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Ald. Deb Silverstein

Ald. Debra Silverstein, 50th Ward, spoke against a cease-fire resolution in Gaza during a City Council meeting, Jan. 31, 2024. Silverstein and two other Jewish lawmakers declined Mayor Brandon Johnson’s invitation to talk about antisemitism, pointing to his support for that resolution as evidence he doesn’t support the Jewish community.

Pat Nabong

Three Jewish lawmakers turn down Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson’s invitation to discuss antisemitism

At least three Jewish lawmakers and several Jewish organizations are declining Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson’s invitation for a Monday roundtable to discuss antisemitism over what they describe as “disrespect and lack of concern for the Jewish community.”

In a letter sent Friday declining the invitation, Chicago Ald. Debra Silverstein, 50th Ward, state Sen. Sara Feigenholtz, and Rep. Bob Morgan pointed to Johnson’s tie-breaking vote in support of a resolution calling for a cease-fire in the ongoing war in Gaza as one example of Johnson’s “stunning failure in leadership.” The letter went on to cite Johnson’s support for Chicago Public School students walking out in support of a cease-fire, among other reasons, as more evidence of their dissatisfaction with Johnson’s support of the Jewish community.

“True change can only start at the top. Before calling for a roundtable on antisemitism, a true leader should begin by demonstrating a modicum of empathy for the Jewish community — we have seen none of that,” the letter read.

Representatives for the Jewish United Fund and Anti-Defamation League Midwest confirmed they were invited to Monday’s roundtable and also declined to attend. At least one progressive Jewish group that has supported calls for a cease-fire, Jewish Voice for Peace Chicago, confirmed they will be attending Monday’s roundtable.

In a statement, Jewish Voice for Peace said the three lawmakers represent just “one perspective,” and that the group looks forward to sharing “the perspective of Jewish communities in Chicago who believe that Jewish and Palestinian safety and liberation goes hand in hand.”

Silverstein and Jay Tcath, executive vice president of the Jewish United Fund, said they requested a full list of invited attendees but did not get a response from the mayor’s office.

“We have no idea who’s going to be there and who’s not. It just seems to me like a little bit of a hollow offer to try to save face with the Jewish community,” Silverstein said in an interview with WBEZ. “His message is transparency and communication and it’s greatly lacking.”

Marty Levine, a member of Jewish Voice for Peace’s coordinating committee who will be attending Monday’s roundtable, said “we’re not concerned about being in a room with people who we have some differences with, when discussing how to protect all of our community.”

A spokesman for Johnson said the mayor’s office has no comment.

Goals of the roundtable included informing the mayor’s policies to address antisemitism and for the Johnson administration to share its approach for engaging the Jewish community, Tcath said. But he said his group was concerned the invitation was not sincere, and that the meeting would have been used to “simply check off that he reached out and had this meeting, and that business would continue as usual.”

“Based upon our experiences the last six months, there wasn’t trust that it would be a productive use of our time,” Tcath said, “and that we wouldn’t be exploited for his own political posturing.”

Johnson came out in support of a cease-fire in January, condemning the actions of Hamas while also calling for the killing of tens of thousands of Palestinians to stop.

A week later, a divided City Council faced hours of tense debate over a resolution that called for a permanent ceasefire, humanitarian assistance, and “the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages.” The resolution, sponsored by progressive council members, only passed after Johnson cast the tie-breaking vote. Silverstein, the City Council’s lone Jewish member, voted against the resolution and argued at the time it didn’t call strongly enough for the unconditional release of Israeli hostages, among other reasons.

Silverstein said she has not spoken with the mayor since that vote.

Johnson this week renewed his call for peace as the Israel-Hamas war continues.

“The past six months of news have been devastating. But we continue to pray for the families who are experiencing violence everywhere,” Johnson said at the event, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. “And whether it’s Wadea or those who are losing their lives to violence in Chicago, the families who are grieving for loved ones in Gaza and the families who are grieving for loved ones in Chicago, we grieve together.”

Last year, the City Council passed another controversial resolution, sponsored by Silverstein, nearly a week after the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas. That resolution condemned the attack and declared solidarity with Israel.

“I really think he needs to show us something that he really is intending to learn something,” Silverstein said, “because I’m not feeling it right now and neither is my community.”

Tessa Weinberg covers city politics and government for WBEZ.

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