed in the intensifying, systematic efforts to oppress Black communities. As the city with the highest African-American home and property ownership in the United States, whose movements reflected a deep and growing aversion to White supremacist subjugation, Detroit was a prime target.


My first efforts to understand the 1967 events required me to reexamine references such as “clashes between settlers and Palestinians” or Detroit “rioters.” That language did not reveal to me that these events were, in fact, the result of racialized articulations of power— violence levied upon oppressed communities. The United States and Israel shared histories that rested upon white supremacy and colonization, and in the summer of 1967, Detroiters and  Palestinians fought back against the hegemonic aggression of these two governments.


State violence helps draw and define the parameters of law and land. Palestinians’ movement from one area to another is impeded and controlled by Israeli checkpoints, stations where profiling and harassment are carried out.  The United States and Israel, collaborating in police training and intelligence sharing, have taken advantage of their partnership to suppress and brutalize communities. An example of their current collaboration is the hiring by the Detroit Police Department of Israeli Defense Force for expertise in expanding stop-and-frisk tactics in Detroit. Dan Gilbert, the subprime mortgage mogul and owner of Bedrock and Quicken Loans, is a supporter of the Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces, which gave him a philanthropy award in 2006. The inextricable connection between violence and power is apparent through Gilbert’s support of the IDF, financing the militaristic-driven destruction and theft of Palestine abroad parallels Detroit’s own orchestrated financial destruction. In 1967, Mayor Orville Hubbard ordered police to “shoot looters on sight” in the white suburban town of Dearborn, MI. Such normalization of state killing is mirrored by Israel’s routine executions and administrative detention of minors.


The corporate elite and White citizens began moving away from Detroit as early as the 1940s, while discriminating against African Americans and restricting their access to home ownership. The involuntary transfer of land from absentee landlords, the fellahin, to Israelis in Lebanon and in Palestine, facilitated subsequent expulsion of neighboring villages. Though 1967 was not the starting point for land injustice and theft, it was the catalyst for a full assault on Palestinian sovereignty.


Israel continues its legacy of land grabs, forcing generations of Palestinians into relocation and international dispersion, while in Detroit, gentrification displaces long-established, traditional neighborhoods. In cities like Acre, reserved as a designated historical site, Palestinians face eviction as a result of soaring rents from exploitative landlords.  There is a similar experience of uprooting for the nearly 200,000 Detroit residents displaced by foreclosures since 2002, due to illegally assessed property taxes or the negligence of absentee landlords.


Over 50 different laws have been enacted to disposses Palestinians of their land and human rights. The “Regularization Law” allows Israel to expropriate Palestinian land in the West Bank for Israeli settlements. Israel has legislated racism in its apartheid system. In Detroit, an overtly racist legacy has been sustained through land, property, and resource extortion.

Exile, expulsion, and loss are inherent aspects of the Arab narrative, salient in the nostalgic cadences of the legendary singer Fairuz, or the politically charged poetry of Darwish. And Detroiters, too, are no strangers to exile. Tax foreclosures, evictions, water shutoffs, and gentrification have catalyzed displacement in Detroit though spatial racism. These forms of oppression can be traced in the nation’s abhorrent history, founded and sustained upon land grabs, beginning with the decimation of the indigenous peoples and the appropriation of their land. Today Detroit is “exiled” from its own past, where community, agency, and a sense of self-determination fostered promise, hope, and pride. When philosopher Edward Said reminisced on the longing for return to one’s true home, an experience symbolized by a key in one hand and an olive branch in the other, he wrote:  “Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and the true home.”


By controlling the narrative, power elites are able to harness control of the land and resources. “A land without a people for a people without a land,” a Zionist saying, exhibits the same deceitful rhetoric as the “comeback of Detroit.” Eracing the presence of Detroit’s 80% African-American population, the controversial Bedrock advertisement in Downtown Detroit invites us to “See Detroit Like We Do.”  Somehow, we are to accept the narrative that African American Detroiters are to blame for blight, water shutoffs, and property tax foreclosures, when in reality, the corporate takeover of the city through emergency management is to blame for mismanagement, corruption, and blight. In mainstream narratives, Palestinian self-determination, likewise, is associated with incompetence, terrorism, misogyny and zealotry.  Such narratives demonize the African American and Arab responses to racism and Zionism.

As the historic identities of these communities are erased, their presence and humanity are denied. By reputing Detroit and Palestine to be banal and vacant, power elites are able to shape these regions to serve their benefit, rendering calls for social justice invalid.


“Existence is resistance,” a catchphrase associated with advocating for the Palestinian cause, is an approach taken by indigenous communities to fight back against their cultural, political, and economic removal.  Reclaiming land runs akin to reclaiming ownership of self and history. In rare cases, Palestinians have won the right to reclaim their land and legacy in the very courts instituted to usurp their land rights and liberties. A 2013 Israeli ruling permitted Palestinians to reclaim 170 acres in the village of Burka after they were militarily seized in 1978, a victory in lieu of the Palestinian right of return. In Detroit, groups and individuals have taken the initiative to reclaim houses and lots, and have advanced the urban gardening movement. These initiatives were aimed at self-determination and community reclamation, addressing problems induced by capitalism, such as  food insecurity and blight.


Conflicts of dispute and displacement revolve around the question of who owns the land.  My mother repeated to me, “You sell your land, you sell your honor.” Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata said, “The land belongs to those who work it.” Clearly, Palestinian land belongs to the levant Arab farmers, cultivators of olives and za’atar, coping with severed water irrigation lines while the water runs full force on Israeli farms. Likewise, the land belongs to Detroiters, who have paid their taxes, dues, and trace their ancestry to farming and cultivation in the southern United States and, later, to building thriving communities in Detroit’s Black Bottom and Paradise Valley. The reclamation of sovereignty and ownership begins with grassroots resistance.


Julia Kassem is an economics and political science graduate from University of Michigan, Dearborn. Her work has appeared in Mondoweiss, ReORIENT, Michigan Radio, and WDET.


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