Imagine…What If Gaza Was Chicago?

By Russell Vandenbroucke

Photos: Wikimedia Commons\YouTube Screenshots

Might Americans make sense of Gaza if we compared it to our own experience? What if Gaza were Chicago, my childhood home? 

Each is home to more than two million people in a narrow strip along a shore. The sun rises over 28 miles of Lake Michigan and sets on Gaza’s 30 miles of Mediterranean coast. 

Contrast

I used to drink from Lake Michigan by opening a tap. Gazans face a challenge beyond their salty sea: Israel consolidated water control 50 years ago and requires an army permit to build new installations or infrastructure. Gazans consume less water daily than the World Health Organization recommends; Israelis use more.

After my parents explained how Lake Michigan was too wide to gaze across, they promised to take me to the opposite shore, and they did. Palestinian families cannot answer the call of open water to a wider world as we did. 

Instead of beckoning Gazans toward the horizon, their sea is a barrier: Israel’s “maritime security blockade” prevents them from sailing where winds and currents take them, and fishing is restricted too. Unlike the Port of Chicago linking the Midwest to the Atlantic through the St. Lawrence Seaway, Gaza has no shipping infrastructure, and Israel prohibits small boats from approaching: nine pro-Palestinian activists were killed in 2011 as their flotilla tried to aid Gaza.

When my father parked his precious Pontiac beside an open field near O’Hare Airport, the cyclic drama of take-offs and landings offered free entertainment on a Sunday afternoon. Years before I became the first in our family to live this drama from inside a plane, I imagined myself aloft. 

Palestinians cannot do the same: Israel permits no airports in Gaza, the West Bank, or East Jerusalem, territories it first occupied in 1967.

As a boy, if I pretended to camp by pitching a tent in the backyard, I could sneak back to bed as soon as the dark sky and suburban wilds frightened me. In Gaza, where more than 70 percent of the homes have been destroyed, tents provide refuge from wind, rain, and cold for dispossessed families, many of whom have fractured: UNICEF reports that at least 17,000 children are now unaccompanied or separated from their parents. 

Imagine the psychic toll on children whose homes are bombed into rubble. When a quarry, three blocks from my childhood home, blasted the bedrock to mine the limestone, our walls shimmied. This irritated my mother, but we were never afraid or in danger; the plaster did not crack. What is the future for Gazans who suffer trauma daily when, research shows, violence harms the cognitive development of infants even before they can speak?

Although I adore Chicago enough to be an unpaid ambassador, I know gang violence and drugs made its 2022 murder rate #28 in the U.S. The rate dipped 11 percent the next year, but 613 remains a huge number—and only half the scale of Hamas’s indefensible massacre of 1200 Israelis. 

This tragedy, widely considered the worst Jews have suffering since the Holocaust, leads to a hunger for vengeance and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s call for “absolute victory” and “annihilation” of Hamas. His rhetoric sounds like “the ends justify the means” wedded to “by any means necessary.”

Collective punishment, long an instrument of Israeli “justice,” obliterates the distinction between combatants and non-combatants. More densely populated than Chicago, Gaza also has bigger families, as usual with poor societies compared to wealthy ones. Since 47 percent of its population is under 18, it follows inexorably that nearly half the 27,000 Gazans who have died in Palestine’s current catastrophe, are children. Their numbers grows daily.

Forcing us to pay for slaughter

I pay no taxes to my hometown, but I must to my nation, which provides $3.3 billion in annual military aid to Israel, the world’s 29th largest economy and its 10th biggest exporter of armaments. Congress is now considering $14 billion of supplemental military aid even as the Pentagon is “not putting any limits on how Israel uses weapons,” including the most destructive ones we provide for the slaughter, 500 and 2000-pound bombs.

Alas, they eerily echo the bellicose jingoism of our national anthem: “the rocket’s red glare, the bomb bursting in air.” In the dawn’s early light—and throughout the rest of the day and night too—I can see my hands stained by the blood of Gazans, especially its children.

Russell Vandenbroucke, syndicated by PeaceVoice, recently retired as Professor of Theatre, and was the Founding Director of the Peace, Justice & Conflict Transformation Program at the University of Louisville.

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