Navigate to News section

House of Blues

Rahm Emanuel, in the midst of a rough-and-tumble campaign, was just denied a spot on the mayoral ballot. Was the move Chicago politics as usual, or has Emanuel’s Judaism come into play?

Rachel Shteir
January 24, 2011
Rahm Emanuel at the House of Blues event earlier this month.(Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images)
Rahm Emanuel at the House of Blues event earlier this month.(Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images)

Will the real Chicago please stand up? Is it the post-racial, post-ethnic, post-religious mecca of hope—the city from which President Barack Obama is launching his re-election campaign? Or is it the corrupt place that is called Chicagoland, where police brutality, cronyism, and prejudice run rampant?

This morning, an appeals court reversed the decisions of the circuit court of Chicago and the Board of Elections commissioners. Rahm Emanuel is not a resident of the city of Chicago and cannot be on the ballot for mayor, the appeals court said. The ruling was 2-1. Judge Thomas Hoffman and Judge Shelvin Louise Marie Hall sided with Burt Odelson, the attorney for the objectors, who argued that state municipal code dictates that mayoral candidates must live in the town where they are seeking election for one year prior to election day. Judge Bertina Lampkin dissented.

Emanuel’s attorneys, who will appeal immediately, have argued that according to state election code, Emanuel was a Chicago resident who qualifies for an exemption because he was serving his country in one of the most literal and direct ways imaginable—as President Obama’s chief of staff.

But Judge Hoffman, one of the appellate judges, wrote: “neither the [election] board nor the party have, however, referred us to any Supreme Court opinion ratifying, adopting or directly addressing this approach.”

The appellate court’s ridiculous decision may be overturned at the state level. But it may not matter.

The dynamic of the race, which until today was focused on Emanuel’s enormous Hollywood war chest and 44-percent lead in the polls, has been permanently altered. If the Illinois Supreme Court rules in his favor, he’s a master of the dark arts who used his money and political pull to get back in the race. In the mean time, he’s been legally certified as a carpetbagger, which gives political cover to all those who—for whatever reasons—have labeled him an outsider.

Flash back a few weeks to a Rahm Emanuel benefit starring Jennifer Hudson at the House of Blues. It’s just before 6 p.m. and the line stretches around the block. The crowd is young, prosperous, and mostly white. Tickets cost $30. It’s freezing.

On the corner, a short, middle-aged white woman who I recognize as one of the objectors from the residency hearings—the hearings held earlier this month in which nearly three dozen community activists, irate Chicagoans, and lawyers tried to eject Emanuel from the mayoral ballot—is holding one edge of a large banner. A young woman in a wool cap holds the other end. The banner reads “Rahm Says F *** the Black Caucus,” which refers to Emanuel’s supposed contempt for progressive Democrats and African-Americans on Chicago’s South and West Sides.

The older woman, who is wearing a headband with a tribal design, is shouting “Rahm Emanuel, he’s a carpetbagger, he’s going to steal your water, he’s a wheeler-dealer.” She is handing out flyers listing allegations about Emanuel’s tenure on the board of Freddie Mac and his involvement in NAFTA. “Rahm is a criminal,” she yells cheerfully. “He’s another Mayor Daley, do you want that?”

People take pictures with their cell phone cameras. The line inches forward.

“Jennifer Hudson didn’t know. Ari got her,” the woman shouts, referring to Rahm Emanuel’s brother, the talent agent Ari Emanuel. “She’s innocent.”

Inside the House of Blues, it’s warm and packed. Everyone is sleek and happy. There are vanilla Alexanders for $8, there are event staff in yellow shirts and earbuds, and advertisements for upcoming events are projected on a screen on stage: “Rebelution, Winter Greens tour.”

The crowd is about 70 percent white and 30 percent African-American. Some of the African-American women have slung their gorgeous fur coats over chairs with “reserved” signs on them.

The words “unity in diversity” are carved into the proscenium arch. Underneath that are images of icons from all the religions. The star and crescent, the Jewish star, the Madonna.

At 7:30, Walt Whitman and the Soul Children Choir of Chicago, a celebrated 23-year-old gospel choir that Hudson requested as her opening act, marches on stage. The choir is comprised of Whitman and about 30 African-American students in orange taffeta vests and white shirts and gray pants. They have performed all over the world, including in Israel, and have recorded a version of “Ose Shalom.”

But tonight their first number is a duet of “I Believe.” After that, they perform one or two gospel numbers. One short kid has an enormous voice.

“Rahm Emanuel is gonna take you up to the next level,” Whitman shouts out at the audience, as he tries to get it to clap. He does a call but gets little response. And then: “We know that Rahm Emanuel has a lineage of Jewish descent,” he says. “We got some Jewish songs. How many Jewish people do we have in the house?”

I don’t see anyone raising a hand.


A few days earlier, although the Board of Election Commissioners had ruled unanimously in December that Rahm Emanuel was a resident of Chicago and thus eligible to run for mayor, Odelson, the lawyer for the objectors, was taking his case up the food chain. On the 17th floor of 50 West Washington Street, in the courtroom of Mark Ballard, a judge in the Cook County Circuit Court, Odelson repeated the argument he had made in front of the board of elections—that Emanuel was not a Chicago resident. Now he claimed that Emanuel “rewrote history,” now he repeated the allegations he had raised during the first residency hearing: As chief of staff, Emanuel was making $172,000. And he rented out his house, Odelson said.

The charge that Emanuel isn’t “one of us” comes up in many different places. As does “outsider.” And “arrogant.” And sometimes, behind closed doors and on blogs, other less-appealing epithets.

Even the announcement that Bill Clinton would appear in Chicago to campaign for Emanuel was trailed by protests about the candidate’s outsider status—except that in this case, outsider was said to mean Washington insider. “President Bill Clinton does not live or vote in Chicago,” Carol Mosely Braun, one of the other candidates, told the Daily Caller. “He’s an outsider parachuting in to support another outsider.”

Clinton addressed these charges in his remarks last week at a glamorous event at the Chicago Cultural Center. “We all knew where his heart was,” Clinton said, implying that the former Clinton Administration aide and Obama’s chief of staff was secretly pining for Chicago while in Washington. “But we were glad to have his mind.”


Some observers of the political scene here told me that the use of words like “outsider” to characterize Emanuel might reveal Chicago’s racial divide, but it is hardly evidence of anti-Semitism.

“It’s dirty politics,” says Don Rose, a longtime political consultant, who concedes that anti-Semitism might play a “minor” role in the election. He dials back “minor” to “inconsequential” and “fringe.” He concludes: “You’d have to be nuttily sensitive to see what has been said as anti-Semitic.”

Later, Rose emails me to remind me that in 2002, when Emanuel was running for a congressional seat, Ed Moskal, a supporter of Emanuel’s opponent, Nancy Kaszak, made a speech containing anti-Semitic slurs.

“We’ve been watching this election very closely,” says Lonnie Nasatir, the Anti-Defamation League’s Midwest regional director. “Chicago is not New York, where there’s a history of Jewish mayors.” Nonetheless, “I’ve been surprised that there hasn’t been more anti-Semitism.”

Asked if he cared that Rahm Emanuel was Jewish, Levi Notik, rabbi of the Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe, a Chabad organization with a branch in Chicago, emailed me: “Rahm is not running for Rabbi, or treasurer, of a local synagogue. People should vote for the most qualified individual for the job. I wish him and all the candidates lots of Mazel!”


Still, some Chicagoans have wondered if the language being used to describe Emanuel is more than generic Chicago politicking. In early January, Laura Washington, in her column for the Chicago Sun-Times, asked whether in a city where one third of the voters are African-American, the fact that 28 percent of African-Americans “hold anti-Semitic beliefs”—more than double the national average—would make a difference in the election. But ultimately Washington, who is African-American, backed away from her own question, concluding that “I suspect that in the end, most Jewish voters will see Emanuel as the gravy, not the grime.”

Neil Steinberg, also a political columnist at the Sun-Times, sees anti-Semitism’s role as more powerful. “People who are bigots speak in code,” he said.

Asked whether calling Emanuel an outsider was anti-Semitic, Steinberg said, “That’s code.”

There’s nothing coded about the anti-Semitic slurs in the blogosphere. On a YouTube page showing Emanuel’s North Side Chicago house, one commenter wrote: “There are plenty of pure US citizens that only work for America that you could put in that office.”

Another, “Emanuel was a sorry excuse piece of shit zionist.”

Last week, in The New Republic, David Greenberg, writing about Jared Lee Loughner, referred to a “gnawing worry about anti-Semitism.” The public silence about Emanuel’s Jewishness is itself worrying. If we have entered an era of post racial politics—why the silence?

Although Emanuel did not return phone calls seeking an interview, he is not exactly keeping quiet. During the residency hearing, he joked about his bar mitzvah. At an education forum held last week at the studios of WTTW’s Chicago Tonight, asked if he had ever been bullied, Emanuel told a story about returning from Israel with a dark tan and some kids stealing his bike, beating him up, and shouting “on a racial basis.” Ari saved him. But the appellate court’s decision is another matter.

In her dissent, Judge Lampkin argued that Judges Hoffman and Hall ignored established law and precedent. “An opinion of such wide-ranging import,” Lampkin wrote, should not be based “on the whims of two judges” and “should not be allowed to stand.”

She also wrote, “the candidate never voted in Washington, D.C., never changed his driver’s license to Washington, D.C., never registered his car in Washington, D.C., never purchased property in Washington, D.C., never conducted personal banking in Washington, D.C., and never demonstrated an intent to sell his Chicago home.”

At a press conference held at the Berghof restaurant this afternoon, according to USA Today, Emanuel told reporters, “I have no doubt that we will in the end prevail at this effort. As my father used to say, nothing is ever easy in life.” Especially not in Chicago.

Rachel Shteir, a professor at the Theatre School of DePaul University, is the author of three books, including the forthcoming The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting.

Rachel Shteir, a professor at the Theatre School of DePaul University, is the author of three books, including, most recently, The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting. She is working on a biography of Betty Friedan for Yale Jewish Lives.

Rachel Shteir, a professor at the Theatre School of DePaul University, is the author of three books, including, most recently, The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting. She is working on a biography of Betty Friedan for Yale Jewish Lives.