As the US-backed Israeli army continues a genocidal campaign against Palestinians in Gaza—many of whom at the time of this writing are without water, food, sanitation, and access to medical care—the racist rhetoric against Palestinians, Muslims, and Arabs that has blared on all of our screens for the past week reverberated here in Chicagoland. On Saturday in Plainfield, Illinois, six-year-old Wadea Al-Fayoume and his mother, Hanaan Shahin, were stabbed by their landlord, who yelled, “You Muslims must die” during the attack. Wadea was killed.
The horror of this attack, the callousness of it—and, indeed, the senselessness of it—are too overwhelming to be given words. Yet one thing it is not is shocking, at least to anyone who has paid any attention to the media and political discourse of the last week.
The Media and Politician Feedback Loop
Indeed, the mainstream media’s reporting this past week bears much of the responsibility for Wadea’s death. Since Hamas’s attack on October 7th, American media has seemed eager, almost giddy, to smear all Palestinians (a stateless population under occupation) as terrorists, to call for revenge, to spread lies about the Hamas attack, to ignore crucial context (including the ongoing siege of Gaza as well as Israel’s occupation and apartheid policies more generally) in their reporting, to ignore the desperate calls of human rights organizations and even the UN, and to normalize explicit calls for genocide by Israeli officials. Most if not all space in both written reporting and televised coverage has been given to Israelis and to Zionist voices in the US, with the voices of Palestinians (and even anti-Zionist Jewish Americans and Israelis) ignored and silenced.
The mainstream media has done this in a positive feedback loop with US politicians, at the federal, state, and municipal levels. In Chicago, this was on full display with alderwoman Debra Silverstein’s “solidarity with Israel” resolution, which passed the City Council on October 13th. An utterly one-sided resolution, the text further dehumanizes Palestinians and calls on the city to support Israel and show solidarity only with Israelis killed. (Note: In a problematic breach of democratic norms, the full text of the resolution still has yet to be made available to the public, so this article is using what was read aloud at the City Council meeting for reference.) During the City Council meeting itself, several alders in addition to Silverstein continued to repeat false and discredited claims about the Hamas attack, depicting Palestinians as monstrous and demonic (read: not human) and thus further inciting anti-Palestinian and Islamophobic sentiment.
It is worth noting that similar resolutions and statements have been passed in cities and towns all over the US, including in Philadelphia, Huntsville, Dallas, Jacksonville, San Antonio, and St. Petersburg. The LA city council held a press conference to express “solidarity with Israel.”
The danger of these resolutions and “solidarity” statements is not only that they are one-sided, but that such one-sidedness furthers the dehumanization of Palestinians and fuels lies about what is really going on in Palestine. They bear no acknowledgement, for example, that Palestinians live under occupation by Israel and, as such, they have a right to resist, according to the Geneva Conventions. There is no mention of the siege of Gaza, enforced by Israel since 2007 and illegal under international law. Nor do they mention Israel’s system of apartheid, which Amnesty International calls “a crime against humanity.” Finally, the resolutions do not acknowledge the asymmetrical nature of power between Palestinians in Gaza and Israelis: one a nuclear power backed by the US, and one a dispossessed population, 60 percent of which lives in poverty without freedom of movement.
The Chicago resolution’s invocation of Israel’s “right to protect its citizens” is especially pernicious, presenting Palestinians as a hostile foreign government rather than a people occupied by Israel. Moreover, this common characterization of Israel’s violence as defensive or responsive is tantamount to saying that settlers who steal Indigenous land have a right to violence against those from whom they stole the land should they fight back. Indeed, as inhabitants of a settler colony here in the US, it is crucial to reflect on the ways American identification with the Zionist project is not accidental, and that the marshaling of support for the genocide of Indigenous peoples runs deep in our country’s history and collective psyche.
For many, the past week of atrocities in Palestine has felt strangely familiar, like deja vu: An attack on a Western (or Western-backed), wealthy country. The mainstream media calling for blood. Misinformation and lies being repeated without any accountability by media organizations and politicians. The dehumanization of a group and calls for collective punishment. Endless reporting and speeches that seek to mobilize grief in support of political agendas. And finally a move toward mass death enabled by such dehumanization and fear-mongering.
Recall the role of the media in selling the Iraq War (and the lies that justified it) to the American public. With the twentieth anniversary of the war earlier this year, many media organizations have been reflecting on the frenzy of lies and propaganda that ultimately led to war. (The New York Times has since admitted that they failed to fact-check information they were being given and that the problem was not a few individual reporters but rather “editors at several levels.”) This war would go on to devastate the region, displacing 1.2 million, leaving 3 million in need of urgent humanitarian assistance, and killing more than 200,000. The US war would also increase infant mortality, cholera epidemics, and leave 70 percent of Iraqis without access to clean water.
The racist furor whipped up to justify support for the military takeover of Iraq (a nation which, of course, had nothing to do with 9/11) also had grave consequences for Muslims, Arabs, and indeed anyone who appeared Muslim or Arab (South Asians and Sikhs in particular) in the United States. Law enforcement surveilled mosques, other places of worship, student groups, and entire communities. Human Rights Watch reports that hate crimes against Muslims (and people ignorantly perceived to be Muslim) increased seventeenfold in the wake of 9/11.
We have seen this playbook before. It is distressing and disheartening to see how shallow the self-reflection of said media organizations seems to have been, as we now watch many of them hop back on the same Islamophobic, vengeful bandwagon. Yet what happens now is also not inevitable—we who have lived through this before (or even those who haven’t but who recognize the similarities), especially those in the US, have a responsibility to stop the gears from turning. If we do nothing, we already know how it plays out. But if we dare to challenge empire from the inside—in our workplaces, schools, neighborhoods, and cities—we can see a different ending. We must see a different ending.
This includes ramping up the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement to end international support, and US funding in particular, for Israel’s genocide. As Richard Seymour offered in an interview on the Interregnum podcast:
Keep to the point. Israel is a violent occupying power threatening what could be a genocide against Gaza, and we have to mobilize every possible avenue of sympathy to stop that. . . . Protests are important and necessary but they are punctuating moments, rallying points for other actions that will be more enduring. My hunch is that the most important thing is that we resume the BDS fight on a higher level, and that is a form of practical solidarity that might actually work. That’s why they are using lawfare against us. That’s why they are threatening people’s careers. . . . In our analysis, we have to understand this in terms of a totality in which we’re all involved and implicated. In other words, this story is also about us, and it will come to us.
Indeed, we must act swiftly to pressure the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois, along with the academic and cultural institutions based here, to divest from Israel’s genocidal regime. This includes supporting the Dissenters’ #BoeingArmsGenocide campaign, which calls on Illinois to divest from Boeing, the war profiteering corporation currently sending bombs to Israel while receiving $8 million in tax breaks from the Pritzker administration.
Standing against Genocide
Here in Chicago, we must mourn Wadea Al-Fayoume’s death, and we must organize. The forces that came together to enable his death go far beyond the man who brutally stabbed him. They include the American media, President Joe Biden, those in Congress supporting a resolution that encourages genocide in Gaza, and the majority of the Chicago City Council who were too cowardly to speak up against Israel’s ongoing genocide. All those politicians contributed to the atmosphere of racist uproar that leads to acts such as these. They bear responsibility for the killing of Wadea.
At a time when over 1,000 children have been killed in Gaza–along with at least 45 entire families–there is no time for cowardice or delay.
This is not an abstract connection for Wadea’s family. At a press conference on Sunday, Wadea’s uncle talked about how he has not heard from his family in Gaza in days. He recounted how his relatives had fled to Rafah, in the south of Gaza, to escape bombing but found that in Rafah, too, they were bombed. Where is safe for Palestinians? Certainly not in Gaza nor in Chicago.
If you ever wondered what you would do during the Nazi Holocaust to stop the killing of Jewish and other oppressed peoples, now is the chance to find out. We must stand against genocide in Gaza (and in all of Palestine) and protect our Muslim, Arab, and brown communities by fighting Islamophobia here at home.
Stop the genocide now! Free Palestine!