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Two months on, Chicagoans grapple with the devastation of the Gaza war

By December 20, 2023December 28th, 2023Organizing, Staff pick

Local Palestinians and Jewish people are mourning the deaths of people in Israel and Gaza and calling for an end to the war.

Mustafa Hussain for Borderless Magazine
A vigil in memory of Palestinians killed in Gaza by Israel Defense Forces, is held at the corner of N. Broadway and W. Leland Ave. on Nov. 7, 2023.
By December 20, 2023December 28th, 2023Organizing, Staff pick

Local Palestinians and Jewish people are mourning the deaths of people in Israel and Gaza and calling for an end to the war.

On a frigid night in early November, about 50 people huddled on a street corner in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood with candles and flowers in hand. As the elevated train rumbled above their heads, the group stood in silence, mourning the thousands of civilians killed in Gaza since the war broke out between Israel and Hamas.

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Salon Kawakib, a cultural group dedicated to the Southwest Asia North Africa diaspora in Chicago, pasted posters with photos of Palestinians killed by Israeli airstrikes and artwork calling for a ceasefire. 

“Palestinian stories are often told in numbers and in statistics, and not as human stories,” said Eman Abdelhadi, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago and cofounder of Salon Kawakib. “We live in a society that doesn’t really take Palestinian or Arab life seriously.”

Since the war began over two months ago, Borderless has spoken to more than a dozen Chicagoans who are impacted by the war in Gaza. Cook County is home to 23,000 Palestinians; there are more Palestinians here than in any other county in the United States. The Chicago metropolitan area is also home to more than 319,600 Jewish people, who have a diverse range of backgrounds and nationalities. 

In speaking to Palestinians and Jewish people across the city at vigils, protests and workplaces, Borderless found Chicagoans in mourning – and in rage. Some blamed the war on Israel’s longstanding efforts to take over Gaza. Others decried the Hamas’ capturing of Israelis, including a local mother and daughter. Almost everyone we spoke to feared that anti-Jewish and anti-Arab violence would rise in Chicago as the war continued.

Artists pasted posters calling for a ceasefire during a vigil in memory of Palestinians killed in Gaza by Israel Defense Forces in Uptown last month.Mustafa Hussain for Borderless Magazine

Over 20,000 Dead

On Oct. 7, Hamas militants invaded southern Israel, killing an estimated 1,200 Israelis and taking 240 hostages. Israel retaliated with airstrikes and an on-the-ground offensive, and the fighting has continued for over two months. The Gaza Health Ministry estimates that nearly 20,000 Palestinian civilians, mostly women and children, have been killed. The war has resulted in more civilian casualties than the almost two-year war between Russia and Ukraine. More than eight in ten Palestinians are now homeless due to the war, according to the United Nations. 

Since the war began, demonstrations and streetside vigils have cropped up across Chicago, illuminating grief and frustrations amid the escalating loss of civilian life and fueling a growing chorus of voices calling for a ceasefire. 

At the Uptown vigil in November, the local connection to the faraway war could not be clearer. “OUR TAXES KILLED: Ibrahim Lafi” one poster read, showing a smiling 21-year-old Palestinian journalist killed by an Israeli airstrike while wearing his press vest. The U.S. is the largest supplier of military aid to Israel. Israel receives $3.8 billion in aid annually from the U.S. government to support its military.

“People are so used to hearing the Palestinian death toll or statistics about Palestine, but they often don’t see the human beings behind these numbers,” Eman Abdelhadi said. “And that’s because, a lot of times, mainstream media is quite biased against Palestinians.”

Taking to the Streets 

For many Palestinians in Chicago, the war has reopened old wounds, reminding them of past wars and conflict in their homeland. These include the 1948 Nakba – or the Catastrophe – where more than 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes and 15,000 Palestinians were killed – and the four wars Hamas and Israel have fought since 2006 preceding the current conflict. 

Graphic photos and videos have been passed around on social media of the aftermath of Israeli strikes on refugee camps, homes, hospitals and schools. These images remind many Palestinians of their reasons for leaving their homeland decades earlier and have bolstered support for Gaza from thousands of miles away, they tell Borderless.

“There’s a lot of disappointment, a lot of rage,” said Husam Marajda, a local organizer from the U.S. Palestinian Community Network (USPCN). “There’s a lot of emotions.

Chicagoans are channeling their frustrations through protests, Marajda added. 

“We’re so powerless as individuals, but when we’re all together in the streets, you feel a bit more powerful,” Marajda said “The best way to deal with it is to actually put our anger into strategically coordinated actions and civil disobedience.” 

Husam Marajda, an organizer from the U.S. Palestinian Community Network (USPCN), directs people holding banners as demonstrators began to march on Dec. 2, 2023 during a protest calling for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza and an end of U.S. support to Israel.Max Herman/Borderless Magazine

Local Jewish communities have also been taking to the streets, reminding Chicagoans of the kidnapped Israelis and losses suffered throughout Palestine and Israel. On street lamps across the city’s North Side, organizers put up posters with images of Israelis taken hostage by Hamas during the Oct. 7. These included the image of a local Jewish mother and daughter from Evanston taken hostage by Hamas, and later released on Oct. 20. 

The Anti-Defamation League, a national Jewish advocacy group that tracks antisemitism and extremism, said in an Oct. 7 statement that Israel had the “indisputable right to defend itself against the Iran-backed Hamas terror organization. The missiles aimed at Israeli towns and the terrorists infiltrating villages are no less than war crimes as they target civilians.”

Meanwhile, Chicago’s local Jewish Voices for Peace and others are calling for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza. 

I was devastated to learn about the attack on Israeli civilians on October 7,” Illinois State Sen. Robert Peters in a statement last month. “And I also felt profound concern, as I watched bombs begin to fall on Gaza, about what it would mean not only for Palestinian civilians, but also what it would mean for my own Jewish community. I knew that the massive humanitarian crisis that is still unfolding in Gaza will not make the world safer for Jews. We need a ceasefire and a step toward a negotiated peace, because it’s right, but also because it might be the only way to save the lives of so many in the region and world.”

A crowd helps Wadea’s father, Oday Al-Fayoume (center), carry his son’s coffin toward the hearse at a mosque in Bridgeview on Oct. 16, 2023. A suburban man fatally stabbed six-year-old Palestinian American child Wadea Al-Fayoume 26 times in a hate-fueled crime. Mustafa Hussain

Hate on the Rise

As the war continues in Gaza, hate crimes against Muslims, Arabs and Jewish people have risen across Chicago, according to Chicago Police Department data reviewed by Borderless. 

Just a week after the war began, a suburban man fatally stabbed six-year-old Palestinian American child Wadea Al-Fayoume 26 times in a hate-fueled crime. Wadea was killed and his mother was injured in the attack. Prosecutors say that the perpetrator was inspired by conservative radio programs that spread hatred against Muslims and Palestinians. 

Bernard Cherkasov, the CEO of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in his office on Nov. 17, 2023.Max Herman/Borderless Magazine

The Jewish community in Chicago has also been on high-security alert. An attorney in the Illinois comptroller’s office, Sarah Chowdhury, was fired over antisemitic comments allegedly made on social media. Antisemitic messages have also been left on several parked vehicles in Portage Park and a Jewish business in Skokie was defaced with a swastika.

“It is quite alarming that whenever there is a spike in violence in the Middle East, Jews in America are held accountable for it and pay a price,” said Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie. “We spoke out against the heartbreak of Wadea being murdered and will continue to speak out and raise alarms about rising antisemitism.”

Cherkasov was 13 years old when he and his family fled antisemitism and ethnic violence in his native Azerbaijan and came to the United States as refugees.

“On Oct. 7, I felt like all of my optimism was being proven wrong to see attacks on civilians, to see children being dragged and taken hostage, to see women stripped naked and being paraded while others laugh at them,” Cherkasov said. “This wasn’t war. This was barbarism, and it’s unimaginable to me.”

As the war enters its third month, both Palestinians and Jewish people here are calling for an end to the violence.

“What we’ve been saying is stop the bombing, end the occupation, stop the genocide, stop the war crimes, and end all U.S. aid and support to Israel,” said Marajda of USPCN. “History didn’t start on Oct. 7. Palestinians are not the ones who are dropping 1,000 tons of bombs. This is 75 years of occupation and colonization.”

Hundreds of people march down State Street on Dec. 2, 2023 as part of a protest calling for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza and an end of U.S. support to Israel.Max Herman/Borderless Magazine

In an open letter last month, over a dozen Chicago-area Holocaust survivors decried the violence against civilians and the State of Israel. They called upon the world to ”lay down our arms and stretch out our hands.”

“‘Never again’ means that we must never give up. That we, who saw much suffering and depravity, must continue to fight against prejudice and hate is cause for sorrow.”