In May, activist Rasmea Odeh will go on trial for a second time for allegedly omitting her 1970 conviction for a deadly Jerusalem bombing from two separate U.S. immigration and citizenship applications. Although she spent a decade in an Israeli prison for her involvement in a bombing that killed two Hebrew University students in 1969—the result of a trial that a Red Cross observer deemed fair—her profile in the U.S. has been rising lately. She was one of eight signatories of a letter announcing the March 8 women’s strike, one of the most successful actions of its type in recent American history. She’ll appear at Jewish Voice for Peace’s (JVP) annual conference later this month on a panel alongside Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-American activist and BDS proponent who now has a national profile. The event itself will take place at a Hyatt hotel in Chicago. A minority owner of Hyatt Hotels Corporation is J.B. Pritzker, who is Jewish, and who is also a possible Democratic candidate for the Illinois governorship.
Peggy Shapiro, the Midwest community coordinator for the pro-Israel group Stand With Us, says she has been organizing a letter-writing campaign aimed at alerting the hotel, the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place, of Odeh’s presence at the JVP event. ”We are concerned that a convicted murder is being transformed into a celebrated martyr,” Shapiro said of Odeh. Shapiro says that she sent a certified letter to the hotel’s management, but hasn’t gotten a response yet. Other Stand With Us activists have emailed the hotel, and received back a “very nondescript” email explaining that the hotel does not necessarily agree with every event held there, according to Shapiro.
Still, even in Chicago, the event isn’t producing much controversy outside of Jewish circles—or even inside of them. “The is kind of an inside baseball-type of event,” said Jay Tcath, the executive vice president of the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago. “The majority of the Jewish community here couldn’t even tell you what JVP stands for or who they are, and an even smaller number could tell you who Rasmea Odeh is or what she did.”
In 2014, Odeh was convicted in a federal court for lying about her past to illicitly gain entry to the United States. Her defense team argued that Odeh had forgotten to list the 1969 terrorism conviction because of post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from her alleged torture while in Israeli custody. In early 2016, a federal appeals court determined that the judge in the 2014 trial had improperly prevented the jury from considering expert testimony on Odeh’s psychological state, and vacated her conviction. The re-trial is currently scheduled for May.
As her activism career and involvement with the women’s strike shows that Odeh has plenty of supporters who argue that she is the victim of systemic injustices in both Israel and the United States. Linda Sarsour appears unconcerned that appearing on a panel with Odeh could taint her. Sarsour has more mainstream political credibility than just about anyone else appearing at the JVP conference: She is a co-founder of the Muslim Democratic Club of New York, and was an at-large delegate for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at this past summer’s DNC in Philadelphia. She was also a national co-chair of the January 21 women’s march, which is now being touted as the largest single-day demonstration in American history.
Sarsour supports a boycott of Israel, a view which has relatively few other backers within the broader Democratic party: 61 percent of Democrats still view Israel favorably, according to a February Gallup poll. On March 13, Sarsour told The Nation that she believed Zionism and feminism are incompatible with one another, a definition that would seem to exclude the 71 percent of Americans that Gallup found to have a favorable image of Israel (per Gallup) from any meaningful participation in feminist causes.
Sarsour, JVP, and Odeh’s ideology isn’t widely shared among Democrats, but the JVP panel hints that it isn’t completely shunned either. The JVP conference is taking place at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place in Chicago; the venture capital investor J.B. Pritzker, who is an heir to the Hyatt hotel chain, is a possible challenger to incumbent Republican Bruce Rauner in the state’s 2018 gubernatorial election.
J.B. Pritzker’s relationship with Hyatt is hard to tease out entirely; it’s unclear how much of Hyatt he actually owns—unlike his cousin, Jason Pritzker, J.B. Pritzker does not have an executive role with the company. But according to an SEC filing from earlier this year, J.B. Pritzker owns enough of Hyatt to be a part of a beneficiary group consisting of eleven members of the Pritzker family which collectively own 58.2 percent of the company and can vote by 3/4ths majority to alter the company’s ownership structure or block certain corporate decisions, like additional sales of common stock. The Pritzker family is a sprawling and often fractious concern, and although Forbes says that J.B. Pritzker is still a part-owner of Hyatt, it doesn’’t report how much of the company he owns.
Still, a politically sensitive event involving an alleged terrorist is taking place on the property of a company that a Democratic gubernatorial hopeful partially owns. And for whatever reason, he hasn’t had anything to say about it yet.
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.