Is it possible for Chicagoans to have a fruitful conversation on Palestine and Israel?
Our Jewish community is one of the largest in the world. Our Muslim community is a center of American Islam. Bridgeview has such a large population of Muslim and Christian Palestinians that it’s nicknamed “Little Palestine.”
The conversation on the Middle East includes some of the most sacred sites of the Abrahamic religions, including the Wailing Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the al-Aqsa mosque.
End-of-the-world apocalyptic traditions converge there as well, warning of colossal wars with eventual peace.
The largest numbers of American supporters for the state of Israel do not come from Jewish Zionist organizations but instead from their Christian counterparts seeking the return of Jesus – may peace be upon him.
The recent opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem featured a few of these preachers who have histories of ignorant comments about Jews, Muslims and Catholics, while ignoring the ancient communities of Palestinian Christians from such places as Bethlehem.
For generations, Jews from across the world have been making aliyah (“ascending”) to Israel, to return home or to escape persecution. Antisemitism is a global reality. Nearly all of my Jewish students have experienced hate despite living in a city with a Jewish mayor.
But, as Israeli settlements have expanded, the result for many Palestinians is life in an open-air prison with limited rights and resources. The majority of my Palestinian students have stories of relatives being imprisoned, tortured, shot or killed by the Israeli Defense Forces.
One student asked me to pray for her 14-year-old cousin, who was shot twice during the recent “March of Return” protests in Gaza. As I write this, his relatives are trying to get blood donations for him in their village.
My student tells me, “On a positive note, he opened his eyes yesterday for a few minutes, and his dad gave him a sip of water — Alhamdulillah [“Praise and thanks to God”].
There are numerous efforts of engagement among Muslim and Jewish populations in Chicago, including regular meetings between rabbis and Islamic scholars. The south suburbs have the ongoing Southwest Interfaith Triangle. The west suburbs have Tzedakah/Sadaqah. The northwest suburbs have the Abraham Salon. The North Shore has the New Trier Multifaith Alliance.
Some of these programs have been active for years, but our communities recognize new urgency for such work because of the increased hate against us.
The American Jewish Committee and the Islamic Society of North America have established a Muslim Jewish Advisory Council, which persists despite criticisms from both sides.
I have expressed disgust that Jewish organizations bypass Muslim institutions to host the scandal-plagued Muslim Leadership Initiative. The MLI enlists about 100 Muslims, with almost no Muslim leaders, almost no Palestinians, while being rejected by Muslim populations across the country. Many Jewish leaders, meanwhile, have expressed their offense when Muslim organizations join Jewish Voice for Peace because of its blunt criticisms of Israeli policies.
Palestinian leaders express disappointment that they get ignored in many dialogues. Imagine events about race in America that exclude African Americans or conversations on feminism with all-male panels.
Palestinian leaders also complain that, when local Jewish organizations host Palestinians, they import speakers from the Middle East far more often than hosting locals.
So how do we engage in meaningful and relevant conversations on these matters? It is too easy to just blame Hamas or the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee for everything.
I am speaking of settings in which Jews can express what Israel means to Jews, as a long-awaited haven, a return home from exile. In the same setting, Palestinians could express what the Israeli occupation has done to their families and livelihood.
Can we share the narratives of pain, fear, and depression? If we can, we can build trust. If not, then walls, distrust and accusations remain.
I have taught the history of the Middle East and witnessed the occupation, visiting Israeli areas that looked like suburban Nevada and Palestinian quarters — surrounded by armed soldiers — reminding me of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods.
At Loyola, I pushed students with the Muslim Students Association — led by a president of Palestinian descent — to sit with Jewish students without staff dictating their agenda. The participants talked and left enriched.
A Jewish student asked whose side I was on. “The people,” I said.
These conversations can work.
Omer M. Mozaffar is the Muslim chaplain at Loyola University Chicago.