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Zionism and Palestinian Solidarity in Grand Rapids: A brief history

May 14, 2021

It’s hard to watch recent news reports about the brutality of the Israeli Apartheid State and their treatment of Palestinians.

Some of the best news and analysis of what Israel is doing to the Palestinians can be found on the independent site Electronic Intifada, a site that has been reporting on Israeli policies for the past 20 years.

One issue that has again gained some attention because of the escalation of Israeli brutality, is the level of US funding to Israel. In fact, Israel is the number one recipient of US aid and has been for decades, providing on average about $3 Billion a year. However, we rarely hear about this fact, because every US administration since Nixon has aggressively supported Israel, with almost unanimous support from the US Congress. 

Those who question US support of Israel are often branded as anti-semitic. However, being critical of the State of Israel or more specifically of Zionist policies, is not anti-semitism. A great resource on understanding how criticism of Israel is equated with anti-semitism, is the documentary film entitled, The Occupation of the American Mind

Israel’s Public Relations War in the United States, produced by the Media Education Foundation.

Zionism and Palestinian Solidarity in Grand Rapids

Since the 1980s there has been numerous efforts and campaigns in support of the Palestinian people, beginning with the Middle East Education Project, which was a branch of the Institute for Global Education. 

In 2001, the local Arab community paid for 15 people to rent a van and travel to Washington, DC, to participate in the massive US Palestinian Solidarity march. Those who went from Grand Rapids, produced a short documentary on the march and the Teach-In that was held over a 3 day period.

In 2002, organizers host a Teach-In on Israel/Palestine at Aquinas College, which featured the founder of the site Electric Intifada. While the Teach-in brought out nearly 150 people, it did not result in greater Palestinian Solidarity, primarily because the US was already making plans to bomb Iraq, which is where people directed their attention.

Beginning in 2009, the Arab American Association of West Michigan was formed as a way for the local Arab community to respond to Israeli attacks on Palestinians, like the rally we reported on in 2010.

However, whenever these campaigns or action are organized, there are often counter-protests coming from the pro-Israeli community, often organized by the Jewish Federation in Grand Rapids. 

There are also lots of Christians who defend Israel no matter how often they brutalize Palestinians. For example, a church hosted a speaking tour organized by Stand With Us, which we also reported on in October of 2010. Our story was in sharp contrast to the story that the Grand Rapids Press ran one week later, which we also reported on.

In fact, the local news media often gives lots of attention to pro-Israeli events, like the one that was held in Rosa Parks Circle in the summer of 2011, which featured numerous speakers, including then US Representative Peter Hoekstra.

There are also other pro-Israeli connections in the Greater Grand Rapids area, such as the Right Place Inc. The Right Place Inc has worked to bring Israeli companies to West Michigan and their former CEO was part of a group called the Michigan Israel Business Bridge. In the Spring of 2016, there was an action as part of the international Israeli Apartheid Week in Grand Rapids, where the Right Place Inc was targeted. 

Beginning in 2015, the now defunct group Healing Children of Conflict, decided to work on a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign in Grand Rapids. The BDS Campaign is an international campaign organized by Palestinians that is model after the South African Anti-Apartheid Campaign, which the City of Grand Rapids participated in during the early 1980s.

In late 2015, Healing Children of Conflict presented a resolution to the Grand Rapids City Commission to get the City of Divest from any companies benefiting from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. George Heartwell was Mayor of Grand Rapids at that time, but he would not take a position on the matter. 

The local BDS campaign then met with the incoming Mayor of Grand Rapids, Rosalynn Bliss in early 2016, but Bliss did not want to consider a City resolution to divest from companies profiting off of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. The Mayor’s only argument was that she did not want to offend the Jewish community here in Grand Rapids.

Those involved with the BDS campaign decided to then meet with the Community Relations Commission a few months later in 2016. There were productive meetings, which eventually led to a formal draft of a resolution, which read in part:


1. The City of Grand Rapids, Michigan, divest itself and/or make no further business dealings or purchases from four companies due to their serious human rights violations in the ongoing illegal Israeli Occupation of Palestinian Lands until those companies have ceased their complicit activities or the Israeli Government has ceased its policy of occupation and practice of apartheid. The four companies are: Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, G4S, and Motorola Solutions.

2. Denounces the use of violence as a means to resolving the conflict between the Palestinian people and the state of Israel,

3. Recognizes that the Jewish people and Judaism are not synonymous with the government of Israel or its policies.

You can read the entire 4 page proposed resolution here.

While the Grand Rapids Community Relations Commission was in agreement with the proposed resolution, there was no movement forward with the resolution because members of the Community Relations Commission felt that there were more pressing local issues to deal with, specifically racism in Grand Rapids. However, what people failed to understand is that these issues are connected, which is exactly why the international BDS Campaign has been in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter Movement and the Movement for Black Lives has fully endorsed the BDS Campaign for Palestinian justice.

It is critical for people in Grand Rapids to speak out against the Israeli Apartheid and stand in solidarity with Palestinians, just as people in Grand Rapids have done for decades. 

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