Dearborn Arab-American community boycott blocks opening of 'Israeli' burger restaurant BurgerIM

Dearborn Arab-American community boycott blocks opening of 'Israeli' burger restaurant BurgerIM
A Lebanese-American businessman had planned to open a BurgerIM franchise in Dearborn, Michigan, but has since backed down after a sustained boycott campaign due to the company's Israeli links.
4 min read
25 July, 2019
The chain was founded in Tel Aviv but is now US-based [Instagram]

A Lebanese-American businessman says he has been forced to cancel the planned opening of an Israeli burger chain restaurant after outrage from the local Arab-American community.

Sam Zahr had planned to open a franchise of BurgerIM - an Israeli burger chain headquartered in California with restaurants spread across the United States - in two weeks time in Michigan state, the Detroit Free Press reported.

But the Lebanese-American businessman's plans derailed when Palestinian-American comedian and activist Amer Zahr, of no relation to Sam, launched a campaign to oppose the opening of an Israeli chain in a predominantly Arab neighbourhood last year.

The Michigan city of Dearborn has a large Arab-American community and is home to the largest mosque in the US. The city is also a centre for Arab and Muslim-American activism.

Outspoken Palestinian-American Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib hails from the nearby city of Detroit.

"Obviously the issue of Palestine is near and dear to the people of Dearborn. I wish that he had done more research and understood the sensitivity before bringing it into our community," Amer said.

"There are BurgerIMs on settlements. There are BurgerIMs [in] cities in Israel that are literally built on the ruins of Palestinian villages, where the people who got kicked out of those villages, are still alive today."

Pro-Palestine activists often target Israeli brands and Israel-linked companies as part of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) designed to apply pressure on Israel to end its long-running occupation of Palestine.

"2We are not boycotting Jewish companies or Jews, but boycotting Israeli businesses that support the economy of the Jewish state, which is suppressing Palestinian people," Amer told The Arab-American News last year. 

While the comedian and associate law professor initially called for dialogue with Sam, he explained that the local community would be "encouraged" to boycott the restaurant if plans went ahead.

But Sam argues that there is no clear connection between his business and Israel. 

Read more: What is BDS and why should you care?

"To me, a burger is not gonna make a difference. I don't care where it comes from, we're in America," he explained.

The Muslim-American restauranteur - who already owns one BurgerIM franchise elsewhere - says he has been targeted by the local community and his son has even been bullied at school over the issue.

During Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Sam's BurgerIM outpost set up a tent with free burgers outside of the planned restaurant location - but a Facebook post announcing the pop-up was littered with comments calling for a boycott. A separate Ramadan tent was vandalised, Sam said.

"Obviously no one should be bullied. No kid should be bullied, obviously. This is a political debate and a boycott is a political tool," Amer said.

"This is about raising awareness of the violations by Israel of international law."

Lawyers for BurgerIM reportedly sent Amer a cease and desist letter in May, calling his boycott campaign "defamatory".

"BurgerIM is not involved with Israel or any Israeli company whatsoever," the letter states, saying that the California-based franchise business is separate from the Tel Aviv-founded company.

"It is an American company with a great number of Arab-American franchisees."

But Sam this week said he "respected" the local community's opinion and had decided to back down over opening the Israeli chain in Dearborn, but would go forward with opening two more franchises elsewhere in Michigan.

"This isn't a time to celebrate or gloat," Amer wrote on Facebook. "It's a time to recognise what we can achieve when we collectively make our voices heard here in #Dearborn and #Michigan."