Members of the Chicago Faith Coalition on Middle East Policy convened at the Kluczynski Federal Building on Thursday morning to deliver a petition with over 1,340 signatures to US Senator Dick Durbin, urging him to martial his and his colleagues’ political leverage to end the blockade of Gaza, a concerned shared by constituents with the Senator only two months ago. Rabbi Brant Rosen, Midwest Regional Director of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and co-founder and co-chairperson of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council, read aloud the letter written to Senator Durbin. It referenced the April 2016 meeting with the Senator and the work done to remind him of his constituents’ concerns for Gazans’ safety and quality of life: “We heard together with you the personal story of our friend Wajeh Abu Zarefa visiting Chicago from Gaza, who shared with you his ordeal in gaining entry to the US, as well as the suffering that exists for his community living under the blockade in Gaza….So far we have not seen you act to help end the suffering in Gaza.”
The program of speakers, including numerous clergy leaders of the interfaith coalition, started off with the words of Tabassum Haleem, Executive Director of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago (CIOGC), which represents over 400,000 Muslims of Chicagoland. Haleem reminded the crowd of the responsibility of members of all faiths to stand “shoulder-to-shoulder” together, bear witness to injustice, and speak out against it. “We call upon our leaders, especially Senator Dick Durbin, to do the right thing, after ten years of suffering by the people of Gaza from a political crisis that has a solution.” Haleem said. “Stand up for justice, Mr. Durbin.”
Following Haleem’s call was Rev. Taurean J. Webb, who serves as Scholar-in-Residence at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference (SDPC), a faith-based justice organization, tasked with supporting and mobilizing African American faith, civic, corporate and philanthropic leaders to address critical needs of human and social justice. Rev. Webb spoke of the “particular evil of military occupation” that shares its roots in the “fundamental principles of colonialism, imperialism, and genocide.” His call to interfaith solidarity reflected the intersectional approaches of the work carried out by SDPC and contributed to the message of urgency to end the blockade of Gaza and the Israeli occupation more generally.
Michael Deheeger, an organizer with Jewish Voice for Peace Chicago, then delivered a personal statement of Rabbi Michael Davis. Before serving Chicago’s Jewish community for over twenty years, as well as founding Reform Cantors of Chicago in 2009 and the Open Hillel Rabbinical Council in 2014, Davis recalled his time in Gaza as a soldier in the Israeli military. His statement described the immense destruction of Gaza and the overlaying suffering of the population he was trained to dehumanize. “We, who have the advantage of seeing the reality of Gaza without this baggage of dehumanizing indoctrination can take a stand for the humanity of the Palestinian people in Gaza,” Davis wrote.
Pastor Emily Heitzman, an ordained Presbyterian-USA pastor currently serving as the shared Associate Pastor with Youth and Households at Unity, Ebenezer, and Immanuel Lutheran Churches, took the mic to draw attention to the claim that the blockade is about security claims. She said, “The main reason for this blockade is fear of the ‘other.’ But in the Christian tradition, we believe what we read in our Scriptures: ‘There is no fear in love, for perfect love casts out fear.’ And we believe that there is no ‘other,’ for God created ALL humankind in God’s image.”
Rev. Liz Muñoz, who spoke later in the program, echoed Heitzman’s message. Muñoz is Vicar of Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de las Americas, Chicago, a member congregation of Community Renewal Society. She explained that her perspective is not only influenced spiritually as a Christian, but her perspective also comes from lived experiences as a Latina in the United States. Muñoz drew clear connections between the struggles of Latinx communities across the U.S. and the struggles of Gazans living under the blockade, communities that “face the threat of a wall,” are under the microscope of both the majority populations and the military state, and suffer from the very identical systems of oppression.
The words of Wajeh Abu Zarefa were also shared by AFSC intern Yazan Meqbil, detailing the increasingly dire consequences of the Israeli blockade on daily life as a Gazan. Nearing the end of the program, his message reminded the audience of the political nature of the blockade, iterating that the U.S. is perhaps the “only country capable of forcing Israel to end the occupation.” The program was closed by Rev. Cotton Fite of St. Luke’s Church in Evanston, who told the inspiring story of Dr. Suhaila Tarazi of Gaza’s Al Ahli Hospital. After alluding to the Democratic Platform Committee’s recent decision to go against Senator Bernie Sanders’ recommendation to adopt the usage of the term “occupation,” Rev. Fite ended his message by simultaneously acknowledging the costs and potentials of political action. “If Suhaila Tarazi can be steadfast in fulfilling her mission, we and Senator Durbin can surely be steadfast in ours.”
Following the series of speakers, Haleem and Rabbi Rosen delivered the petition to Senator Durbin’s office, concluding the convening of the aforementioned clergy members of the Coalition. in addition to Presbyterian minister Rev. Don Wagner, who was also in attendance.
This month of June marks the tenth anniversary of the first time members of the Chicago Faith Coalition on Middle East Policy convened to advocate for justice and peace in Palestine and Israel. Coincidentally, it is also approaching the tenth anniversary of the commencement of the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Clergy members used this opportune time to urge people of faith to take action on Gaza, bear witness to international crimes and human rights violations, and call upon members of Congress to take action now.