Palestine support, solidarity in Chicago: 2000-2016
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Chicago has a long history of demonstrating support for Palestinian national rights, beginning with chapters of the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS) at local colleges during the student movements of the 1970s and 1980s, and grassroots, community-based organizations established at around the same time—all supporting the foundation and ongoing resistance of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The fifth regional conference of GUPS was held in Chicago in 1986. This article will focus on the period from 2000 to the present when there was tremendous growth of both Palestine solidarity organizations as well as Palestinian-led organizations that continued the fight for self-determination and the right of return for all Palestinians.
Founding of Palestine Solidarity and Palestinian-led Groups
In the early 2000s, the focus of Palestine support work in Chicago was education of the public on the military occupation of Palestine as well as continued protests in reaction to the Israeli attacks on the West Bank and Gaza during the First and Second intifadas. During this time, one of the main groups in Chicago was Al-Awda Chicago, which organized several hundred people to support Palestine at the Federal Plaza in 2002 with the theme “Palestinians for Life, Refugees Until Return.” Al-Awda Chicago also emphasized showing solidarity with other people resisting oppression, like the Zapatistas, and ran programs including movies at local churches and community centers in Pilsen about the Palestinian resistance and Zapatista organizing in Chiapas, Mexico.
During this same period, the Palestine Solidarity Group (PSG) – Chicago was also formed. PSG organized protests, conducted delegations to Palestine for activists, and produced events like the Café Intifada held annually at the Southwest Youth Collaborative (SWYC). The “Café Intifada” was co-founded by SWYC and PSG as a multi-cultural, spoken word event in support of Palestine and other progressive causes; many local universities, starting with DePaul in the mid-2000s, began organizing their own Café Intifada, and they continue to do so now.
A constant theme of this work from the 1970s to today is that solidarity with Palestine in Chicago always means solidarity with other oppressed groups in the city as well. PSG often focused on Palestinian political prisoners during this period, working closely with Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association in Ramallah, to advocate here in Chicago for an end to administrative detention and torture of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. The Director of Addameer, Sahar Francis, did multiple tours of the Chicago area (and also nationally). In Chicago these tours were organized with the Boricua Human Rights Network to provide mutual support for Palestinian as well as Puerto Rican political prisoners like Oscar López Rivera.
From 2005 on, there was the formation of other Palestine support and solidarity groups, many of which would show continued growth. Although originally founded in 1996, Jewish Voice for Peace began to become actively involved in supporting other groups during this period. The U.S. Palestinian Community Network (USPCN), a Palestinian community-based organization, was founded in 2006 with chapters across the country and held important Palestinian Popular Conferences in Chicago in 2008 and in 2010. American Muslims for Palestine (AMP) became active in participating in citywide protests and running workshops at local colleges. Chicago was AMP’s most active chapter and recently they have branched into lobbying in Washington D.C. on Palestine issues. Suburban groups such as the Committee for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine in Oak Park were founded and ran educational programs on Palestine. The small local chapter of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) was also involved in supporting protests and became one of the local drivers for the Boats to Gaza campaign that also occurred during this time.
Impact of the BDS Movement
During the period before the foundation of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement in 2005 and the full launch of that global campaign, much of the organizing work in the city was to oppose the appearance of Israeli government officials, such as Ehud Olmert whose speech at the University of Chicago in 2009 was shouted down by protesters for his being the architect of the assault on Gaza that year. Demonstrations against Israeli government officials were also common in the United Kingdom and other countries around the world with the added threat of possible arrests for war crimes. This is the reason that top Israeli government officials do not make appearances on college campuses or outside of Washington D.C. and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conferences anymore.
Chicago participated in the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel by multiple groups protesting performances of Israeli government sponsored groups like the Batsheva Dance Company (who no longer tours in the U.S. after 2012 when the majority of their performances were disrupted by protests). The Israeli Film Festival was also an annual protest target. Chicago has a long tradition of protesting the Friends of the IDF and the Jewish National Fund (JNF) fundraisers held annually at various Loop hotels.
The Caterpillar shareholders meeting held at Northern Trust Bank in the Loop was a target of protests for six years until the corporation finally moved it to Joliet to escape the protests. Every year starting in 2004, a group of shareholders would try to pass a resolution to end the sale of militarized bulldozers to Israel that were used to destroy Palestinian homes, olive trees, and build the Apartheid Wall. In 2010, the last year before the meeting was moved to Joliet, fourteen different protesters disrupted the shareholders’ meeting.
PSG conducted a two year campaign in 2009-2010 to end Chicago’s sister city relationship with Petach Tikva—a city founded upon stolen Palestinian land and the site of what was called “Israel’s Guantanamo”—the largest detention center for Palestinian prisoners. The city did not end the relationship, but representatives from Petach Tikva were forced to stop participating in the Sister City festivals and having their meetings in public for fear of protests.
There were two other major BDS campaigns conducted in the city led by organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace and the American Friends Service Committee Chicago. One was directed at SodaStream, who made its products in a plant in the West Bank. There were multiple protests at Target and Macy’s to get the retailers to stop selling SodaStream products. That campaign eventually ended when SodaStream pulled out of its factory in the West Bank and their financial situation had declined propitiously as a result of the nationwide boycott activity. TIAA-CREF Financial Services was another campaign target to push the retirement funds company to divest from corporations that profited from the occupation such as Hewlett-Packard, Caterpillar, and Motorola Solutions. That campaign also ended in success as TIAA-CREF indicated in their financial reports that they had dropped investments in Caterpillar and SodaStream.
Chicago Protests the Assaults on Gaza
The growth of the Palestine support and solidarity movement in Chicago was accelerated by the two Israeli assaults on Gaza in 2008-2009 and again in 2014 when thousands of Chicagoans turned out for protests that continued for days. During the 2014 protests, the Coalition for Justice in Palestine was convened by many Palestinian, Arab, Muslim, and student organizations in the city. The Coalition organized all the citywide protests at that time and continues in that role today.
The 2014 Gaza protests also led to Jewish Voice for Peace turning from a very small, often marginalized group within the American Jewish community to one of the fastest growing Palestine solidarity groups organizing its own protests and campaigns.
Chicago’s Palestine Solidarity Movement Under Attack
In 2010, there was a concerted attack on the Palestine support and solidarity movement in Chicago and the Midwest by the FBI and the Department of Justice (DOJ) when 23 individuals, the great majority Palestinians or Palestine supporters, were subpoenaed by a grand jury investigating “material support for terrorism.” Several had their homes raided and ransacked by the FBI looking for evidence to support the investigation. All of those subpoenaed refused to testify and for some period of time Palestine solidarity activists had to divert some of their energies to defending these individuals. The defense campaign was very successful gathering support from faith-based groups, human rights organizations, unions, and multiple congressional representatives. None of the individuals was ever charged with a crime. This DOJ attack eventually focused on Rasmea Odeh, a leader in the Chicago Palestinian community, charging her with “unlawful procurement of naturalization” which has led to a multi-year defense campaign to stop her from losing her citizenship and being deported. An appeals court in Cincinnati sent her case back to the court in Detroit for another hearing on admitting a PTSD expert’s testimony in her case. At a press conference after the June 14 hearing, Defense attorney Michael Deutsch announced, “There is a tentative date for a new trial on January 10 of next year…but first a hearing is scheduled for November 29 and we will argue for the PTSD expert to give testimony in a new trial.” The defense hopes that this time Odeh will be able to tell her full story of being tortured and assaulted in Israeli prison.
Dominance of the Students for Justice in Palestine Movement
But after this period of the movement being under attack, arguably the most significant development for Palestine support and solidarity in Chicago was the rapid growth of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapters at every university and college in the Chicago area. This was also a nationwide phenomenon, but nowhere was it more active than here in Chicago. Where a few years ago, developing a divestment campaign on a college campus was a non-starter, beginning with a very hard fought campaign at DePaul University involving outside pro-Israel groups like StandWithUs and the Israeli Consult General of the Midwest—multiple student governments across Chicago were successful in passing BDS resolutions including Loyola, University of Illinois at Chicago, Northwestern, and the University of Chicago.
Just as the FBI and DOJ attacked a well-organized and successful Palestine solidarity movement in 2010; now in 2016 the students at Chicago universities (and elsewhere across the country) are seeing attacks by groups accusing them of anti-Semitism and denying other students freedom of speech. But this time, the attacks are from pro-Israel groups well funded by an Israeli government feeling the financial impact of the global BDS movement. As these groups are trying to manipulate the law to undermine the SJP work on campus, there are also new organizations like Palestine Legal Support that are fighting back.
Solidarity with Palestine Means Solidarity with All Oppressed People
Following a Chicago tradition of solidarity with other oppressed groups begun long ago, Chicago Palestine activists were in Ferguson supporting the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement. Organizations like the USPCN continue to march with Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, Black Lives Matter – Chicago, BYP 100, We Charge Genocide, and others to demand justice for police crimes and for community control of the Chicago police.
It is easy to forget that Chicago has a very long tradition of being a lead city in supporting Palestinian resistance to the occupation. Many of these activities chronicled here were not reported in the corporate media and when they were, the numbers of protestors, the significance of the protest, and the solidarity with other oppressed people were always under-reported. That’s why it’s fitting to end on one more note of recognition for Palestine solidarity in Chicago – the publication here of the first U.S. Palestinian-led news service – Palestine in America.