‘They’re here because we’re here’

‘They’re here because we’re here’

Eyewitnesses talk about the protests against the real estate fair in Teaneck

Rabbi Michael Taubes’ parents moved to Teaneck more than 60 years ago and he “can think of very few days in our community as disturbing and unpleasant as” last Sunday, March 10, he wrote on Monday, in a letter addressed to Teaneck’s town council members.

Rabbi Taubes, who has led Teaneck’s Congregation Zichron Mordechai, an Orthodox synagogue, since 1992, was referring to a protest that took place outside another Orthodox synagogue in town, Congregation Keter Torah, against a private event showcasing Israeli real estate that was being held on the premises. He expressed concern about the “hate-filled slogans” that “at least some” of the protesters “were loudly chanting” and about protesters targeting “a local house of worship and harass[ing] the people going there to attend a private affair.”

Gidon Katz, who lives in Israel, produced the real estate event. He noted that he’s been coordinating similar events for the past 25 years and has never seen anything like this protest. The events feature vendors, mostly builders, but also some service providers, including lawyers and mortgage brokers, and “basically allow potential buyers to grasp in an hour or two many options,” Mr. Katz said.

The idea is to give participants an opportunity to compare housing options in different areas. “A participant considering both Netanya and Tel Aviv can compare five projects in Tel Aviv and eight in Netanya,” and get a sense of the type of housing, and the type of community they are looking for.

Sunday’s event featured 35 vendors, representing more than 100 projects, “literally all over Israel,” Mr. Katz said. “In the north, in the south, in the center, in the deep south, along the coastline, in Jerusalem.” Of the more than 100 projects only one was over the green line, and it was in Efrat, right outside Jerusalem, he added. And he stressed that the event was not promoting sales of land in disputed territories.

“Efrat is an area that all American administrations have accepted as an undisputed area,” he said. “I’m not talking about Israeli right-wing governments. All American administrations have accepted that this would be part of Israel. It’s not like a settlement somewhere in the middle of Samaria. This is part of greater Jerusalem.”

Mr. Katz said the protesters outside the synagogue “yelled for like five hours.” He heard them from inside “calling to destroy me and to kick me out of my home in Israel because I live in occupied Palestine, and from the river to the sea there’s no existence for a Jew.”

But turnout was good, he said. More than 400 people attended.

One woman who lives in Teaneck and requested anonymity, was there with her husband and teenage daughter. When they left, they turned out of the synagogue parking lot and drove eastward on Roemer Avenue. “It was like driving through a gantlet,” she said. “They closed traffic in the opposite direction so it was one lane of traffic with a wall of police officers on your right,” between the street and the synagogue, “and a wall of protesters on your left.

“This was late in the day,” she continued. “I heard that earlier it was tamer, but I think it got more rowdy as the day went on.

“We had the windows closed but we heard them yelling at us as we were driving by, ‘You’re terrorists. You’re murderers.’ They weren’t even telling us we were stealing land. They were just going straight to calling us terrorists and murderers.”

Her daughter, who has a learner’s permit, was driving, and they felt something hit the car.  “We thought it was a rock,” she said. She had her daughter stop the car and she rolled down the window to tell the police officer on the right that someone had just thrown something at the car. The officer told them to keep moving. “I think he didn’t see what happened because he was on the other side of the car,” she said. “And I think they just also wanted to make sure things didn’t get overheated, so he just wanted to keep the traffic moving.” As they drove, they started to see red splatters on the windshield, and it dawned on them that the item they thought was a rock actually was a paint ball.

When they got home, they saw that the side of the car that had been facing the protesters was completely covered in red paint splatters. A friend suggested she call the police department’s non-emergency line. “The dispatcher told me, ‘yes, you should definitely file a police report online and an officer will be in touch with you,’” she said. “‘Just don’t expect to hear from them today, because all the officers are busy at the synagogue.’”

Most of the paint came off in a car wash. Within about three hours, there were two officers at her front door. “They were beyond professional, I was really impressed with them,” she said. “We’re very fortunate to have them.”

The next day, the police department released a statement that said that two arrests had been made. “According to the statement, there were five counts against each of them,” she said. “So that means there were four other victims. They’re being charged with a bias crime, which is serious. This wasn’t just we disagree with your political views, this was a hate crime.”

An important detail, she added, is that “the two perpetrators are not from Teaneck, and probably neither were a lot of those protesters.” One of the people arrested is from Worcester, Massachusetts, and the other is from Hanover.

And she stressed that her concern is not about the car. “I don’t care if there’s a little bit of red paint,” she said. “It’s about the intimidation and how scary it feels to be in Teaneck right now. This is not the town that we moved into.”

Yigal Gross sees Sunday’s demonstration, and the paintballs that were hurled, as part of a larger pattern. Mr. Gross lives in Teaneck and is the spokesperson for the Bergen County Jewish Action Committee, an organization formed by a group of Teaneck residents after October 7 in response to anti-Jewish and anti-Israel speeches at town council and board of education meetings. Its purpose, according to the organization’s website, bcjac.org, is to fight antisemitism and foster harmony within the local community.

“To me, the key point is this is not just an isolated incident,” Mr. Gross said. “Sunday’s demonstration,” which BCJAC estimates drew about 1,000 participants, “is coming after a series of events that have been going on for months now — car protests, walkouts, events in our public parks. Events happening in our town use slogans like ‘flood Teaneck streets’ and ‘flood Teaneck’s parks’ –parlance meant to evoke for our community a sense of fear. Using terminology from the Al Aqsa Flood operation” – the October 7 attack – “is not by accident. They’ve used the language multiple times for months now.”

Both Mr. Gross and Rabbi Taubes stressed that there is nothing inherently wrong with protests. “If anyone would champion the right to free speech, it’s our community,” Mr. Gross said. “It’s specifically these types of rights that have allowed Judaism and Jews to flourish in America. “

Rabbi Taubes wrote, “I am well aware of the fact that in the United States, people whose views I personally find most abhorrent … have the freedom to express their opinions in public.”

“I don’t think in a vacuum, and as isolated incidents, protests are problematic,” Mr. Gross said. “The key question to me is what the intent is. To me, if you’re looking to make a statement and to give a certain message, I think that’s fine, so long as you’re nonviolent and you’re respectful.”

The problem, he said, is when “you start harassing people.

“Driving constantly through Teaneck, and honking, and throwing stuff at local people, is not going to change the policy of the Israeli government,” he continued. “But what I think it’s going to do is disrupt the lives of Jews here in Teaneck, and to me, that seems to be the goal. It doesn’t seem to be to protest the policies of the Israeli government. It seems like a way to basically use the Jews of Teaneck as a proxy for taking out whatever anger or aggression they have to the Israeli government’s policies.

“And to me, that is almost the definition of bigotry, where you’re basically attributing the actions of a government to a bunch of innocent Jews living in Teaneck.”

Like the woman whose car was hit by paintballs, Mr. Gross pointed out that many of the protesters, both at Sunday’s demonstration and at earlier events, do not live in Teaneck. Not only were the two people who were arrested not local residents, neither were many of the people who were quoted in local news reports. “That’s been the general trend here,” he said. “We’re seeing a lot of people from Montclair, a lot of people from Paterson, basically surrounding areas, being bused into these events.

“But I don’t think there’s another town in Bergen County which has had the amount of events that we have had,” he said. “They have been here repeatedly, constantly, and I don’t think that’s an accident. And they have been here in ways that are disruptive, and using language and using symbolism that I think is meant to provoke fear and to intimidate.

“What sets Teaneck apart from Glenrock and Cresskill? Why are they here, of all places? What’s the geopolitical significance of Teaneck, New Jersey0? The answer is its large Jewish community. They’re here because we’re here, and they’re targeting us.”

Rabbi Taubes made a similar point. “It is quite clear that the people organizing these rallies are doing so specifically in Teaneck because their aim is to antagonize and intimidate the comparatively large Jewish population here.”

“I think that a significant message that these protesters are trying to send is that they are watching the Jewish community here in Teaneck,” Mr. Gross added. “That they are getting into our business, as it were, and part of what we are objecting to is the idea that they seem to be trying to make us feel uncomfortable in our own homes and in our own synagogues. “

Mr. Gross also noted a pattern of slander. Organizers of a walkout “made all kinds of claims about people in our community attacking them, being violent, driving cars into them,” he said. “All of which never happened. The local police have investigated these claims. There are no police reports, no witnesses.” And he mentioned a similar concern about Sunday’s protest. “Organizers characterized the real estate event as essentially for whites only, portraying it as racist, as a white or Jewish supremacist event, insinuating that people were excluded based on their national origin, which is completely inflammatory and not true,” he said. “It was not for Jews only – there were non-Jews in attendance.

“There’s just a general sense that our community feels like it’s under attack,” he added. “Judaism is a religion that by its nature welcomes a diversity of opinions. At the end of the day, it’s disagreement, debate — that’s what makes us stronger. But I don’t think this is really about people trying to have respectful debate. It feels more like just seizing on certain events as an excuse to harass a community.”

Rabbi Taubes concluded his letter by urging council members to “acknowledge the problem” and “work together, perhaps, with communal leaders from across the town political and religious spectrum, to come up with a way to control it before things get even worse for the township as a whole, because it definitely appears that this brewing crisis is heading in that direction.”

Mr. Gross also is concerned about Teaneck’s future. “There were existing tensions in Teaneck that October 7 didn’t start but certainly exacerbated,” he said. “One of the things that BCJAC has been trying to do over the last couple of months is lower tensions and try to bring Teaneck together, recognizing that we’re a diverse community with different cultures.”

The organization has been hosting “intercommunal events — basically neighbors getting together, people from different backgrounds spending time talking to each other and getting to know each other,” Mr. Gross said. BCJAC piloted the program on a relatively small level and is hoping to expand it.

It’s very hard to work on integration against a backdrop of “tension, constant protests, and constant incitement at town council meetings,” he continued. “It’s very hard to build bridges in that kind of environment, but we’re trying to lower the temperature and try not to engage with protesters at council meetings.” He hopes cooler heads eventually will prevail.

“At the end of the day, hopefully the current conflagration in Israel and Gaza will settle down,” Mr. Gross concluded. “And the question is where Teaneck is going to go. Are we thinking about the future? Are we thinking about how we’re going to find a way to live together?

“Because I think there are things that we are doing now that are going to be very difficult to fix down the road, and it’s going to be very hard I think, as a broader community, to come back together after some of the things that have happened here. BCJAC is dedicated to trying, but it’s going to be a challenge.”

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