Posted by on May 04, 2015 in News Clips

PATERSON — A throng of more than 600 sang the Palestinian anthem and cheered as the Palestinian flag was raised at Paterson City Hall on Sunday afternoon.

Women garbed in hijabs and embroidered dresses and men in keffiyehs participated in the third annual raising of the green, black, red and white flag, in an event sponsored by the Arab American Civic Organization.

The crowd waves Palestinian and American flags as Laila Ghannam, the governor of Ramallah, speaks during the ceremony on Sunday, May 3, 2015.
Kids wave Palestinian flags before the raising of the flag in front of Paterson's City Hall on Sunday, May 3, 2015. 

“Next year, we hope to have more cities doing this,” said Khader Abuassab, founder of the Paterson-based group, who says the Silk City is the first American city to host such an event.

Meanwhile, Paterson officials have designated this week Palestinian Heritage Week in the city that’s been dubbed “Little Ramallah” for its large Arab population.

There are no official statistics on the number of Palestinians in the area, but some city leaders estimate the Arab community at 20,000. South Paterson’s Main Street is teeming with Middle Eastern commerce, including Syrian and Lebanese bakeries and restaurants as well as groceries that sell Halal meat. And the city boasts of at least six mosques.

According to the Arab American Institute, Paterson is among the most popular destinations for Arab Americans, and New Jersey ranks fifth among Arab-American population centers. The Arab population in New Jersey has surpassed 240,000, according to estimates by the institute.

The flag-raising was attended by local, state and international political leaders, including the mayor, council members, freeholders, state Sen. Nellie Pou, Ramallah Gov. Laila Ghannam, and the Palestinian Authority’s permanent observer to the United Nations, Riyad Mansour. They all endured the bright sun to share congratulations and encouragement with the crowd, which overflowed onto Market Street.

“You are an outstanding example for Palestinian communities all over America,” Mansour said as the audience cheered and waved Palestinian flags. “Let them all do the same thing. You are setting a wonderful example. You are making a difference. You are advancing the cause of the Palestinian people.”

Mansour suggested Paterson create a sisterhood with the West Bank city of Ramallah, and, draping a black-and-white keffiyah around the neck of Paterson Mayor Joey Torres, he invited him to visit Ramallah. Torres said he hoped to work on the concept of making Ramallah a sister city.

It is not unusual for a city hall to hold a flag-raising for a particular ethnic or religious group. Torres noted that Paterson has numerous flag-raisings to recognize the diverse groups that populate the city. Turks, Haitians, and Peruvians are among those who have hoisted flags in front of Paterson City Hall.

For many participants, raising the Palestinian flag marks a significant event because it demonstrates the growing influence of the Arab community in Paterson, and its increasing political clout. “We are proud to have our political leaders hear our voice,” said Tariq Elsamma of Wayne, who believes there is an expanding roster of 60 mosques in the state. “They need to obey our needs because we are a large community.”

But some critics have questioned whether the flag-raising could be an attempt to promote an Islamic agenda or anti-Israel sentiment.

And speaker Khaled Abuassab’s assertion rankled some when he stated in Arabic that just because Jews were killed during the Holocaust doesn’t mean that “they should fix a mistake with a mistake. They shouldn’t do the same to us,” he said, referring to cases in which Israeli solders oust Palestinians from their homes or kill Palestinian children.

That statement led to criticism by Abe Foxman, a Bergen County resident and the National Director of the Anti-Defamation League. “It is disturbing that this annual event, meant to celebrate Paterson’s diversity and its Palestinian community, reportedly promotes divisiveness by giving a platform to speakers who go beyond the bounds of legitimate criticism of Israel and promote comparisons between Israel and Nazi Germany,” he said. “The presence of the mayor and other elected officials only lends credibility and legitimacy to these false comparisons and offensive remarks.”

He said many of the instances of Israeli military action against Palestinians are a direct result of attacks on Israel. “Where’s the condemnation of Palestinian terrorism?” he asked. .

Others had additional concerns. “The Palestinian Authority is not a democracy but a dictatorship that has not had elections since 2005,” said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, based in New York.

Despite such concerns, there was plenty of talk by speakers and participants about hopes for peace and dreams for the future.

Many came with their children. Moneer Simreen said he was concerned about passing on a strong sense of nationalism to the next generation. “Kids who were born here never knew about Palestine,” Simreen said. “We need to teach them about our country.”

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