‘It’s just Jew-hatred’

‘It’s just Jew-hatred’

Monday night pro-Palestinian protests against Zaka draws Jews out to counterprotest

An estimated 3,000 people rallied in front of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck on Monday.
An estimated 3,000 people rallied in front of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck on Monday.

On Monday night, a counterprotest to a protest to a meeting at Congregation Bnai Yeshurun drew an estimated 3,000 people to the streets in Teaneck.

Not to any kind of main street, though, not to a street full of shops, but to the entirely residential neighborhood  where the Orthodox shul stands.

The meeting was to listen to Simcha Greinman, a deputy commander in Zaka. The group is a nonprofit search and rescue organization whose first responders bring first aid, and whose volunteers also collect the dead bodies mutilated by terrorists or devastated by natural or human-made disaster, to provide them with the dignity they deserve and the kind of funeral their religion — not necessarily Jewish — mandates.

Zaka has provided services at a range of disasters, including the apartment building collapse in Surfside, Florida, and a devastating earthquake in Turkey.
Mr. Greinman talked about October 7 and its aftermath at Bnai Yeshurun and at the United Nations on the same trip.

But Palestinian protesters claim that Zaka is lying (it’s not), that October 7 was a lie (it’s not), and that nobody died in a massacre (would that it were true, but it’s not). Because, as Teaneck residents speculate, the town is easily accessible by highway from many areas where pro-Palestinian protesters live, and because it attracts press, there have been many protests, nominally against Israel but increasingly at least apparently against Jews, in the town.

A truck with an electric sign was parked in a driveway near the shul.

Two weeks earlier, a protest against a real estate fair showcasing properties in Israel had drawn Palestinian rage. Frequent protests, on foot and by car, have roiled the town. On Sunday, March 31, a car protest entirely stopped eastbound traffic on Route 4. “It was a caravan of cars with Palestinian flags, and they blocked all the lanes and literally stopped in the middle of Route 4, got out of their cars, and started dancing,” Naomi Knopf said. Ms. Knopf is the chief impact officer at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey; perhaps more to the point here, she lives in Teaneck.

Like many others at the rally, she is upset about what is going on in her town. “Thank God there was no widespread violence — mainly everything was contained — but Teaneck is turning into a powder keg,” she said. “The Jewish community cannot stand to have this happen on its streets any more.”

She described the evening. “The Jewish community showed up at around 6:30,” she said. “It was very organized, and it was a very peaceful crowd”; the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County had sent out instructions suggesting that people be careful not to engage with pro-Palestinian demonstrators, and in general to be polite, civil, responsive — and overwhelmingly present. Those instructions generally were followed.

“There were many American flags and many Israeli flags,” Ms. Knopf said. “We were very focused on singing, standing up for people’s rights to live in their own town without harassment and intimidation.” Many people spoke, she reported — rabbis; members of the still-newish Bergen County Jewish Action Committee;Teaneck’s mayor, Michael Pagan; a member of the advisory board on community relations, Cheryl Hall; and Jason Shames, the federation CEO, among others. Ms. Knopf was moved by the presence of non-Jewish town officials. “They were all speaking to make sure that Jews don’t stand alone in Teaneck. And “law enforcement did a terrific job,” she said.

“There were a couple of hundred protesters,” she continued. The first to get there were from Neturei Karta, the fringe chasidic group that derives most of its identity from its anti-Zionism and routinely shows up at anti-Israel demonstrations.

Most of the pro-Palestinian demonstrators don’t come from Teaneck, Ms. Knopf said, echoing comments made by many others. “It is such a shame that people who don’t live in Teaneck are choosing to take their fight into someone else’s space, and to create a diversion in our town,” she said. Security was a major theme. Tim Torell, the federation’s security guru, was there. “He works very closely with Teaneck and county law enforcement,” Ms. Knopf said.

Ms. Knopf took up another common theme when she found one good thing that has come from the situation in Teaneck. “There’s real unity in the community,” she said. “We all have to stand together, because if we don’t we lose our strength and our voice. Having all of us together — all denominations, affiliated and unaffiliated, religious and non-religious — is empowering. It is essential. I’m sorry that it takes such angst, so many threats, to bring us together, but it was a nice feeling to stand together in the street singing.”

>The singing began with the Star Spangled Banner and Hatikvah, “and at the very end the Jews all stood together and sang Hatikvah. “It was a moment,” she said. “And it shows that we just want to live in peace.

She had registered to hear Mr. Greinman talk, so she left the protest to go into Bnai Yeshurun. “He said that he slept probably five hours in the first week after October 7,” she reported. “No one had ever seen anything like it before. Zaka worked to ensure that all victims were treated respectfully, and that their remains were collected for a proper burial. This was not about politics. It was about giving human dignity to the victims. “The fact that it was a target of outside agitators highlights that they are looking to intimate and harass Jews,” Ms. Knopf said. “They are looking for any excuse to target Jews.”

Chaim Kiss is the second vice president at Bnai Yeshurun, and he is responsible for bringing Zaka to Teaneck. Despite the turmoil outside, there were 550 people inside the shul, watching the Zaka presentation. “We were maxxed out,” he said. “You couldn’t hear the pro-Palestinian protestors inside the shul during the program. We couldn’t hear any music at first, and then we heard our own music, coming from our side. It was a brilliant idea. It was game-changing.”

Joseph Kaplan was reminded of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war protests of his adolescence. He is not troubled, in the abstract, by the idea of pro-Palestinian protests, even though he disagrees with them. “The problematic thing from my perspective is that they are targeting a house of worship,” he said. “I think that what they’re doing is protected under the First Amendment, but just because you have the right to do something, that does not make it the right thing to do.

“And I wish that members of communities other than the Jewish community had supported their Jewish neighbors. They have not, and that felt sad.

“My sense is that the Jewish community feels good about what we did tonight. We came out in good numbers, we were in solidarity, we behaved well, with only a few minor exceptions.

“And two other usual things happened. The Jewish side had Israeli flags and American flags. The Palestinian side had Palestinian flags. And a lot of Jews thanked the police. There was a lot of ‘thank you for your service’ and ‘thank you for your help.’ We didn’t see that on the Palestinian side.”

That is far less important, though, than the critical point that Mr. Kaplan made. “Tonight was not about Israel and Gaza. And Israel and Gaza is a legitimate issue. Hamas isn’t. October 7 isn’t. But issues around humanitarian aid and civilian casualties are legitimate subjects for debate.

Rabbi Avi Weiss of Riverdale joined other protesters outside the shul.

“But this is not what this was about. This was targeting the Jewish community, and specifically a Jewish house of worship. This is just Jew-hatred. This is antisemitism targeting Teaneck.

“Marching through Teaneck — that’s just Jew-hatred.”

Rachel Cyrilnik is the vice president of BCJAC. “It is important for us to take a stronger stand against hate in our community,” she said. “We are standing up against it. We don’t usually like to be occupying the same space” as the pro-Palestinian protesters. “We try to avoid raising the temperature any farther.

“But we felt that their protest against a humanitarian organization, and one that does the most dignified and hardest work possible, and that this was the second protest outside a synagogue in two weeks, left us with no choice but to say that this needs to stop.

“We have no choice but to ask our police officers to enforce the laws, and to ask our town council to protect our town. And the state, too, has a responsibility to protect our residents — and that includes Jewish residents.

A member of the foundationally anti-Zionist Neturei Karta argues with pro-Israel demonstrators from the Palestinian side of the barricade.

“We had an amazing turnout,” she continued. “Cheryl Hall, in particular, spoke beautifully. Our community has been mobilized, and we are really engaged. We are standing up for our ability to live our lives as Jews.”

Teaneck should be an example to other towns. “Our communities should observe what’s happening here, and they too should work to be civilly engaged, to contribute positively, and to make sure that things remain safe,” Ms. Cyrilnik said.

Abe Foxman is the retired longtime head of the Anti-Defamation League.

“Imagine if American Jews picketed and demonstrated in Arab-Muslim communities and in front of mosques — blocking traffic and intimidating the residents because many Muslims support Palestinians?” he tweeted.

“There would be outrage in America. That is what is occurring in Teaneck.”

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