HYDE PARK — As local Palestinian students and their supporters push for an end to the war in Gaza, they’re calling on others to demand local politicians join calls for a ceasefire and show up to protests and rallies in solidarity.
“Palestinian resistance is so much broader than people really understand, and student organizing — especially in the belly of the beast like we are in the U.S. — is so important,” said Soha Khatib, a Palestinian student at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“There’s a history of student activism” in movements for Black liberation, against the Vietnam War and against South African apartheid, said Khatib, a member of UIC’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter.
“In the same vein, student activism plays a huge role for Palestinian liberation,” Khatib said.
Hamas, the group which controls the Palestinian territory of the Gaza Strip, launched a surprise attack on Israel Oct. 7. Militants killed an estimated 1,400 Israelis and took several hundred hostages in what President Joe Biden called the deadliest day for Jewish civilians since the Holocaust.
The Israeli military has retaliated with a month of airstrikes and a ground assault in Gaza, killing more than 10,000 Palestinians, many of them civilians, according to the Gaza health ministry. At least 155 others have been killed in the Palestinian West Bank territory since the war started.
Students for Justice in Palestine organized a national day of walkouts Oct. 25, calling for a ceasefire and Palestinian liberation after 75 years of Israeli occupation. UIC students led chants and gave speeches, while University of Chicago students led a rally and political artmaking event in the main quadrangle.
UChicago students have gathered in the main quad for five hours daily since Oct. 16 to raise awareness about Palestinians’ struggles. They plan to continue organizing larger events like the art day on a weekly basis.
Alongside calls for a ceasefire, the students aim to share with passersby context on the war that centers Palestinians, said Christopher Iacovetti, a Divinity School student and member of UChicago’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter.
“The immediate situation in Gaza is the most dire thing happening at present in the world,” Iacovetti said at the Oct. 25 rally.
But while Gaza’s immediate needs are the priority, “it’s very important that we not exceptionalize what Israel is doing in Gaza,” as Israeli colonialism has long been a threat to the lives of Palestinians, Iacovetti said. Before the Oct. 7 attack, Human Rights Watch had already declared Gaza an “open-air prison.”
UChicago Students for Justice in Palestine have also pushed the university to divest from companies that support Israel and profit from the war. It’s one of the core aspects of the broader Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
The university “has developed a consensus against taking social or political stances on issues outside its core mission,” including making divestments that would convey such stances, a university spokesperson told WGN last month.
Other organizers said the ties between the decades-long struggles of Palestinians and disenfranchised Chicagoans can inspire unity between the groups.
Global struggles are “intertwined in ways people don’t necessarily realize, especially when it comes to policing,” said Khatib, whose mother is Black.
“The same forces oppressing Black people in the U.S. are the same ones oppressing Palestinians overseas,” she said. “When our oppression is intertwined, our liberation is intertwined, as well.”
Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, last week became the first senator to publicly support a ceasefire in Gaza.
It’s a sign that public pressure for a ceasefire is working, organizers said. But increased attention to the demands of pro-Palestinian students and supporters has also led to increased pushback.
Students for Justice in Palestine drew severe condemnation after its national chapter referred to the Oct. 7 attacks as “a historic win for the Palestinian resistance,” according to Reuters.
Nationwide, Florida officials have ordered state universities and colleges to disband their schools’ chapters, while the U.S. Senate unanimously condemned “anti-Israel, pro-Hamas student groups” following the Oct. 25 walkouts.
At UIC, a public university which in 2016 opened the first cultural center for Arab American university students, pushback “hasn’t been as outright” as at other schools since the war began, said Jenin Alharithi, a Palestinian UIC student who is vice president of the school’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter.
But Alharithi, who in September was among those accusing the university of discriminating against Palestinian-American students in a civil rights complaint, said fellow student organizers still face increased surveillance and vitriol.
They also have not met with university officials to demand divestment from pro-Israeli companies, despite repeated requests, she Alharithi.
Pro-Palestinian organizers have also faced charges of antisemitism, which they said is being used as a political wedge — and a distraction from Islamophobic rhetoric around the war that led to the killing of 6-year-old Palestinian American Wadea Al-Fayoume and the stabbing of his mother, Hannan Shahin, in suburban Plainfield.
“It’s just not true” that support for Palestinian liberation requires antisemitism, said Seph Mozes, a volunteer member of Jewish Voice for Peace’s Chicago chapter and a UChicago graduate.
“You can see the mass mobilization of hundreds or even thousands of Jews in solidarity with Palestine … as proof of that,” Mozes said. “If this were an antisemitic claim to make, there wouldn’t be so many Jews making it.”
“Never again,” a common refrain Mozes has heard as a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, asserts the need to talk about ethnic cleansing in order to prevent it, he said. Israel’s response to Hamas’ attacks is “absolutely a genocide” and must be treated as such, he said.
How To Help Palestinians In Chicago And Abroad
Palestinian Chicagoans primarily need their allies to show up for them — physically and emotionally — in this time of crisis, organizers said.
Chicago’s Palestinian community has a long history of activism, with powerhouses like now-deported activist Rasmea Odeh leading the way, Khatib said. People can help the community by following local Palestinians’ lead as to specific demands while taking on support roles like attending and spreading the word about rallies, she said.
“For the most part, [local] rallies are a testament to how many strong, brave Palestinian activists reside in the Chicagoland area and are able to make this amazing turnout of [thousands] of people to our protests in the Loop,” Khatib said.
Direct aid to Palestinians in Gaza is complicated by an Israeli blockade along the Gaza border. However, UChicago student organizers have held bake sales at their events in support of the Palestinian Feminist Collective and Middle East Children’s Alliance.
“This is aid that is primarily going to Palestinians in Palestine — most of all in Gaza, but I believe some in the West Bank as well,” Iacovetti said.
Cedars Mediterranean Kitchen, a Palestinian-owned restaurant in Hyde Park, raised $15,000 for the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund through sales and donations Oct. 18.
Owner Amer Abdullah will also donate half of Cedars’ Wednesday sales in November to humanitarian relief in Gaza and pro-ceasefire Jewish groups, including Jewish Voice for Peace, according to Eater Chicago.
“It is powerless to be racist towards Jewish people,” Abdullah said on Instagram. “They’ve had some of the loudest voices against the Gaza massacre.”
Listen to the Block Club Chicago podcast: