A City Divided and United
On November 30, 2023, the City of Evanston Equity and Empowerment Commission held a special meeting with one agenda item. It was to vote on a resolution calling for a ceasefire between Israel and “the Palestinian people” (my note: not Hamas). This commission’s mission statement is “to develop shared recognition, and language of the history and impact of structural racism in Evanston, and develop tools and practices to achieve racial equity for all residents.” Daniel Biss, mayor of Evanston, had already told the commission that their vote would not be taken up by the City Council. Over 1,000 citizens signed a letter against the resolution, calling the resolution’s language “inflammatory and biased.” The city’s attorney informed the commission they could not vote on the resolution, as it was not part of their mission. Nevertheless, they held the meeting, both in person and via zoom.
Though the statement called for Hamas to release hostages, it made no direct reference to Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack against Israel. It went on to list many “whereas” statements that focused on the plight of Palestinians in Gaza. As Evanston resident Jill Bishop stated in her 30 seconds allotted to each of 100 speakers signed up to comment, “The resolution will do nothing to stop the suffering in Gaza and advance the cause of the Palestinian people, and it certainly won’t make Israel safe from future attacks that Hamas is committed to … But what it will do — and what it is doing right now — is dividing our community and making Jews around the world and here at home feel less safe.”
As I watched over zoom, tensions flared as audience members reacted to what people said in their 30-second comments, and I became increasing disheartened. Several people spoke as children or grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. Others spoke of feeling unsafe as Jews in my community. People became angry with commission members and speakers. One commissioner stated, “Think about the role that you want the commission to play. Is it building bridges? Is it building community? Or is it bringing people together to yell at each other across a conference room?” Another attendee told the audience "You're setting up tensions. You're setting up potential hatred and violence." In my opinion, both were right, but the meeting plodded on, even though the commission was told from the outset that it could not vote on its statement.
Several days later, I attended the Evanston Symphony Orchestra’s holiday concert, held in the high school auditorium. Our granddaughter was performing in two numbers, and I joined 1,000 of my community members with a bit of trepidation. The program included:
A Most Wonderful Christmas, a medley of Christmas carols performed by the orchestra, Ding Dong! Merrily On High performed by the Evanston Children’s Choir, “The Decoration of the Christmas Tree” from The Nutcracker featuring the Evanston Dance Ensemble. So far so good. Next came the orchestra playing Symph-Hanukkah, a medley of Hanukkah songs. I felt anxious and started to look around. Were people liking the music? When it ended to great applause from the audience, I was able to let go of some of the feelings of being a Jew in Evanston that were stirred up by watching the City of Evanston Equity and Empowerment Commission meeting. A rousing and spiritual rendition of Silent Night by the Evanston Symphony Holiday Gospel Choir helped me to let go of my anxiety as I felt the diverse audience embracing the performance. My granddaughter’s dance group’s performance to “Concert Suite” from The Polar Express ended the first act.
Act II included the orchestra’s traditional rendition of Sleigh Ride, dances to Selections from The Nutcracker by Chicago Ballet Arts. Another dance featuring my granddaughter as Rudolph tapping with members of the Evanston Dance Ensemble to Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer. The North Shore Choral Society performed Gloria in excelsis Deo, I Will Light Candles This Christmas, Carol of the Bells, and the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Messiah. The show ended with Hallelujah from Quincy Jones’ Handel’s Messiah: A Soulful Celebration that featured the Evanston Symphony Orchestra and all of the choruses from the show. Basically, there was something for everyone in the diverse and inclusive community in which I thought I lived, the only city to offer reparations to its black home owners, prior to the meeting fiasco.
In A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens wrote:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
Within a short period of time, I saw both the best and worst aspects of living in Evanston, a “woke” university community in which actions by students at Northwestern focused on demanding Northwestern divest from organizations supporting the Israeli military in its ongoing war with Hamas and protect members of the NU community advocating for Palestinian rights. Protesters at one rally held up signs reading “end Israeli apartheid now.” They chanted “Palestine will never die” and “Northwestern, you can’t hide — you’re paying for genocide,”as well as the “From the river to the sea” refrain.
Unlike the presidents of Harvard, MIT, and Penn at the recent congressional hearing, in which they were evasive when questioned about whether students should be disciplined if they call for the genocide of Jews (it depends on context?), Northwestern president, Michael Schill, asked students to reject statements or banners that could be interpreted as promoting murder or genocide.
In a letter addressed to members of the university’s community, Schill announced the establishment of a new committee focused on preventing antisemitism and hate. Perhaps he should also take a page from Dartmouth college, where a group of Middle Eastern academics from diverse national and religious backgrounds took what is sadly a unique approach for most universities: teaching. These academics organized public forums on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, featuring professors from Israel, Lebanon and Egypt, reminding students, “In a college, … this is why we study.”
There is a column written by Ron Hassner, a political science professor from the University of California, Berkeley, that asks “From Which River to Which Sea.” Hassner notes that fewer than half of the students taking up this chant on behalf of Palestinians can name which river and which sea. Most had never heard of Yasser Arafat, and 10% thought he was the first prime minister of Israel. Most knew nothing about the Oslo accords. When shown a map of a Palestinian state that went from the river to the sea, many students were shocked that there was no room for Israel and 75% changed their minds about the demand. 60% of the students changed their minds about the slogan when they understood it would lead to the expulsion of 7 million Jews and 2 million Arab Israelis. After learning a few basic facts and some geography, 68% of the students changed their minds about the slogan.
Perhaps education would help students understand the complexity of the situation? It may also have helped at the City of Evanston Equity and Empowerment Commission meeting. Rather than chanting slogans at one another, can we talk?