On Thursday, August 21, 2008, one of the country’s wealthiest communities will celebrate the Nakba–the violent ethnic cleansing and colonization of Palestine in 1948–in a poor neighborhood in Detroit. And if all goes well, a large group of folks, representing metro Detroit’s large Black and Arab communities and other Palestinian solidarity activists, will be on hand to nonviolently send the message that triumphal celebrations of racism and genocide will not go unchallenged in Detroit.
Detroit’s State Fair neighborhood is named after the entity that dominates its landscape–the state-owned Michigan State Fair and Exposition Center (MSFEC). Last year, the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit (JFMD) finalized a contract with the State of Michigan for the use of the fairgrounds. The “contract” was memorialized in a letter, a copy of which was obtained through the Michigan Freedom of Information Act.
The Jewish Federation was granted a no risk sweetheart deal for its “Fair to Remember,” part of its year-long “IsraelSixty” campaign celebrating the creation of Israel in 1948. The contract provides that “All of the normal operations of the Fair shall be available for use by the patrons of the JFMD including games, rides, and exhibitions.” If no one shows up for the Federation’s event, the Federation pays nothing, no deposit is forfeited, no cancellation fee is lost, and the MSFEC earns nothing while incurring all of the costs associated with running the fair. All the risk is assumed by the MSFEC, a state body.
And no other fair-goers will pick up any part of the tab because the contract provides “that the use of the Fair by JFMD shall be exclusive and that no individuals that are not the invitees of JFMD … shall be allowed access to the Fair.” As the Jewish Federation brags on its web site: “We will have exclusive use of the State Fairgrounds (including rides and attractions) the day before it opens to the general public, which allows us to ‘Israelize’ the State Fair.” The JFMD encourages people to contact their “Israelization team” with ideas about how to transform the fairgrounds. Palestinians and their friends know what loss and suffering the “Israelization” of Palestine in 1948 and 1967 has meant for the “people of the land” (Ezra 9:1-2).
This is an apartheid fair to celebrate the creation of an apartheid state and most local kids and their families will just have to wait for the Michigan State Fair to open to the general public. That is, until the day after the Jewish community and its invited friends have enjoyed their “Fair of Shame,” as some Detroit area activists are calling it. But those kids will have fewer days to enjoy the fair. MSFEC General Manager Steven Jenkins signed off on the JFMD deal just five days before he announced at the MSFEC Board of Directors’ November 19, 2007, meeting that the number of days the Michigan State Fair would be open to the general public would be cut from thirteen in 2007 to eleven in 2008.
Usually, the exclusive use of a venue entails a premium price for such a privilege but the Jewish Federation is paying no such premium. The funding mechanism provided by the contract is a deeply discounted ticket scheme that amounts to a de facto state subsidy for the Jewish Federation. General admission tickets charged by the MSFEC to the general public are $10.00 and $5.00 for children (aged 3-12) and for seniors (aged 62 and older). Children under three years of age are admitted free of charge. The MSFEC is charging the Jewish Federation only $6.00 for the first 4,000 tickets, $5.00 for the next 2,000, and $4.00 for each ticket sold thereafter. According to its web site, the JFMD is expecting 15,000 people to attend the Fair of Shame. This is not an unreasonable expectation as there are 78,000 people living in Jewish households in metro Detroit, according to the 2007 American Jewish Year Book. A further attraction is the closing ceremony of the Jewish-only Maccabi Games, which will take place in the evening at the Fair of Shame. If the JFMD gets only 15,000 attendees and they fit the demographic profile of the metro Detroit Jewish community then the contractual ticket discount will, in effect, provide the JFMD with a state subsidy of about $54,000.
In a recent year, according to the 2007 American Jewish Year Book, the JFMD raised more money than any of the 55 other Jewish Federations in the country, “with about $35,000,000 being raised from approximately 30,000 households.” This fund raising acumen is on display in the sweetheart deal of a contract but they have gone one better than that. The JFMD is charging $15.95 for general admission and $12.95 for children (aged 3-12). Seniors pay general admission and, presumably, children under three are admitted free. Under this scheme, if the JFMD gets only 15,000 attendees and they fit the demographic profile of the metro Detroit Jewish community, the Federation stands to have gross revenues of $159,000. Of course, if they go over 15,000 attendees the state subsidy and their gross revenues will be even larger but even if they fall short they will never lose money on the deal.
But the sweetheart deal doesn’t stop there. For midway rides the MSFEC charges the general public $15.00 on Thursdays for unlimited ride wristbands. The contract calls for the Jewish Federation invitees to pay the general public price for only the first 8,000 wristbands purchased. The price drops to $12.00 for the next 4,000 and then $10.00 for everyone thereafter. The Federation has chosen to front load the price of admission and charge only $9.00 each for ride wristbands. So, they will lose money on the midway ride wristbands but not enough to seriously cut into the revenues they stand to make on admissions.
Furthermore, there are at least two other ways in which the contract amounts to a sweetheart deal. First, the general public is charged $7.00 for parking, the contract calls for the Jewish Federation to pay $5.00 and they are charging $6.00, for an extra dollar of profit on every vehicle.
Finally, the MSFEC is providing “security comparable to any other normal operating day of the Fair” for free. The JFMD’s only other contractual cost is an unspecified amount for adding the Fair to the Federation’s general liability policy for one day. If they want extra security they have to pay for it but, fortunately for them, they have taxpayer money flowing into their coffers for that, too. Last year, the Michigan State Police Emergency Management and Homeland Security Division awarded over half-a-million dollars in federal funds for terrorism preparedness to eight Michigan non-profit organizations. More than half of the organizations to receive the funds were Jewish and the JFMD received the fourth largest award, $97,127.
Some of the JFMD’s publicity for the “Fair of Shame” is even free, such as a fluff article in the Detroit News on July 14, 2008. Thus, a celebration of the violent ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948 has been turned into a state-subsidized fund raising event for an already wealthy community.
Just how wealthy the expected Nakba celebrants are can be seen by contrasting them with the general US population and the State Fair neighborhood, one of Detroit’s more diverse, but still majority Black, neighborhoods. According to the “Detroit Area Jewish Population Study, 2005,” sponsored by the JFMD, the median income of Detroit area Jewish households was $85,000 and median housing value was $300,000. The national figures for the general US population are: Median Household Income – $45,000, Median Housing Value – $156,000. The comparable figures for the people living in the State Fair neighborhood are even more striking: Median Household Income – $24,016, Median Home Sale Value – $73,000.
These wide economic gaps are undoubtedly, in no small part, a result of past and ongoing anti-Black racism in America. For instance, the fairgrounds are not far from Detroit’s own apartheid wall, also known as the Wailing Wall. Detroit’s wall was built circa 1940 and not unlike the apartheid wall that snakes through the West Bank, it was constructed with federal backing over the objections of the Black community in order to separate an existing Black neighborhood from a new White and, according to two local informants, Jewish subdivision. The remarks of African Methodist Episcopal Church Bishop E. Earl McCloud, Jr. come to mind. Seeing the Israeli apartheid wall in 2006, he said, “I’m surprised by the blatant attempt of Israelis to separate themselves. I’ve also been on the backside of fear of Black people and it makes me sad to see this wall and to hear so many say this wall has been built with money I have sent to the U.S. government in tax dollars.”
The economic disparities described above are also strongly related to power disparities. These disparities result in billions of dollars of direct US federal aid to Israel–more than $3.1 billion every year to Israel, on average $6.8 million per day–while Detroit languishes. This, of course, doesn’t include any of the hundreds of billions of dollars malignly misappropriated for invading and occupying Iraq just since 2003. This is a war that even conservatives/centrists such as Colin Powell, Scott Ritter, John J. Mearsheimer, and Stephen M. Walt suggest was, at least partly, a war for Israel.
The Jewish Federation’s triumphal celebration of racism and genocide would be a travesty anywhere but such a display of wealth and power is even more egregious in a place like the State Fair neighborhood. Further, it flies in the face of proud examples of anti-Zionism from Detroit’s history. Malcolm X, who spent some of his formative years in Michigan and was for a time known as “Detroit Red,” visited Gaza in 1964 and repeatedly spoke out against Zionism. He was quoted on Sept. 17, 1964 in The Egyptian Gazette as follows:
Did the Zionists have the legal or moral right to invade Arab Palestine, uproot its Arab citizens from their homes and seize all Arab property for themselves just based on the “religious” claim that their forefathers lived there thousands of years ago? Only a thousand years ago the Moors lived in Spain. Would this give the Moors of today the legal and moral right to invade the Iberian Peninsula, drive out its Spanish citizens, and then set up a new Moroccan nation … where Spain used to be, as the European Zionists have done to our Arab brothers and sisters in Palestine? …
In short the Zionist argument to justify Israel’s present occupation of Arab Palestine has no intelligent or legal basis in history … not even in their own religion. Where is their Messiah?
On November 1, 1970, an “Appeal by Black Americans Against United States Support of the Zionist Government of Israel” was published in the New York Times by the Committee of Black Americans for Truth About the Middle East. The statement was signed by Detroit civil rights activists Grace Lee Boggs, James Boggs, and the Reverend Albert B. Cleage Jr., founder of the Shrine of the Black Madonna. Among other things, the appeal expressed “complete solidarity with our Palestinian brothers and sisters”, noted the alliance of apartheid South Africa and Israel, and quoted Yassir Arafat as follows: “Our political vision for a free Palestine is a democratic, secular, non-racial state where all Palestinians–Christians, Jews, and Muslims–will have equal rights.”
Recognizing the interrelatedness of all forms of oppression, Black, Arab, and other justice and peace activists in metro Detroit have joined together in an ad hoc committee to build on this past and to answer the 2008 call of Palestinian civil society to “Boycott the ‘Israel at 60′ Celebrations!” The call says, in part:
How can you celebrate? The establishment of the State of Israel sixty years ago was a settler-colonial project that systematically and violently uprooted more than 750 thousand Palestinian Arabs from their lands and homes. Sixty years ago, Zionist militias and gangs ransacked Palestinian properties and destroyed hundreds of Palestinian villages. How can people of conscience celebrate this catastrophe?
Israel at 60 is a state that continues to deny Palestinian refugees their UN-sanctioned right to return to their homes and receive compensation, simply because they are “non-Jews.” It still illegally occupies Palestinian and other Arab lands, in violation of numerous UN resolutions. It persists in its blatant denial of fundamental Palestinian human rights, in contravention of international humanitarian law and human rights conventions. It still subjects its own Palestinian citizens to a system of institutionalized discrimination, strongly reminiscent of the defunct apartheid regime in South Africa. And Israel gets away with all this, thanks to the unprecedented immunity granted to it by the unlimited and munificent US and European economic, diplomatic, political, and academic support.
The organizers of the protest against the Fair of Shame are calling on other justice and peace activists to turn out or help publicize and support the August 21st protest against the JFMD’s planned celebration of the Nakba. The protest is planned for 5 PM to 7 PM at the Michigan State Fair & Exposition Center, 1120 W. State Fair Ave. (at Woodward) in Detroit. Meet in the grassy area just north of the SmartBus State Fair Transit Center off Woodward Ave. For more information write to [email protected] or go to nextyearinalquds.blogspot.com.
About the author: Michelle J. Kinnucan’s writing has previously been published in CommonDreams.org, Nonviolent Resister, Agenda, Critical Moment, and elsewhere. Her 2004 investigative research on the Global Intelligence Working Group was featured in Censored 2005: The Top 25 Censored Stories (Seven Stories Pr., 2004) and she contributed a chapter to Finding the Force of the Star Wars Franchise (Peter Lang, 2006).
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2. Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. “A Fair to Remember.” Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. 14 May 2008. < http://jewishdetroit.org/israelsixty/a-fair-to-remember.asp>.
3. Michigan State Fair and Exposition Center Authority. “Minutes of the Michigan State Fair & Exposition Center Authority Board of Directors held on November 19, 2007.” Michigan.gov. 17 June 2008. < http://www.michigan.gov/mistatefair/0,1607,7-109-37058-181637--,00.html>.
4. Michigan State Fair and Exposition Center Authority. “The Great 2008 Michigan State Fair.” Michigan.gov. 16 June 2008.
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