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Diversity: The Struggle and the Celebration of Arab-Americans

posted on: Feb 28, 2018

By: Judge William J. Haddad (Ret.)/Arab America Contributing Writer

In 2009 I chaired the implementation of The Council of Arab Religious Leaders of Chicagoland (ARC) which consisted of Christian and Muslim Clerics. At our June 20, 2009 “Unity Celebration” I hailed our community’s ability to “share our common cultural traditions while celebrating our differences”. That was the crux of many speeches I made in my association with the four professional organizations in the Chicagoland Arab-American and Muslim Community: I have served as an officer in the Arab-American Bar Association (Founder and President) and the Arab-American Business and Professional Association (Vice President). I also have worked with the Arab-American Engineers and Architects Association which I led to the Chicago City Counsel in 2004 seeking minority set aside status, and the Arab-American Medical Association as part of our overall “professional caucus”. I take pride in saying that these professional groups are made up of members from different religions which underscores my faith in our community’s ability to share our commonality while celebrating our differences.

Of course, no one stands alone in bringing about community change without some “roots”. My roots revolve around four significant dates which changed my life.

The Day President McKinley was shot

My grandmother, Sophie Ferris Abraham, was the matriarch of our family. She emigrated to the United States at age 14 on the day that President McKinley was shot, September 6, 1901. She was brought here after being “kidnapped”  by relatives from a mountain convent in Lebanon—taken from the resistant arms of her aunt, the mother superior, who had raised Sophie from the age of 2. Her aunt objected to the fact that Sophie’s mother had pledged the girl to marry George Abraham (age 34) for the price of her passage to New York. They met at the altar.  My father came over with his parents around that time, but soon he was orphaned when his parents died during the influenza epidemic during World War I. He suffered rheumatic fever back then, and consequently suffered heart problems for the rest of his life.

Lebanese and Syrians were some of the first persons to emigrate from the Middle East (Greater Syria) to the United States at the turn of the last century. They were largely Christians who fled starvation under Ottoman rule. I call them the “Danny Thomas” generation. Danny was a great entertainer of Lebanese descent who founded St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee on the heals of other successful Christians who emigrated here from Syria and Lebanon. To this day, the fundraising arm of St. Jude’s is still called “ALSAC” (American Lebanese-Syrian Associated Charities). A majority of ALSAC’s Board are Arab-Americans, but also include Jews and Muslims.


[Sophie Abraham, Antony, Ruth, Marion, Francis, Uncle “William”, and Grandpa Abraham, circa 1912]

Getting back to Grandma Abraham, she raised some pretty dynamic children. Of her nine children, only seven survived. My mother was Marion Abraham Haddad. She had an eighth-grade education. She started her career at the Detroit Free Press in telephone sales at age 14—she looked and sounded older than her age. By 1947 she owned and managed the Chicago Advertising Company. That’s when it was not “politically correct” for a woman to run a downtown advertising firm. But mom was the sole breadwinner in our family and never looked back. Today, when people say our Middle Eastern women are subservient, weak, and powerless—I just chuckle and think they never met my mother. By the way, she was no exception to our Arab-American Community. Mom’s sister, Ruth, preceded her in advertising to build a newspaper empire, including a publishing house and printing presses which were housed in a Chicago downtown office building which she owned. Neither of them ever attended high school. Both took Holy Communion every day.  

From age 11, I’d spend most Chicago summers as a newspaper office delivery boy for family businesses. The CTA was my travel agent, steering me to bus routes, transfers and elevated trains cranking throughout the city’s ethnic neighborhoods. On the north side, I’d traverse the Milwaukee Avenue corridor to deliver ad copy to the Polish Daily Zgoda and its competitor, the Daily Dziennik Chicagoski.  Or I would visit the German neighborhoods where they were reading the Abendpost and Eintracht.  On the southwest side there were the Lithuanians and Czechs and other mixes who read the Sandara, Denni Hlasatel and the Novy Svet. I even made deliveries to the Chicago Daily Defender and the Catholic New World.

At all of these destinations, this dark-complected, little Lebanese kid would be treated to warm greetings, ethnic rolls, biscuits, and candies.

Chicago was really cooking back then. One hot summer I was working at our office at the old Woods Theater Building at Randolph and Dearborn. I watched them pounding in the pilings for the foundation of the new county courthouse, never dreaming that one day I’d be privileged to sit as a judge in that buildings’ prestigious Law Division which presides over “high stakes lawsuits”  in Chicago. 

We weren’t rich, but I didn’t know it. Mom put us through private schools to keep us close to our Christian roots. St. Catherine’s grammar school served Chicago’s Austin area. St. Ignatius High School drew students from all over the city, integrating Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and yes, Arabs, into its diverse student culture. It was a testament to the Jesuit order. After working my way through night law school at DePaul, I landed a job with the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office in 1974. A dream come true.

The Day “No Arab” banner appeared at Buddy Bear Grocery Store

On April 1, 1990 a racial incident erupted on Chicago’s west side which changed my life, as chronicled by the Chicago media:

W. Side sign outrages Arabs – Grocery banner hit as disgrace'”

(Chicago Sun Times – April 1, 1990)

The latest sign of the times in the 24th Ward: “This store is being remodeled. . . . No Arabs will be involved!”  The sign, in large blue and red block letters, hangs from the front windows of the Buddy Bear store at 3425 W. Roosevelt, prompting outrage among Arab-Americans and some  consternation among black neighborhood residents.

Grocery with anti-Arab sign is vandalized” 

(Chicago Sun Times – April 2, 1990)

Sixteen windows of a grocery store were shattered by bricks and rocks early Sunday, apparently the result of West Side tension between black residents and Arab-American businessmen…  Marquette District Detective James Rider said witnesses reported seeing a car full of men pull up to the store, get out and hurl bricks through the windows.

Oppose all signs of bigotry” (Chicago Sun Times – April 3, 1990)

Arab-Americans have every right to be angry about a sign that appeared  in a West Side Buddy Bear grocery store: “This store is being remodeled . . . No Arabs will be involved!” Efforts by the Arab community to persuade the owner, Phillip DeGeratto, to remove the sign were futile.

Despite public denunciation by Mayor Daley and Human Relations Director, Clarence Wood, DeGeratto became more defiant and even some west side aldermen stood by his so-called right to freedom of speech. However, to the Arab-American Community the sign was tantamount to a swastika.

I was just appointed to the Mayor’s Advisory Council to the Human Relations Commission. We were briefed by our Director that removal of the sign was hopeless because DeGeratto was about to serve a 2 1/2 year prison sentence in Indiana. It seemed DeGeratto had little impetus to remove his “No Arabs” sign from the Buddy Bear Grocery—that is, until I phoned his lawyer who was a fellow alumnus of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office.  I told his lawyer that unless DeGeratto removed the sign and apologize by a date certain, our newly formed Advisory Counsel would write the Federal sentencing judge in Hammond accusing DeGeratto of criminally facilitating Mob Action while awaiting surrender to serve his sentence. By the deadline, we received a faxed acknowledgment that the sign was removed.

By-Line–Ray Hanania Chicago (Sun Times, April 5, 1990)

A sign that sparked charges of racism from Arab-Americans was removed from a West Side grocery store’s window Wednesday, and community leaders vowed to try to heal the rift between blacks and Arabs…. DeGeratto agreed to remove the phrase, which also drew criticism from Mayor Daley and members of the city’s Human Relations Commission.

This “success” fueled me to form a community bar association later that year. With another lawyer on the Advisory Council, Rouhy Shalabi, we organized The Arab-American Bar Association (AABAR) in 1990.  I was the first president, Rouhy was the second one. After Rouhy came Sana’a Hussein, our first female president, and then Eddie Shishem, our first Jewish President (Lebanese-Jewish heritage). Today, our president is an Irish-Lebanese American named Professor John Breen.

In 1992 the Arab-American Bar Association was poised to voice official outrage over a civil disturbance targeting Arab-American businesses during the “celebration” after the Chicago Bulls won their first World Basketball Championship. After an investigation, we published a White Paper criticizing the Chicago Police Department’s inept plan to deal with, what amounted to, a civil insurrection targeting 139 Arab American businesses. Looting, vandalism, and arsons caused about $14 million in damages. The Chicago Police responded splendidly to our White Paper by developing a protection plan for any future such disturbances. This came in handy after 9/11.

The Day the United States was attacked by Terrorists – 9/11

[News Conference 9/26/01)William Haddad, Rouhy Shalabi, Timothy Eaton, Pres. Chgo Bar Assoc.]

Two weeks after the murderous attacks upon the United States on September 11, 2001, I issued a report about the backlash of violence against Arab-Americans and Muslims on behalf of the Arab-American Bar Association. The Preliminary Report on Hate Crimes Against Arab-American and Muslims was presented at a press conference held by the Arab-American Bar Association at the offices of the Chicago Bar Association. I was flanked with my good friend, Rouhy Shalabi, and the presidents of all of the major bar associations in Illinois, as well as the American Bar Association. The conference drew the international press.

We told the media of our condemnation of the 9/11 attacks, but noted that the attacks reportedly “killed over 800 citizens, nationals, rescue workers and policemen of Arabic ancestry or of the Muslim faith”. We then issued documented evidence that the United States was in the midst of a massive backlash of hate crimes against our community:

Since it is believed that the terrorists were Middle Eastern and/or Muslim, civil disturbances involving the widespread commission of hate crimes have erupted throughout the United States targeting Americans of Arabic descent, Americans of the Islamic faith, and Americans who were stereotyped as “looking like” Arab/Muslim-Americans.  These crimes include murder, arson, bombings, aggravated assaults and batteries (using weapons such as handguns, pepper spray, stones, and motor vehicles), vandalism to businesses,  schools and religious sights, mob violence, looting, death and bomb threats,  school closings, job  discrimination, workplace violence and harassment. 

[T]he threat of widespread hate crimes… against Americans of Arabic Descent and Muslim Americans… is unprecedented and dangerous…  [and] may constitute a danger to the liberties of all Americans.

We made constructive proposals to the government, which were strikingly  similar to our White Paper Report to the Chicago Police Department in 1992, except as to our final and somewhat prophetic plea:

It is recommended that Government not act in haste to enact special legislation that may negatively impact upon the civil liberties of all Americans.

Nevertheless, “hasty legislation” was passed by Congress in record time after our little news conference. The US Patriot Act was a first big step in legalizing the use of wide-scale surveillance which has recently received the widespread attention of the  American people.

In the following months and years after our 9/26/11 news conference, Rouhy and I made hundreds of presentations about the backlash against our community to governmental groups such as the Civil Rights Commission, various law schools and societies, and our community. We continued to vigorously petition for more governmental protection for our community. After a year, I updated the hate crime report with evidence of at least 30 murders, as well as many more reports of physical assaults, arsons, and vandalism. The EEOC and anti-discrimination groups documented thousands of incidents of discrimination. A Zogby Poll showed a continuous upswing of personal experiences of discrimination against young Arab-Americans and Muslims from 9/11 to this day, exceeding 70%.

The Day I became a Judge

About a year after 9/11, Supreme Court Justice Thomas Fitzgerald tapped me for appointment to a vacancy in the Circuit Court of Cook County. I was the first Arab-American to serve as a Circuit Court judge in Cook County-Chicago, Illinois.  I was sworn in by the Supreme Court on January 23, 2003 before a packed courtroom of family, colleagues, friends and an array of clerics from the Christian and Muslim communities. It was rare to see men in priestly collars seated next to imams in long, wide-sleeved gowns (jubbah). About a year later, I ran in an election to “win my vacancy” but lost by 1.2%.  (“Haddad” is not a very good ballot name). Even so, the Supreme Court continued to “recall” me to the bench for the next decade. It was less pay than my law practice, but great prestige, and even greater pride for my community.

Like most newly appointed judges, I underwent a thorough “schooling” and then began plying my new trade in traffic court. Soon, I was conducting jury trials. Although I never promoted my heritage, I certainly did not conceal it. My chambers were adorned with Middle Eastern artifacts ranging from a framed Phoenician Alphabet (the world’s first), to the usual plaques and awards a visible jurist might accumulate. My proudest award was the first “Friend of Aqsa School” award, given to me by the young female high schoolers at this religious institution. Imagine, a former Catholic league football player getting an award from a Muslim girls school!

I represented the bench in numerous “diversity” symposiums, panels and sensitivity training sessions sponsored by the Chicago Bar Association and the Illinois State Bar Association. I was asked to host visiting foreign jurists and lawyers from the Middle East at the courthouse. I made appearances at social, business and political gatherings of Arabs and Muslims in the Chicagoland area—never deviating from the message of how our courts stood for diversity and the rule of law. I mentored my law students at The John Marshall Law School, including those involved in the Middle East Student Associations.  Indeed, I made myself available to the Arab-American and Muslim lawyers and students in the Chicago community. I enjoyed making spot visits to the dozen of churches and mosques in Cook County, especially if there were tensions like weapons being fired at a Mosque in Morton Grove in 2012. The sight of a judge from their own community demonstrating judicial solidarity with the rule of law was reassuring and very appreciated.  It was a new education for me, and evoked much pride for all.

I lived the American Dream on the bench.  When I was a young errand boy in the Loop over 50 years ago, I never imagined I would be a judge in the very courthouse which I watched being built. In 2013 I was “retired” when my term of office ran out.  The good news is that now, as a private citizen, I can resume my community activism.

Former Cook County Circuit Judge William Haddad formed his AMVOTE PAC-American Middle East Voters Alliance-to help give Arabs and Muslims a stronger voice in Illinois politics/Mark Brown/Chicago Sun-Times

October of 2014 I organized the first Arab-American Political Action Committee in the history of Illinois—The American Middle East Voters Alliance (AMVOTE-PAC).  Also, I am a Senior Mediator at Alternative Dispute Resolution of America, I am Vice President of the Arab-American Business Association, I teach trial advocacy at The John Marshall Law School, and I serve as  Chair of the Board of Visitors at the Northern Illinois University School of Law.

Not bad for an Arab-American delivery boy!