DEARBORN — The kept-secret recent visit of State Senator Sylvia Santana to Israel sparked widespread outrage and disappointment among local Arab Americans, who makes up about 65 percent of the district she represents in the Lansing, which includes the cities of Dearborn and Dearborn Heights, as well as parts of Allen Park and Detroit.
The visit prompted Dearborn Heights City Councilman Mo Baydoun to cancel a meet and greet gathering that the Democratic senator was scheduled to host last Monday at the Custard Company location in Dearborn, which Baydoun co-owns.
After the revelation of Santana’s visit to Israel, The Arab American News Publisher Osama Siblani criticized her in a post on his Facebook page, as she’d decided to travel to Israel without consulting or informing her constituents and supporters in the Arab American community, describing her trip to Tel Aviv as a “slap in the face to Arab Americans.”
Siblani stated in his Facebook post — last Saturday — that Santana’s visit to Israel shocked the Arab American community in Dearborn and Dearborn Heights, and that this trip constitutes a blow to Arab Americans who respect the senator and have always supported her political career. He pointed out that the majority of voters are in her district hail from southern Lebanon, which suffered for decades from the Israeli aggression and occupation up until the war on Lebanon in the summer of 2006.
Santana quickly and swiftly apologized to the Arab and Muslim American communities in Dearborn and Dearborn Heights via a statement she posted on her Facebook and X (formerly Twitter) pages.
“After speaking with friends and members of the community I recognize my presence on this trip has sparked anger and disappointment by many in the Arab/Muslim community,” Santana wrote. “For this I truly apologize, seek your forgiveness and hope that you will understand that I had no malicious intent. There is no perfect combination of words that I can offer that truly reflects the feelings in my heart. My only goal was to learn about this region of our world and to improve my understanding of matters related to Michigan.”
Santana added that she “should have exercised better discretion and engaged in a different protocol with community leaders to seek their counsel prior to the trip.”
“The news about Santana’s visit to Israel shocked and angered the Arab American community, to say the least,” Siblani wrote on Facebook about six hours before Santana’s post. “Santana’s visit constitutes a slap in the face to the Arab American community who has been supportive and respectful to the senator.”
Santana’s trip came amid rising tensions in Israel, where violence has escalated since the country’s hawkish government took charge in December. Jewish settlers have attacked Palestinian villages and the Israeli military has used air strikes on the Jenin refugee camp.
Santana said she’s learned a lesson.
“I understand now more than before the level of pain, sensitivity and deep rooted emotions that this trip has produced,” she said. “This experience will always stay with me and will help guide my work in Lansing.”
It’s offensive,” Siblani told the Free Press on Monday. “We’re upset about it.”
Santana did not notify Arab American leaders or others about her visit until it became known on social media in recent days, Siblani said.
Activist Hussein Dabajeh, legislative director for Wayne County Commissioner Sam Baydoun, whose district includes Dearborn, commented in response to her apology on Facebook:
“You have many friends in the Arab American community that you could have talked to BEFORE committing to this trip and we could have talked to you about many reasons why you should not have taken this trip. … I will never vote for you again.”
Santana meets with Arab American leaders
On Wednesday, Senator Santana met with Arab American leaders and elected officials at the offices of The Arab American News in Dearborn. During the meeting, she reiterated her apology to the community and listened to several personal stories about the Israeli atrocities that have been committed against the Palestinians and the Lebanese during its occupation of south Lebanon for more than three decades.
An Arab American leader who was born and raised in the U.S. told Santana that both of his grandparents were killed by Israel during its war on Lebanon in 2006. He told her that the bodies of his grandparents remained for several days under the rubble of their destroyed home and no one was able to remove them due to the Israel relentless bombing.
Another Arab American leader told Santana that during the Israeli bombing of the village of Qana in south Lebanon in April of 1996, two children from Dearborn were killed by the Israeli bombing of a designated U.N. safe haven compound. More than 100 Lebanese were killed in the U.N. compound as well.
Santana listened attentively to the stories of atrocities committed by the Israeli occupied forces in Lebanon and in the occupied Palestinian territories.
She recommended that members of the community should organize an education seminars and share these stories with other elected officials, in case they were invited to visit Israel in the future.
Santana didn’t deny that this was not the only visit she made to Israel. In fact it is the second “kept-secret” visit that the senator has made to Israel.
She was told that Amnesty International and other world human rights organizations have designated Israel as an apartheid state.
Santana said that she didn’t meet with any members of the American Israel Public Affairs Council (AIPAC), nor has she accepted any financial contributions from them or any other Israeli lobby.