ANN ARBOR — Last week The Arab American News (TAAN) published a story about an Ann Arbor neighborhood petitioning to have one of its residents (who's also an activist supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement) remove an anti Israel flag from his property.
Residents complained it was a distraction in the quiet neighborhood. The flag, hung outside of the resident's house from a tree, featured the Israeli flag with the recognizable "no" symbol in red slashed across it.
This week I decided to visit the Ann Arbor neighborhood and talk to residents from the 11 households who signed the petition. Unfortunately, the response I received was nothing short of insulting.
Henry Herskovitz, the man responsible for the flag display, told us last week that his neighbors had been shunning him since the flag was put up in late May. During my trip out to the neighborhood, located on Mark Hannah's Place, Herskovitz was out of town and had temporarily taken down the display to avoid vandalism. Figuring it would be a good opportunity to speak to neighbors now that the flag was removed, it was surprising that I was met with resistance and intimidation.
Anyone who passes through the neighborhood on a typical day will see children quietly playing on their lawns, residents walking their dogs on the sidewalks, and neighbors chit-chatting on their front porches.
To start, I knocked on the door of one of the first residents in the neighborhood who signed the petition. The man who answered the door was mildly hesitant, but nonetheless was respectfully nice enough to tell me that the petition was a neighborhood effort, not spear headed by anyone in particular. He told me that he didn't want to go into detail, but suggested I should knock on other doors, as there might be other neighbors willing to talk.
While approaching the next household who signed the petition, there was a boy around seven or eight years old playing on the front lawn with his baseball. I asked him from a distance if he would grab his parents for me. The father who greeted me behind a screen door was cold, and as soon as I told him what newspaper I was with he quickly uttered that he wasn't interested and slammed the door in my face. I also noticed the child did not return outside to play, not even long after I left the property; as if I were some sort of threat to neighborhood safety.
I decided to go in front of Herskovitz's house to take some pictures, regardless of the flag having been temporarily removed. In the process, I could hear a man shouting.
"Hey, what do you think you're doing?" a statement I heard coming from a window from across the street. Afterward the shouting man, who appeared to be in his fifties, came out of his house and approached me with his dog, and asked the question again. I responded by saying I was covering the story about the petition that the neighborhood, including him, had signed. He asked me what paper I was from, and after he learned, he quickly waved his arms in a hesitant manner and blatantly said, "Nope… I don't want to speak to you guys."
Then he went back inside his home, slamming the door harder than necessary. I knocked on another door, a few houses down. The lady that answered was very polite at first, and again, as soon as I told her I worked for TAAN, her attitude quickly changed. "I'd rather not discuss this…goodbye," she said before slamming the door in my face. I received similar reactions from residents as I continued to knock on doors. I decided to call it quits at this point, because I began to feel unwelcomed. The residents had clearly taken a personal issue with TAAN.
The feeling I left the neighborhood with that day has been experienced by me and my colleagues at The Arab American News before, which is why I thought it was important to address the issue.
The bigger picture here is that Arab Americans are not too popular right now, and often as reporters for the largest Arab American paper in the country, TAAN's reporters fall victim to bias and misconceptions surrounding Arab and Muslim Americans in the mainstream media.
Often when people find out what paper we work for their attitudes change, and they make unnecessary or hurtful remarks.
TAAN is a part of ethnic media, and some people may perceive that as negative from our experience, although ethnic media continues to gain huge momentum. A majority of the events we cover are also covered by the mainstream media, and we believe we produce the same high quality news, while also presenting stories from unique angles. TAAN is widely known as an alternative to the mainstream media for covering important issues, and events the mainstream media too often ignores, as with this particular case regarding the anti-Israeli flag, which had not been reported by virtually all other media outlets.
The irony in all of this was that I originally wasn't too sure about Herskovitz's decision to display an anti-Israeli flag in front of his house, although I agree with his cause, because the move may have been too bold. I went to the neighborhood to hear the other side. But now it has become clearer to me why Herskovitz put the flag there in the first place. It was to open people's minds to a serious issue (Israel's continued occupation and brutal treatment of Palestinians), and also to build toward a much-needed dialogue with people like the residents who refused to speak with us this week.