Standing With Muslims: Chicago Jews Grapple With Challenge on Eve of Trump Era

Amid the rising fears that minorities harbor about the coming Trump era, Jewish leaders here are fiercely debating: What is to be done?

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s personal appeal to Trump in a December 7 meeting to preserve the Delayed Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and give up his plans for large-scale deportations of immigrants has done little to abate reports locally of a rise in anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim hate crimes tied to Trump’s election. No hard statistics are available for just the Chicago area. But Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart announced December 1 that he was launching a 24-hour hotline to report hate crimes and discrimination in response to reports of increasing fear within the Muslim American community.

The atmosphere has pushed Jewish religious leaders and activists to respond. Some have even raised the possibility of offering sanctuary in their synagogues to those threatened by deportation.

For now though, the dominant theme is one of deepening dialogue with other minorities, and with Muslim groups in particular. But this is raising questions: With whom should Jews dialogue, and how? How should such dialogues handle Israel? And where will the money come from when it’s time to actually act?

“Our people have been refugees at so many points, it’s on our minds,” said Frederick Reeves, rabbi at KAM Isaiah Israel Congregation in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. “Now we’re trying to figure out the best way to help.”

Reeves was one of several religious leaders who spoke at Protected by Faith, an interfaith vigil on December 1 at the First Methodist Church of Chicago, where 500 people pledged in four languages their solidarity to help members of immigrant and refugee communities. But pledges of solidarity only go so far.

The morning after the vigil, Judy Levey and Marla Bramble, the executive director and director of organizing of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, a group that has worked on social justice issues for the past 50 years, met with leaders of 29 other organizations to form the Illinois Immigration Table.

“We’re poised to act,” Levey said. “People felt strongly that the time is now.”

But what will they do?

Levey was not yet sure. There have been no immigration policy changes on the federal level yet, she pointed out, and her own group, the JCUA, hasn’t seen a significant increase in its resources. That means it has to figure out the best strategy for deploying the people and funds it already has to help its partner organizations.

Togther with thee allies JCUA is planning a series of actions for next month: on the National Day of Action for Immigrants on January 14, Martin Luther King Day on January 16, and Inauguration Day on January 20. They’ve also been holding workshops around the city to educate people about how to answer questions from immigration authorities without compromising themselves. “We need to defend immigration in a real time of peril,” said Fred Tsao, senior policy counsel for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, one of JCUA’s partner organizations. “We need to improve the lives of immigrants, ease their anxieties, and help them contribute to society. We’re all in this together.”

Chicago has a long history of protecting immigrant rights, said Tsao. Like many cities, Chicago has a longstanding policy of assuring immigrants that if they report a crime, the police will not question them about their immigration status. Emmanuel has vowed to continue this policy.

The word “sanctuary,” of course, has a much older meaning than the way it’s currently used in Chicago. It can also mean that a house of worship can be a place of shelter for someone who is hiding from the authorities. In the 1970s and 80s, several synagogues in Chicago, including KAM, provided that kind of shelter for Central American refugees who were fleeing the Contra war, supported by Washington, against the Marxist Sandinista government ruling their country.

At KAM, Reeves said, there’s been a lot of discussion and debate about what sort of action from the congregation would be most helpful, including whether to revive that practice of sanctuary.

Earlier this year, the synagogue partnered with a neighbor, the First Unitarian Church of Hyde Park, and RefugeeOne, a resettlement agency, to provide food, shelter, and economic assistance for a Syrian family. The synagogue has a vacant apartment on its property (its previous occupant, the maintenance supervisor, had retired), but the congregation hasn’t decided whether it would be better to partner with another church or synagogue again or shelter refugees on its own.

Other synagogues, notably Mishkan Chicago in Ravenswood and Temple Sholom in Lakeview, have plans to partner with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to “adopt” a Syrian family. But Rabbi Michael Balinsky, executive vice president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, said he didn’t know of any synagogues that plan to offer sanctuary in the protecting-from-the-authorities sense.

Other local organizations have larger-scale plans. The American Jewish Committee this month announced a joint initiative with the Islamic Society of North America to form the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council, a group that will advocate for the rights of religious minorities on a national level. The group will have a regional advisory council to discuss issues of local concern and form real relationships between Jews and Muslims in the Midwest, said Barbara Kantrow, assistant director of Chicago AJC.

Kantrow is also a member of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, an interfaith group of Jewish and Muslim women who meet and work on volunteer projects together to build bonds of friendship and understanding. “You can’t hate someone if you know them,” Kantrow explained.

There is, however, a New Jersey-sized elephant in the room whenever Jews and Muslims from Middle Eastern countries meet: the state of Israel.

“The Sisterhood doesn’t talk about Israel,” Kantrow said. “We want to build relationships first and then talk about Israel.”

Not talking about politics is part of the Sisterhood’s general policy. Saima Abassi, who began seeking out non-Muslim friends soon after she moved to the U.S. from Pakistan in 1989, and who is currently co-chair of the Sisterhood’s suburban chapter, explained that the main mission of the group is building trust, not social activism. “Women are community-builders,” she said. That doesn’t mean, though, that it completely ignores the outside world or fails to provide its own form of sanctuary.

Abassi’s group was scheduled hold its November meeting the Monday after the election. The Muslim woman who had volunteered to host sent out an email confirming the date and time and then added a brief message about how upset she was about the election’s outcome. “There was an outpouring of love via email,” said Abassi. “It gave everyone an outlet to express their feelings. It was reassuring for the Jewish and Muslim sisters to hear that they were all feeling the same way. Which is what a support group does. I see us as a support group.”

Lesley Williams, co-chair of Jewish Voice for Peace Chicago’s Network Against Islamophobia, doesn’t find that approach helpful. “Interfaith dialogue doesn’t tackle the roots of Islamophobia,” she said. “True solidarity is not holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya.’ Refusing to talk about politics is accepting the status quo.”

Williams’s work with the Muslim community emphasizes taking an activist role in exposing hate crimes against Muslims and calling out Jewish groups that are, in her group’s view, failing to do so adequately despite their declared civil rights missions. She believes that AJC and the Anti-Defamation League fall in this category. She also believes it’s necessary to address the problems in the Middle East directly.

It’s JVP’s policy, Williams said, to follow the lead of the Muslim organizations instead of “swooping in” to help. That means that if a Muslim group feels that a Jewish group’s support of Israel makes it unsuitable to fight Islamophobia, JVP will decline to work with the Jewish group as well.

Williams related one case in which a Palestinian group JVP that worked with in suburban Oak Lawn refused to attend a synagogue meeting to which it had been invited when its members encountered a “We Stand With Israel” sign out front.

“There’s no way to work in solidarity with them with that litmus test,” said Williams.

JVP has worked extensively with the Council on Islamic-American Relations, a group whose role in the American Muslim community has become central, but that AJC and other—but not all—mainstream Jewish groups view as unacceptable. The Jewish groups cite stands CAIR has taken that they view as fundamentally hostile to Israel.

Many synagogues and organizations in Chicago have been planning more rallies and vigils over the next few weeks to show their solidarity with the Muslim community. As Hoda Katebi, CAIR’s Chicago communications coordinator, wrote in an email, “In times like this when all of our collective communities are under attack and deeply threatened, I think it’s all the more important to be having conversations across faiths and identities.” JCUA held a unity march in downtown Chicago on December 13 and JVP is planning a Hanukkah action for December 21. But some are growing impatient to start taking some real action.

“We’ve been talking since June,” said KAM’s Reeves. “I want to do.”

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