CHICAGO: If anyone understands how myth can trump reality, it is former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, currently the US’ ambassador to Japan, who has skated through a political career leaving a trail of controversy and upheaval.
According to many Chicago observers in journalism and politics, Emanuel was a master of polishing his image to position himself for better jobs, while failing to overcome major problems facing the city.
A mayor in Chicago is faced with several seemingly insurmountable challenges that include improving the city’s school system which favors rich communities, rising crime and violence, racial and ethnic tensions, and political infighting.
Serving from 2011 until 2019, Emanuel’s term was controversial, with criticism coming from reporters and those who worked with him, including from the city’s Arab-American community, which is mostly Palestinian.
The son of a former member of the Irgun terrorist group in Palestine in the 1940s, Emanuel had an unstated aversion to Chicago’s Arabs and was instrumental in undermining many of the advances they secured under predecessors including former mayors Harold Washington and Richard M. Daley.
Emanuel refused to support the Arab community’s annual cultural festival, launched in 2006 by Daley, causing it to close.
Emanuel reorganized the Human Relations Commission, created by Washington and also supported by Daley that included the Advisory Commission on Arab Affairs, eliminating it in 2011.
Emanuel preferred to work with non-Arab Muslims, who dominated his official Ramadan iftars. And he declined to support Arab American Heritage Month activities, launched by Daley in November 1991 and then later changed to April in 2018.
“I spoke to him in person when he appeared at the DuSable (Black History Museum and Education Center) campaigning for mayor but he never returned my calls,” said Samir Khalil, founder of the Arab American Democratic Club and a longtime Palestinian-American political activist.
“I asked why he wouldn’t meet with non-Arab Muslims and to set up a meeting in which he could discuss how to bring a coalition of Palestinians, and Arab Muslims and Christians, to meet with him but he never responded and refused to meet with us. We asked him so many times and he would ignore us.”
Khalil said he even asked Emanuel to meet with the Palestinian-American mayor of Oak Park, Anan Abu Taleb. “But he refused. Mayor Emanuel never wanted to talk to us as Palestinian or Arabs. He didn’t mind to talk to non-Arab Muslims, though.”
After Emanuel disbanded the Arab Advisory Commission, the community had asked his successor former Mayor Lori Lightfoot and current Mayor Brandon Johnson to reinstate it, and while they promised to do so, nothing has yet been done. “We are still waiting for them to do it,” Khalil said.
While Emanuel never publicly addressed the controversies or conferred with Arab-American leaders, his actions were a direct response to repeated complaints by Jewish-American leaders who were angered that the Chicago Arabesque Festival showcased Palestinian-American organizations such as the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund.
Critics said Emanuel failed to effectively address an array of challenges, including the city’s racial divide and failed education system, especially during his first term. Scholar John Judis, writing on March 27, 2015, on the prestigious Carnegie Endowment for International Peace website, concluded that “his efforts to fix them over the past four years haven’t yielded especially good results.”
Emanuel’s second term was even more controversial and several political journalists on the Right and the Left claimed political abuses dominated his administration. They described his term as a failed administration.
John Kass, former senior political columnist for the Chicago Tribune from 1980 until 2021, labeled Emanuel a “cynical political operative” famous for “the overdramatic.”
“Rahm was famous for sending dead fish to his political rivals, the man who stabbed a table with a steak knife calling out the names of his vanquished enemies, the fellow who said famously, ‘You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.’ That’s how he governed. It cost him his name and reputation,” said Kass, who now publishes his political columns online at www.johnkassnews.com.
Kass noted that Emanuel may have decided not to run for reelection for a third term because of his “insensitive” handling of a controversy in which a Chicago police officer, Jason Van Dyke, shot and killed a troubled African-American teenager, Laquan McDonald. McDonald, who was only 17, was carrying a knife and was later found to be using drugs. McDonald was shot 16 times on Oct. 14, 2014.
Emanuel was running for reelection to a second term when the killing occurred. But the mayor refused to release a police video that detailed the shooting and would have enflamed feelings even more. Some believed he feared it might undermine his reelection bid.
“A black teenager, Laquan McDonald, had been shot 16 times by Chicago police. It was a police murder. Rahm knew it could be the end of his career,” Kass noted.
“But Rahm was running for reelection and City Hall decided that the McDonald police video — much like that Hunter Biden laptop controversy — had to be suppressed. Rahm depended on the black vote. If released, it would cost him the election. So, the video of McDonald being killed was suppressed.”
The mayoral election was Feb. 24, 2015, and Emanual faced four challengers. Even without the video being released, anger against Emanuel prevented him from winning that election. He received 46.5 percent of the vote but needed 50 percent plus one vote to win. He was forced into a runoff election on April 7, 2015, against runner-up, Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who is now a congressman from Illinois.
It was not until after Emanuel defeated Garcia in the runoff that a judge ordered Emanuel to release the shocking McDonald shooting video on Nov. 24, 2015, eight months later.
“How cynical was Rahm? During his reelection campaign, as he suppressed that police video, Rahm appeared with Black religious leaders at a rally on the South Side,” said Kass. The African-American community represents about one-third of the city’s voting base.
“They called on the holy spirit and Rahm closed his eyes as they prayed. He seemed transformed by faith. Later, the video came out, showing the black teenager shot 16 times.”
Kass said the release of the video sealed his fate and forced him to not seek reelection in 2019.
The Intercept’s writer Curtis Black described Emanuel in a May 20, 2019, assessment of his two terms in office as a “fraud and failure.”
“Rahm Emanuel wants to become a pundit. His track record of being wrong on everything makes him perfectly qualified for cable news,” Black wrote.
Emanual advocated failed policies such as implementing “punitive welfare reforms” that punished the poor, and criticized the Democratic Party’s growing Progressive Movement, which often sympathized with Middle East nations over Israel, stated Black.
Liberal Chicago political writer and columnist Ben Joravsky, who has been with the Chicago Reader since 1984, disagrees with Kass on how Emanuel failed on that issue.
“Rahm Emanuel should have released the video early on, apologized for the violence and taken responsibility for it, and he would have easily won reelection,” said Joravsky, who hosts a political interview podcast on Spotify.
“Mayor Rahm is about Mayor Rahm. As far as I can tell, everything he does is about advancing his career. I have become a student of reading the inner meanings of what he says and does to try and figure out what the chess move is that he is making.”
“But Rahm is a cagey guy. He likes to state things that makes him look wise and smart. I have met a lot of wise and smart people. I wouldn’t put Rahm in that category. I don’t say that with hatred. Rahm is about advancing Rahm,” Joravsky observed.
Joravsky claimed that Emanuel spends much time in his hometown of Chicago even as US ambassador to Japan, adding he thinks the former Chicago mayor may be positioning himself to run for the US Senate seat held by Dick Durbin, whom many people believe may not seek reelection.
During a Chicago TV interview on Jan. 10, 2024, Emanuel said he would continue to serve as ambassador until his term ends before considering any political office.
Many Palestinians have questioned his decision to volunteer in the Israeli military in 1991, during the first Palestinian Intifada. Ironically, he did not serve in the US military even though he is an American citizen.
In the same TV interview, Emanuel asserted that he is the victim of antisemitism and “anti-Jewish tropes.”
Emanuel said the word “Nazi” had been painted on his fence at a summer home he owns in Michigan, a clear act of antisemitism, unlike questions about his military service.
“Every year as mayor I held a Ramadan dinner. The Islamic community here in Chicago condemned it (the painting of the word Nazi on his fence). It’s hard to hate up close. And people did things that reflect what I think are our sense of community. I am Jewish. The Islamic community supported me when I was attacked, and I am a Jew,” Emanuel told a Chicago TV reporter.
“I can either deal with the hatred and the ugliness. I have seen it when I ran for office both for mayor and for Congress. I am not going to lose sight of the hatred but I am going to make sure it doesn’t silence the goodness of people.”
What Emanuel did not address is allegations that the invites to his annual Ramadan iftars were given almost exclusively to non-Arab Muslims in a city in which the majority of Arabs and Muslims are Palestinian.
In an effort to secure an interview — which was denied to me a dozen times, I attended several iftars including one held on June 28, 2016. I was one of eight Arab Americans who had been invited, not by the mayor’s office, but by one of his non-Arab Muslim co-hosts.