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Nadya Faulx/MEDILL

Pro-Palestinian activists protested across the street from the Thompson Center last Tuesday, where demonstrators and politicians had gathered for a  "Chicago Stands with Israel" rally.

Chicagoans divided on issue of violence between Israel and Gaza

by Nadya Faulx
Nov 27, 2012


Nadya Faulx/MEDILL

In the wake of the most recent bout of violence between Israel and Gaza, demonstrators like this one at last Tuesday's Thompson Center rally came out to show their support for both sides.

Nadya Faulx/MEDILL

Before last week's cease-fire, demonstrators showed their support for Israel and Gaza in the streets of Chicago.

Eight days of violence between Israel and Gaza came to a close last week after the two sides reached a precarious cease-fire, but from the conflict that claimed the lives of five Israelis and more than 160 Palestinians, there emerged no clear winner.

And in Chicago — home to more than 2,200 Palestinians, according to the 2010 U.S. Census — the war of public opinion proved just as ambiguous, with supporters on both sides of the conflict uncertain of a victor and even less sure of what Operation Pillar of Defense will mean for the Middle East in the long run.

“There’s no victory when conflict continues,” said Aaron Cohen, vice president of communications for the Jewish United Fund.  “When conflict ends, then that can be called a victory for all people. 

“We’ll know that there has been a quote-unquote ‘victory’ when Israel and her neighbors enjoy prosperous bilateral relations,” he said.

Many public opinion polls show the U.S. “comes pretty solidly down on the side of Israel,” Cohen said.

“People generally, in this country, identify with people of Israel,” he said.  “It’s a nation kind of like us in its values. If you drill down, Israel shares a similar story.” 

Chicago’s diverse Jewish community also has diverse opinions regarding the conflict.  Sam Fleischacker, professor of philosophy and director of Jewish studies at University of Illinois at Chicago, works with the Jewish organization J-Street and said “the Jewish community is quite divided.”

He said the mood in Israel over the conflict parallels the mood among Jews in the U.S., particularly those who are more right-wing and pro-Israel.

“People are worried and don’t know what to make of it,” he said.  “And that’s mimicked here in the U.S.”

Fleischacker founded UIC's Jewish-Muslim Initiative to encourage interfaith dialogue.  He said he worries that, as has happened during past Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, the violence overseas could negatively impact community relationships here.

“When you have nice relations building up, a conflict can halt, or worse, interfere or destroy relationships,” he said.  “Even those that want to talk don’t feel like doing so.”

He said that although the most recent conflict was too brief to cause much tension between Muslims and Jews in Chicago, “there will always be a fear with these flare-ups.”

The Arab community in Chicago and in the greater U.S., particularly the Palestinian population, has been more unified in its response to the conflict, said Dr. Ghada Talhami, D.K. Pearson professor of politics emerita at Lake Forest College. 

“There’s a large Arab and Muslim community in Chicago by now, and … most of these are recent immigrants, so they do have family members in the Occupied Territories and Gaza, so there’s a family link,” she said.

“The younger generation who appear in demonstrations are educated, they go to college, so they’re aware of the issues,” Talhami said.  “They may disagree on what is the best policy for Egypt and what is the best policy for Syria, but on the Arab-Israeli issue most of them really have a consensus.”

Unlike many others, Talhami, who is herself Palestinian, was quick to declare Hamas as the winner in the conflict — diplomatically, at least.

“I think Hamas won a diplomatic victory,” she said.  “It did not win militarily, it never will militarily, but it certainly won a diplomatic victory.” 

She said the conflict “catapulted” the party to a level of international recognition it hadn’t enjoyed before, including negotiations with the U.S. via Egyptian officials.

“So now they know, the people of Gaza know, ‘Hey, well, we can really rely on international public opinion,’” she said. 

But U.S. public opinion is largely formed out of misinformation, she said.  Despite large showings of support across Chicago for both Israel and the Palestinians, Talhami said most Americans without ties to the region aren’t interested in the situation in the Middle East until it breaks out in violence.

“I think there’s too many issues on your plate as an American, but the Palestinian-Israeli issue itself makes news because it’s usually very violent,” she said. 

“We suffer from neglect, from lack of interest, except when the conflict flares up in a real bloody struggle.”

As the fighting still raged last week, Robert Schy was one of 2,000 Chicagoans in attendance at last week’s “Chicago Stands with Israel” rally.  The 28-year-old said he came out to “show my support” for the country he considers his homeland.

“We have some family there, I went to Schecter [Jewish day school] all my life, so I do have some roots there,” he said.   Nearly 292,000 Jews live in the Chicago area, according to a 2011 study commissioned by the Jewish United Fund and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, and many have family ties to Israel.

“It’s a very unfortunate situation that’s going on right now; the loss of life on both sides is really heartbreaking,” Schy said.  “Israel, more than ever, needs our support with all the animosity that’s being garnered overseas internationally via social media.”

Though he views Gaza’s ruling political party, Hamas, as the instigators of the conflict, Schy said he is concerned for Palestinians as well as Israelis.

“At the end of the day, everybody’s hurting,” he said.