Englewood is a small, heterogeneous city; its residents represent a range of ethnicities that in a happier, more innocent time could have been called a glorious mosaic. It’s not as if there were no tensions — there were, and it was never static. But on the whole, and in part as the result of hard work at building and maintaining relationships, people got along.
And then Hamas attacked Israel with stomach-turning brutality, and the shock waves from that barbarism upset carefully maintained relationships around the world. Including in Englewood.
Less than two weeks after the attack, Englewood’s city council voted on a resolution condemning it; the resolution won unanimous approval. Englewood was the first municipality in Bergen County to offer such a statement.
That was that, Englewood’s mayor, Michael Wildes, believed.
But then 12 hours before the next meeting, set for October 24, despite the situation in Israel and Gaza not being on the agenda, “we learned that a demonstration was planned,” Mr. Wildes said. “The police department had all of 12 hours to prepare for it. They did a stellar job.”
About 700 people on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides showed up to demonstrate. The mood was tense, the hatred was evident, the threat of violence was unmistakable. The city council meeting ended precipitously, and the police were able to maintain order. They arrested five people, all pro-Palestinian.
Palestinian protesters, mostly from out of town, were drawn to the municipality because “people look at Englewood as a Jewish enclave,” Mr. Wildes said.
Most but not all of the demonstrators did not confront each other directly. “As you walk into the municipal building, the Palestinian protesters were on the right side, and the people supporting Israel were on the left side,” he said. “People on both sides were not shy about expressing themselves, and they also made assumptions that are unfounded.”
Mr. Wildes is an Orthodox Jew and an immigration lawyer. “I have a significant Palestinian and Arab following in my practice,” he said. “That’s a badge that I wear proudly because I look at us as being biblical brothers.
“I have clients who are partners — one is Muslim, one is Jewish — and sometimes I see them in my office, one of them praying on the carpet and the other davening in the corner, and both of them are facing east, toward Jerusalem and Mecca.”
He also has been met with great compassion and generosity from many non-Jews in the city, he said; many of them have given him donations that he’s sending on to United Hatzalah, the Israeli branch of the international emergency medical responders organization that “is composed of Jews and Muslims and Christians and Druse and Bedouin.”
The situation in Gaza now is difficult; Mr. Wildes does not pretend to know what the Israelis should do or what will happen next. But he does know that “it’s unconscionable that the kidnapping of innocents, the kidnapping of babies, of grandparents, that anybody would find justification for that.
“I had the privilege of representing Nelson Mandela’s grandson this week. I asked him: ‘Do you think of Israel as an apartheid state?’ and he said absolutely not.”
Still, he said, despite the depravity of Hamas’s attack, “it’s clear that no matter what it does, Israel is never going to win the PR war. It’s never going to convince people that what it does is justified. So they just have to do what they have to do.”
Peaceful protest is a positive thing, a constitutionally protected right, but violent protest is not. So at the protests on October 24, “it was important to us to make sure that anybody moving from peaceful protest to violence would be prosecuted,” Mr. Wildes said.
Mr. Wildes hopes that the interfaith, interracial coalitions that have been built in Englewood will work to help heal the divisions. He’s put in the work over the years, he said. “I take pride in that I walked in 18 Black Lives Matter marches, despite the mothership organization being highly antisemitic. My community needed to know that I know that Black lives matter.
“Now, I’m hoping that my brothers and sisters will walk with me. I did receive phone calls from a handful of people, but I need to hear people say that they’ll walk with me.
“I had the privilege of hosting John Lewis in my home” — Mr. Lewis, a civil rights advocate and later a member of Congress, was a towering, near mythic figure in the fight for social justice — “and he sent me the signed picture that sits on my desk, a picture of him walking with Dr. King, that says ‘Keep the faith. Keep walking.’
“He knew me to be the Shabbat-observant mayor who walks miles on Shabbat to go where I’m needed in the community. Now, I need my brothers and sisters in the Black community for comfort, for support, for love, because my community needs to know that we’re not alone.
“It’s nice to get phone calls. It’s much more important to know that people will walk by our side.”
It’s getting ugly in Englewood, Mr. Wildes said. “I heard from a rabbi in the community about a man who was sitting on a balcony in Englewood. He was wearing a kippah. Two neighbors started yelling at him that they were going to kill him — because he is Jewish.”
The situation is under control. “He made a police report and spoke to our detectives,” Mayor Wildes said. He hopes that it will be pursued as a bias crime. “We’re going to reach out to the owners of the building and see that the perpetrators are prosecuted to the fullest extent possible.” But it’s unnerving.
Mr. Wildes knows that the Jewish community has the support of President Biden and Governor Phil Murphy. Also, he said, “Englewood has one of the best police departments in the state and a wonderful city manager, Robert Hoffmann.”
After the the city council meeting, “I was flanked by five police officers. I walked outside, the rally was winding down, and I went over to the Palestinian community.
“I went through the police barrier with the officers and I saw them spitting on an Israeli flag, stomping on it, and desecrating it.
“And much to the chagrin of the police department, I went over, I picked up the Israeli flag, and I kissed it.
“And I said to them” — the protesters — “‘This is not happening on my streets. You don’t see anybody desecrating your flag on the other side. Good evening, gentlemen.’
“They started to scream at me, and the police escorted me to my car.
“I wasn’t going to allow that to happen. I wasn’t going to walk away from it.”