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Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts


Israel Celebrants and Protesters Bring More Heat than Light

Dennis Fox

May 6 , 2004

People approaching Temple Ohabei Shalom for last Wednesday's Celebration for Israel Independence Day were met outside on Beacon Street by three dozen protesters. The two groups were separated by Brookline police officers whose determination to prevent potential hostility also prevented civil substantive interaction. As a result, for three hours each side managed little more than stereotype-strengthening slogans and shouts.

Attracting criticism from both directions, I have long maintained that any just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict requires, at a minimum, mutual acknowledgement of both sides' numbing fears and legitimate needs. In Brookline, though, where the dominant discourse favors Israel even though community opinion is as diverse as in the Middle East, pointing out injustices suffered by Palestinians too often remains out of bounds. Efforts to foster discussion among those with conflicting positions repeatedly flounder.

According to the Jewish Community Relations Council's website, last week's celebration was organized by Young Judaea and the Israeli Scouts. Recently I've been thinking a lot about Young Judaea, a national Zionist youth organization that transformed my life when I was a teenager. So I prepared a sign for the event: "Young Judaea taught me to challenge basic assumptions. Now it's time to challenge Zionism."

My call for ideological reevaluation clearly put me on the protest side of the police barrier. I hoped to stand there at the oversimplifying dividing line holding up my sign for Young Judaeans entering the temple to consider and perhaps even respond to, but a police officer told me I couldn't remain still. So I joined the circle of marching protesters -- mostly a mix of Brookline activists, Boston-area members of the New England Committee to Defend Palestine, and a dozen New York members of the anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox Neturei Karta sect -- even though their signs and slogans didn't always match the situation's complexity and I reject the support implied by some for Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians. I stuck with my own sign.

During the celebration inside, enough attendees remained on the sidewalk to form their own noisy counter-circle. Unfortunately, the cops generally blocked individuals on both sides from talking or distributing literature to those on the other side. The pro-Israel leaflets I did manage to collect made useful points worth discussing, but didn't directly respond to the main protester arguments. Once again both sides talked past, not with, each other.

About halfway through the evening I put down my sign and went into the temple with a friend to pick up more literature and gauge the celebrants' reactions to the protest. At least that's what I intended. Instead, we were stopped by a woman who, I later learned, is a Young Judaea official working out of the Cleveland Circle regional office. Recognizing us as protesters, she and a young man standing next to her seemed astounded that we wanted to enter. "This isn't the place," she said. "We don't want any trouble." Neither did we, I told her. I just wanted to get some literature.

The gatekeeper finally told us that entering required a ticket, so I took out my wallet for the seven dollars. She then said we couldn't enter at all. "There are children inside" she explained. She had the good sense to rebuke the guy next to her who mockingly said of us "I can't stand the smell," but the mood was clear. We left.

When we rejoined the demonstrators, a cop approached, accompanied by a man from the temple who earlier had urged the police to confine the protestors more tightly. The cop told me "You don't have permission to go inside. If you try, you'll be arrested for trespassing." The warning seemed unnecessary. I had already learned that dialogue, even information-gathering, was not allowed. It was much better to march in circles, shouting across the void, listening to someone holding an Israeli flag shout back: "Kill yourselves!"

Now that Ariel Sharon has George Bush and John Kerry's bipartisan blessing to settle for himself questions of international law and policy, dialogue in the Middle East may end for good. Too bad we can't do better here in Brookline.

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Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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