From Teaneck’s front lines

From Teaneck’s front lines

A firsthand look at how the Hamas attack in Gaza plays out at home

The protestors outside the town council meeting waved flags to show their affiliations.
The protestors outside the town council meeting waved flags to show their affiliations.

The thrust of my column last week (“What to Do?”) was to explain why my future columns, in the short term, will likely continue to be about events, issues, and ideas that interest me beyond the current crisis in Israel. But though I am retired, I still remembered my legal training and professional experience, and therefore added this caveat: that I may write “about Israel if I believe I actually have something meaningful to say.”

And that’s what I hope to do this week.

First a note about the title. I understand the very real difference between Israel’s actual front lines and Teaneck’s metaphorical ones; I am well aware that the lives of those on the front lines in Israel are literally at risk, while most of us here 6,000 miles away feel personally secure and sleep safely in our beds. I’m therefore not comparing our situation to Israel’s in any sense other than the rhetorical.

Since the hybrid form — cars (electric and gasoline) and meetings (live and Zoom) — is currently in vogue, I’m going to try something new for me and write a hybrid column; first reporting, in a somewhat staccato manner, on events that I’ve recently seen on Teaneck’s front lines, and then offering my analysis and opinion about some of those events.

There were two rallies in Teaneck last week.

The Rabbinical Council of Bergen County and the Jewish Community Council of Greater Teaneck sponsored one of them, the Unite for Israel rally in Teaneck’s Votee Park. That rally drew more than 2,000 people, including government leaders and some of our non-Jewish neighbors and supporters. The Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and other groups organized the second one, a rally showing support for Israel at the Kaplen JCC in Tenafly; 3,000 people were at that one, including the Rev. Dr. Michelle White of Teaneck’s Christ Church.

Local government leaders, such as Dean Kazinci, Teaneck’s town manager, and Michael Pagan, its mayor, admirably, promptly, and proactively issued strong messages of condemnation of Hamas’s terrorist slaughter and support of Israel and Teaneck’s Jewish community. However, notwithstanding Dr. White’s personal attendance at the JCC rally, there was no similar public statement by the leaders of Teaneck’s non-Jewish faith communities.

Local synagogues and other organizations geared up to support Israel with prayer and provisions. Synagogues created lists of names of soldiers in the IDF and the missing, as submitted by their members, for inclusion in special prayers said during services; after one week, my synagogue’s list grew to seven pages of small font. It seemed that everyone here was related to or knew someone, or knew someone who knew someone, in Israel who was directly impacted by what happened in those horrifying hours and their aftermath. The outpouring of love, grief, emotion, and support was palpable.

Hillary Goldberg, a member of Teaneck’s seven-person town council, drafted the “Resolution Denouncing the Terrorist Group Hamas and Supporting the State of Israel,” which expressed solidarity with Israel and its right to defend itself, condemned Hamas’s inhumane terrorism, prayed for the safe return of the hostages, and supported Teaneck’s Jewish community. Two other council members, Danielle Gee and Denise Belcher, drafted the “Peace and Unity Resolution,” which expressed support of all Teaneck residents, including the Jewish, Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim communities; valued the lives of “innocent civilians in both Israel and Palestine”; and supported a humanitarian solution of the crisis minimizing the loss of innocent lives. (Both resolutions had more to say as well.)

Initially, the advocates of each resolution did not support the other resolution. And since neither resolution had been placed on the agenda of the council’s October 17 meeting, a majority of the council first had to approve adding the resolutions to the meeting’s agenda before they could be voted upon.

Interestingly, Hillary, together with Danielle, Denise, and Michael (knowing most of those referred to, I’m using first names) form the town council’s four-person majority. The other three members, Eli Katz, Mark Schwartz, and Karen Orgen, all of whom supported Hillary’s resolution, comprise the minority faction. Thus, support for these resolutions did not match the usual political alliances.

These seemingly competing resolutions were not the first expression of disagreement in Teaneck about how to best react to October 7; there already had been sharp exchanges between residents on Teaneck Facebook pages. (Disclosure: I was an active participant in many of those threads.) And once the resolutions came to the fore, such discussions proliferated, with increased heat.

Joseph C. Kaplan

After the resolutions were made public, a “United for Peace” vigil was scheduled to take place on Teaneck’s municipal green immediately before the council meeting. The vigil’s flyer highlighted “Standing Together in Solidarity”; there was no mention of Israel or Hamas. The vigil drew only about 50 people (I attended as an observer and not a participant), was poorly organized, and fizzled after 25 minutes rather than lasting the scheduled hour. There were a number of speeches, with the first noting that the vigil was not the place for “value judgments” or “politics.”

(Disclosure: I read a second-hand report that there had been Facebook posts canceling the vigil, claiming that those people who did attend were there because they hadn’t seen the message. Perhaps. I’m skeptical, though, since I saw numerous posts on FB with pictures of the flyer and exhortations to attend, yet I didn’t see anything about a cancellation.
And I looked.)

Since the vigil ended early, I was able to get on line for the council meeting half an hour before the doors opened. Whew; I just barely made it in. Hundreds did not.

When the discussion about placing the resolutions on the agenda began, Danielle said that although she and Denise had issues with some of the language of Hillary’s resolution, they would vote for it. This assured that the resolution would be added to the agenda and its unanimous approval. Hillary, Eli, Mark, and Karen, however, took a different approach to Danielle’s resolution. Since they were opposed to some of its language, they did not vote to add it to the agenda, though they noted that they hoped to resolve the language problems and vote for a revised version at the next meeting. But without a majority vote, it stayed off the agenda and was not voted on.

And then, three (yes, THREE!!) hours of public comments about the resolutions ensued. Most speakers used their brief time (three minutes maximum) to express deep emotions of passion, grief, and anger while describing their views about the history of the conflict, current events, geopolitics, Teaneck politics, and their reasons why one or both of the resolutions should or should not be approved. (Disclosure: I was one of those who spoke. I commended Dean and Michael for their earlier statements and Hillary for writing and proposing the resolution, strongly urged its passing, and supported passing the second resolution as well.)

After midnight, at which point I was already home watching the meeting on Zoom, Hillary’s resolution was passed unanimously, 7-0. During the council members’ comments about that vote, Danielle noted again that she was voting for Hillary’s resolution despite not having a say about its language, some of which she had problems with. She therefore expressed her disappointment that her resolution — which was not voted on since it had not been placed on the agenda — did not receive similar consideration.

Since I was inside the council chamber, I missed what was happening outside in the parking lot where many people who hadn’t been able to get into the council chambers remained. (The following is based on videos I watched and reports I received from others who were there.) Because of mounting tensions between supporters of Israel and supporters of Gaza, the Teaneck police — who deserve commendation for ensuring that there was thankfully no violence — physically separated the two groups. The Muslim side, according to the videos I saw, chanted anti-Israel slogans; the Jewish side sang soulful songs. I heard that many of the Muslim demonstrators were outsiders who had been bused in, but I wasn’t able to verify that. The Jewish demonstrators were Teaneck residents.

And one last factual report before opinion. After the conclusion of the meeting, seven members of Teaneck’s Advisory Board on Community Relations, including all of its Muslim and People of Color members, resigned, partially because Hillary’s resolution was passed
and Danielle’s was not. Four members — including me — remain on the board.

So what personal insights do I have to add? Here are just a few.

First, initial events often set a tone for what follows. And, as I already noted, there was an initial silence from the leaders of other faith communities in Teaneck that was hurtful to the Jewish community, especially to the many who in the past stood in solidarity with other Teaneck communities when they were suffering pain. It was a deeply disappointing silence to those from the Jewish community who, for example, marched for Black Lives Matter and rallied in sadness in front of Teaneck’s Municipal Building in the aftermath of the horrors of the 2019 Christchurch massacres of Muslims. Had there been supportive statements rather than silence, some — though certainly not all — of the animosity and conflict between Teaneck communities might have been abated; some of the tightly sewn seams between Teaneck’s Jewish community and its neighbors might not have begun to fray and unravel so quickly.

The “peace” vigil was disgraceful. It wasn’t only that talking about “peace” while ignoring the horrific events that precipitated the vigil made such talk meaningless. Rather, it was reprehensible to imply that mentioning the slaughter of civilians in their beds and at bus stops, the butchering of toddlers in what had been thought of as safe rooms, and the abduction of Holocaust survivors to yet another hell on earth, and drag babes in arms with them, is an unwelcome “value judgment.” Were those attending — especially the one member of clergy who spoke — not taught by their parents and in her theological school that terrorism and slaughter and hostage taking are the epitome of evil? Did they not learn that abhorring and condemning such vile actions are value judgments we cherish, not ones we relegate to silence? For shame!

Hillary’s actions during this fraught time are deserving of a Profiles in Courage award. She had solicited the support of the Muslim community during the recent hard-fought election and knew that her resolution would anger those supporters, which, as comments at the meeting made clear, it did. Nonetheless, for putting conscience over politics and the welfare of Israel over personal considerations, she deserves the gratitude not only of the Jewish community but also of all Teaneck residents who oppose terrorism. As I said publicly at the meeting, I’m proud to call her a friend.

Danielle and Denise also showed courage and conscience in voting for Hillary’s resolution in order to emphasize their support of and concern for their Jewish neighbors, even though the resolution had some language they disagreed with. I’m impressed with and grateful for their vote and understand their disappointment.

Which brings me to perhaps my most controversial opinion. I think the council made a mistake in not putting Danielle’s resolution on the agenda and then voting unanimously for it. I understand the problems the members who voted to table it had with some of the resolution’s language, especially its reference to Palestine as if Palestine is a country — a problem with the resolution that I share. But there are times when we should nitpick and edit and rewrite and redraft, and there are times when we need to put our blue pencils down and act promptly and decisively even if not perfectly. This was, I believe, the second. Nothing stopped those members voting to table from asking Danielle to change Palestine to Gaza and the West Bank, or from making explanatory statements during the vote that could have ameliorated any misunderstanding. It wouldn’t have been perfect, but it would have been good for the entire community.

I admit I didn’t feel that way going into the meeting. I had thought, based on discussions with those involved in the process, that Hillary’s resolution would pass by a 5–2 vote. While that would have been good, it would not have been good enough; sometimes unanimity rather than a mere majority is needed.  (Old Jewish joke. A synagogue president goes to visit his ailing rabbi in the hospital and says: “I have good news, Rabbi. The board voted to wish you a refu’ah sheleimah” — a full recovery — “25–10.”) Denouncing terrorism and supporting a reeling Israel and its supporters, including Teaneck’s Jewish community, had to be, like wishing your rabbi good health, a unanimous decision by Teaneck’s leadership. A lack of unanimity coupled with the second resolution would have been analogous to turning a Black Lives Matter declaration into an All Lives Matter one.

But once Danielle announced that she and Denise would vote for Hillary’s resolution, that calculus began to change. And it changed even more, at least for me, as I heard many of my Muslim neighbors speak at the meeting about the isolation they were experiencing with the tabling of a resolution that recognized the grief they were suffering because of the death of civilian friends and relatives in Gaza and the fear they were feeling as Islamophobia, like antisemitism, sadly was increasing. Thus, because of the combination of the assured unanimous support for Hillary’s resolution and sensitivity for the feelings of my Muslim neighbors, I thought it would have been best to support all Teaneck’s residents and pass both resolutions unanimously. And had that happened, I’m not sure that the Community Relations Advisory Board would have disintegrated.

As I continue to watch too much CNN, including too many videos that my psychologist friends and relatives tell me is not good for my psyche, read too many newspaper reports and op-ed articles, and spend too much time on Facebook, I’m sure I missed some things, made some mistakes, and hold opinions that those on both sides of the dispute disagree with. Though I regret any factual errors, I do not apologize if my opinions differ from yours. Rather, I hope we can discuss them as neighbors and friends.

And that’s the way it was on Teaneck’s front lines in the post-October 7 times in which we live. Joseph Kaplan, Jewish Standard, reporting.

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