“Arafat is filthy swine, there is no Palestine,” and “Thank you for killing my cousins in Israel,” were some of the more polite slogans shouted at Al-Awda activist Benjamin Doherty and me as we protested silently at the annual “Walk With Israel” on Chicago’s lakefront today, Sunday. The Jewish United Fund (JUF) -sponsored event, a fundraiser for Israel attended by over a thousand local Zionists, was billed as a “Family Walk.” Despite this, a man with his two young daughters was not the only one to give us the finger and shout “F**k You” as we stood, just the two of us, surrounded by a half dozen police officers, on a pleasant late spring day by Lake Michigan.
We arrived at the lakefront at about 11.30 in the morning and walked along the public bike path south of Soldier Field. Along the way, the JUF had placed lawn signs and displays celebrating Israel and Zionism and “walkers for Israel” were already passing by along the route waving miniature Israeli flags, and pushing stollers. I carried a sign saying “Freedom Will Win in Palestine,” and Benjamin’s said “Walk Against Israeli War Crimes and Occupation.”
Overhead an aerial dogfight had begun between airplanes pulling banners. One hired by the JUF read “WALK FOR ISRAEL — JUF.ORG,” while another right behind it, hired by the Chicago-based Jewish group Not In My Name, which works in solidarity with Palestinians, read “JEWS OPPOSE THE OCCUPATION — NIMN.ORG.”
At the lakefront we met Chicago lawyer and activist Joey Mogul of the People’s Law Office, a civil rights organization, who filmed and witnessed most of the events which are described here. All was going well until a JUF official in a golf cart, seeing our signs, came and asked us “What are you doing here?” I answered, “Enjoying the public park, the same as everyone else.”
“Fine” he said with sarcasm, and then sped off. A short time later we were surrounded by a veritable phalanx of police officers, who ordered us out of the public park, claiming that because the JUF had a permit for their walkathon, we could not be there and hold signs. Other members of the public were allowed to stay in the park as long as they did not have signs. We explained that to allow the JUF to have signs and Israeli flags, while banning us from a public park solely because we were carrying signs which expressed a different opinion was a gross violation of our First Amendment rights. The fact that the JUF had a permit did not cancel our rights. I also objected firmly to one of the police officers who had attached an Israeli flag to his bicycle. He insisted that he had a right to have it there. I said that as a uniformed police officer it was completely inappropriate for him display the flag of any country except the United States, especially when displaying a flag in such a setting had a clear political meaning. Eventually another officer whispered to his colleague to remove the flag, and he did so. Yet another officer came up and asked me “Is this a peaceful protest?” My only answer was “what does it look like to you?”
Nevertheless the police insisted that the JUF had complained and that if we did not leave the park we would be arrested and charged with “assault” and with “criminal trespass.” Joey interceded on our behalf, and clearly it is only because she, a lawyer, was present that the police did not carry out their threats to arrest us immediately. After about fifteen minutes of argument, the police allowed us to remain on the edge of the park, about sixty meters from the main public path where the “walkers for Israel” were going by.
Later the police moved us back even further, but since the walkers made a big circuit of the park, we actually ended up even closer to them on their return. There we stood for more than an hour with our personal police bodyguard. While we mostly stood in silence, the walkers, many families with young children, reacted noisily and angrily. Some loudly sang “Ha Tikva,” the Israeli national anthem, as they walked by us. By our count, people spat at us six times. Profanity was normal. One woman on reading Benjamin’s sign exclaimed “They wouldn’t be committing war crimes if there were no Palestinians!” An elderly man shouted “End Arab occupation of Israel” and others called us “killers” and “Nazis.” At least one man drew his finger across his neck in a throat-slashing motion. A teenage boy approached us smiling and pointing to his T-shirt which carried a picture of a machine-gun against a Star of David and the slogan “Uzi does it.”
Of the hundreds of people who walked by and read our signs over two hours, only two showed any appreciation or respect. One man, who said he had seen me on TV, came up and shook my hand though stressing “I don’t agree with you at all.” A woman carrying a JUF-issued sign which read “Peace for the Children” said to us that for her it meant peace for all children.
Other than the spitting and shouting from the walkers, we were standing calmy, but as the flow of marchers began to dwindle, another police officer suddenly appeared at the scene saying that he had received another “complaint” against us, and again ordering us away from the path and threatening to lock us up. One younger police officer who had been extremely courteous and helpful throughout the morning tried to calm his colleague’s temper.
The friendly police officer told Benjamin that some of his colleagues were not quite good enough at distinguishing between peaceful protestors — as we were — and common criminals. Later, he and two other officers approached us and asked what we were protesting about and listened politely as we explained. We offered them some literature but they said they couldn’t accept it while they were in uniform.
At one point I was aggressively grabbed and manhandled by two men in plain clothes, who claimed to be police officers. I challenged this saying “you are not police officers, you are wearing JUF insignia, get your hands off us.” They also failed to show me their badges when I asked them to. After this they backed off. We were also photographed by a man riding in the JUF golf cart, which was never too far away.
Who would have thought that two people armed with nothing but cardboard signs and kaffiyehs could cause such distress and discomfort to hundreds of flag-waving Israel enthusiasts? Perhaps it is a sign of panic that despite all their bunting, their plastic flags and their displays of self-confidence, they know that whether carried by two people in Chicago or twenty thousand in Gaza, the message of justice and freedom for all people overwhelms the death rattle of ethnic tribalism and repression.
As we walked back to the car, an Israel supporter shouted defiantly at us “See you next year, we’ll be here.” Yes, and so will we.
Ali Abunimah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada