The killing of a Palestinian-American boy on Friday was neither a random crime nor a simple act of Islamophobia. It happened because many media reports misinformed Americans, and politicians, including the President, repeated Israeli spin and disinformation
There is a larger story behind this tragedy.
by Kathryn Shihadah
Everyone has heard by now that on Saturday in Illinois, an elderly man attacked a Muslim Palestinian woman and her six-year-old son, killing the boy. The attacker, the victims’ landlord, yelled as he stabbed them, “you Muslims must die!”
The child, Wadea Shihin, who recently celebrated his birthday, was pronounced dead at the hospital; his mother, Hanaan Shahin, is in serious condition.
The family had been living in a room they rented on the ground floor for two years. By all reports, Wadea and his mother had gotten along well with their assailant and his wife. He had been “like a grandfather” to the boy, and even built him a treehouse.
This key information is being omitted from the vast majority of news reports on the incident.
Shahin “didn’t have even one percent suspicion he would hurt the child,” and when her son saw him at the door that morning, he “ran to him for a hug.” Wadea was stabbed 26 times.
The landlord, Joseph Czuba, 71, is facing eight felony charges, including first-degree murder, attempted murder, aggravated battery and two hate crimes.
According to his wife, Czuba “listened to conservative talk radio regularly.” His wife said he had become obsessed with the war between Hamas and Israel. At one point, he apparently expressed to Shahin his anger about events in Israel; she responded, “let’s pray for peace.”
The “global day of Jihad” that Czuba feared is actually a slogan coined by the media and was not specifically said by any Hamas affiliates. In reality, the call was for protests. Yet even MSNBC repeated the misinformation.
But this fear is what allegedly led Czuba to take the life of the boy.
Hostile environment not an accident
Since the escalation of hostilities between Israel and Palestine, Chicago is one of many cities that passed resolutions expressing staunch support for Israel. A number of states, school districts, corporations, celebrities, and other entities all over the United States have done the same. Many included strongly-worded condemnations of Hamas.
One school district released an even-handed declaration of support for all students and families impacted by the “deeply disturbing and tragic violence in Israel and Gaza” – a statement that elicited condemnation by Jewish parents and staff who claimed they felt “completely invisible and ignored, and marginalized.”
In addition to the pro-Israel statements making the rounds, news sites and social media spread unsubstantiated reports of atrocities allegedly committed by Hamas – specifically, rape and beheading of babies – that evoke strong emotions in readers. The accusations turned out to be unconfirmed, and many news outlets retracted them – but that story failed to make headlines like the original accusations had.
As Ahmed Rehab, Executive Director of the Chicago branch of CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations), declared on Wednesday, 2 days before the attack,
[One-sided] statements issued by public officials and one-sided reporting by the media has [helped] create [a] lop-sided atmosphere in which members of our community are essentially sitting ducks.
American politicians have also been resoundingly one-sided in their support for Israel – and categorical in their damning of the (often broad or unspecified) “enemy” – even as Israel gears up for a possible genocide in Gaza. A handful of examples will suffice:
- President Joe Biden declared on Tuesday after the hostilities began, “There are moments in this life, and I mean this literally, when the pure unadulterated evil is unleashed on this world. The people of Israel lived through one such moment this weekend” He said he had seen photos of beheaded babies. (the White House later corrected that….)
- Senator Lindsey Graham urged Israel, “Do whatever it takes. Raze this place to the ground”
- Democratic governor of New York Kathy Hochul, called a pro-Palestine rally in Times Square “abhorrent and morally repugnant”
- Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley opined, “This should be personal for every woman and man in America…I say this to Prime Minister (Benjamin) Netanyahu: Finish them. Finish them.”
In addition to such unequivocal statements, there has been a distinct absence of discussion about the US pushing Israel for a ceasefire. The State Department has been actively discouraging diplomats from publicly using the words, “de-escalation/ceasefire,” “end to violence/bloodshed” and “restoring calm.”
As Oussama Jammal, a leader in the Chicago-area Muslim community, declared, the killing of little Wadea Shahin “did not occur in a vacuum. Public officials and our media are acting irresponsible.”
While some Jewish groups are supportive of the Palestinian struggle, others are decidedly not. Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the pro-Israel, faux-human rights watchdog Anti-Defamation League, has consistently demanded the silencing of pro-Palestinian voices. Several days after the conflict erupted, Greenblatt came on MSNBC’s Morning Joe and accused the network of being too sympathetic to Hamas: “I love this show, and I love this network, but I’ve got to ask, who’s writing the scripts? Hamas?” (video here, especially starting at 4:00)
Days later, MSNBC’s 3 Muslim hosts – Mehdi Hasan, Ayman Mohyeldin, and Ali Velshi – were essentially sidelined. MSNBC claimed that the simultaneous moves were “coincidental.” The network added, “We have and will continue to cover the barbaric terrorist attacks on defenseless civilians in Israel last weekend and the tragic war it has provoked thoroughly and in all their dimensions.”
It is possible that Joseph Czuba, a close friend of the Muslim family for two years, was influenced not just by a radio program, but also by the inflammatory nature of the false news reports and the relentless, unconditional – and decontextualized – support for Israel. “Finish them” is an explicit demand.
Perhaps the most consequential fact – one that is rarely stated in mainstream media – is that the situation in Israel and Palestine did not start on October 7. Palestinian Americans are acutely aware of the decontextualization of the current crisis.
Muhammad Sankari from the Chicago Coalition for Justice in Palestine, stated it simply: “We have to have a memory that’s longer than 24 hours…There’s 75 years of the occupation of Palestine.”
A great deal has been written about those 75 years of Israeli violence and injustice, and Palestinian resistance. Based on America’s broad support for Israel, it would appear that few are familiar with this history. Briefly, it includes:
- the Nakba – the “catastrophe” in which 700,000 Palestinians were forced into exile by the new Israeli state in 1948, as it took over 78% of Mandatory Palestine
- Israel’s demolition of over 500 depopulated Palestinian villages, and planting fast-growing trees on top of the sites
- Israel’s ongoing refusal to let the refugees return – a violation of international law
- 1967 war, in which Israel occupied the remaining 22% of Palestine (and attacked a US Navy ship)
- 2007, when Israel initiated a crushing blockade on the Gaza Strip (still in place today) that blocks the entrance of essential medicines, medical supplies, food, and other staples – and blocks the exit of sick Palestinians needing to get treatment abroad
- 2018-2020, when the people of Gaza participated in weekly peaceful protests at the Israel border, and were killed and maimed by Israeli snipers
The list goes on. It includes Palestinian transgressions too – transgressions in the context of resisting occupation. Lengthy, belligerent occupation is a violation of international law, while resistance to occupation – even armed resistance – is a universal human right.
The United States has not been an innocent bystander. In 1948, President Truman was the first to recognize Israel (in spite of many advisors warning against it); since World War II, the US has supplied $260 billion (mostly military aid, adjusted for inflation) to Israel – more than any other country in the world; US political leaders have declared the US to be Israel’s unconditional ally, and the US has blocked over 50 United Nations resolutions condemning Israeli actions.
The deliberate creation of Islamophobia
In the early years after 9/11, and the US entrance into Iraq, a small number of conservative organizations – many of them bankrolled by wealthy pro-Israel individuals – began a campaign of anti-Muslim fear mongering that stigmatized the Muslim American community as proponents of “Sharia Law,” an undefined yet ominous mechanism that would allegedly spell the end of democratic, Christian America.
At roughly the same time, in the wake of President Bill Clinton’s attempt to solve the Israel-Palestinian issue, pro-Palestine activism was on the rise on college campuses. Some of the same donors contributed to anti-Palestinian campaigns designed to defame a handful of vocal Palestinian professors.
When plans were announced for the construction of a Muslim community center for interfaith dialogue near Ground Zero, the Islamophobic groups got a boost from Jewish leaders, like Abraham Foxman, then national director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Speaking against the Muslim community center, he likened the bereaved families of 9/11 victims to Holocaust survivors: “Survivors of the Holocaust are entitled to feelings that are irrational. Their anguish entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted.”
American Jewish Committee (AJC) director David Harris demanded that the Muslim leaders who championed the construction of the community center disclose their “true attitudes” about Palestinian militant groups.
A major contributor to the Islamophobia/Palestinian radical panic was Steven Emerson, another Israel loyalist. He created something of an empire as a self-proclaimed “terrorism expert,” testifying before Congress, writing books, producing a so-called documentary, and cultivating an online presence.
According to FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), a close look at Emerson’s work reveals that his “priority is not so much news as it is an unrelenting attack against Arabs and Muslims” – disguised as “anti-terrorism.” He has been accused of nurturing “a pervasive anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian bias…bigotry and misrepresentations…[and] creating mass hysteria against American Arabs. He’s poison.”
One investigative reporter said, “Emerson makes unsubstantiated allegations of widespread conspiracies in Arab-American communities and brushes aside his lack of documented evidence by implying it only proves how clever and sinister the Arab/Muslim menace really is.”
Emerson has been effective in using pseudo proof to discredit Arab-American and Muslim groups and slander Islam. Critics of his work have called him out for sounding false terrorism alarms, distorting facts, and tossing out accusations at will. Most of mainstream media came to regard him as untrustworthy.
Emerson accused certain University of South Florida professors – whom he described as “Palestinian radicals” – of being part of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. No wrongdoing was ever found.
These Israel partisans encourage Islamophobia as a way to foment anti-Palestinian sentiment. As author Max Blumenthal said in The Great Islamophobic Crusade, early in the movement,
representatives of the Israel lobby and the Jewish-American establishment launched a campaign against pro-Palestinian campus activism that would prove a seedbed for everything to come…
Besides providing the initial energy for the Islamophobic crusade, conservative elements from within the pro-Israel lobby bankrolled the network’s apparatus, enabling it to influence the national debate…
Israel…has come to symbolize the network’s fight against the Muslim menace. As [obstructionist Pamela] Geller told the New York Times‘ Alan Feuer, Israel is “a very good guide because, like I said, in the war between the civilized man and the savage, you side with the civilized man.”
The mistakes of Iraq
Americans have been down this road before.
Ahmed Rehab of CAIR reminded listeners days before Wadea Shahin was killed,
This [one-sidedness of media and political leaders] is doubly concerning because we had come to believe that we had learned the hard lessons from the darkest days of flippant Islamophobia in the years after 9/11 where the lack of balanced leadership of our elected leaders, and the irresponsible and biased reporting by the media directly contributed to hanging our communities out to dry.
The George W. Bush administration was rife with pro-Israel neoconservatives, many transplanted from WINEP, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank. Their goals included both a regime change and arms reduction in Iraq. Bush and VP Cheney bought into it.
Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski (USAF-ret) described the climate in the Pentagon in the weeks leading up to the Iraq War as having a “strong and open pro-Israel and anti-Arab orientation in an ostensibly apolitical policy-generation staff.” She described the neocons as having “limited military experience, if any at all”; they demanded intelligence that suited their “Iraq is an imminent threat to the United States” agenda, “exclud[ing] or marginaliz[ing] intelligence products that did not fit the agenda.”
What Kwiatkowski saw boiled down to a “philosophical hijacking of the Pentagon.” The official talking points developed by the neocons characterized Saddam Hussein as a terrorist sympathizer who was developing WMDs and plotting against America – “terrorists” including Palestinian president Yasser Arafat and other Palestinians.
(Speaking of Palestinians, the Lieutenant Colonel mentioned in her exposé, “My first day in the office, a GS-15 career civil servant rather unhappily advised me that if I wanted to be successful here, I’d better remember not to say anything positive about the Palestinians.”)
A propaganda campaign, aimed to sell Congress and the American people on the upcoming war in Iraq, painted an optimistic picture – but Lt. Col. Kwiatkowski recognized the deception. She realized that the war would be “uglier and deadlier” than advertised, and “no one in the Pentagon with any political or moral power seemed to care.” She added that the military had “concerns over troop availability, readiness for an ill-defined mission, and lack of day-after clarity.”
In short, she said, “their [the neocons’] philosophy remains remarkably untouched by respect for real liberty, justice, and American values. “War is generally crafted and pursued for political reasons,” she explained, “but the reasons given to Congress and the American people for this one were so inaccurate and misleading as to be false.”
Rather than telling the truth and letting the American people decide whether to sacrifice their sons and daughters, they “spoke the language of a holy war between good and evil. The evil was…resident mainly in the Middle East and articulated by Islamic clerics and radicals.
This rhetoric, Kwiatkowski insists, was “designed to take Congress and the country into a war of executive choice, a war based on false pretenses.”
The manufactured intelligence churned out by Bush’s neocons of course made its way to the United Nations Security Council, where US secretary of state Colin Powell presented it as rationale for an invasion of Iraq. He went so far as to declare, “My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.”
Powell eventually resigned, but his career will be defined by the lies he told that day – there were no WMDs, and Iraq had played no role in 9/11. President Bush, persuaded by his neocon contingent, led the charge into war. When the truth emerged, neocons blamed CIA director George Tenet and the Defense Intelligence Agency for “failing to properly inform the president on Iraq and WMD.” Hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis died.
Bottom line: political operatives – in this case, disguised as apolitical – can push an agenda of their choosing, to the detriment of America’s most marginalized, unless they are challenged. If not, innocents die, like Wadea Shahin.
Kathryn Shihadah is an editor and staff writer for If Americans Knew. She also blogs occasionally at Palestine Home.
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