Published Nov. 17, 2023
After participating in a three-week Quaker delegation to Israel/Palestine last summer, I was invited to give a community talk in October at the Unitarian Universalist church in Montclair, NJ, about nonviolent responses to the crisis in Israel/Palestine, the need to work for a just peace, and to share what I had observed about the human rights situation in the Occupied West Bank. The co-sponsors of the talk included Pax Christi, Veterans for Peace, a local FCNL Advocacy Team, and the local chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace.
A segment of the Montclair community opposed this planned event, and they pressured the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Montclair to break its rental contract with our co-sponsors at the last minute. In explanation, one of the UU ministers claimed that Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) has a mission and values that are antagonistic to the values of UUs in Montclair.
We rescheduled the talk to be held instead at the Montclair Public Library on the afternoon of November 12.
On November 10, the local paper published an article that singled out JVP, ignored the other event co-sponsors, and included many uncorrected claims about JVP, including that JVP was an antisemitic hate group that supported the Hamas attack against Israeli civilians on October 7 and that it was trying to incite violence against Jewish families in Montclair. Because of this pressure, the Library Board held a three-hour emergency public meeting on the evening of November 11 to reconsider whether they would allow the rescheduled event to take place the next afternoon.
Several community members spoke in favor of the library standing up for free speech and corrected the singling out of JVP and the false claims against it made in the local newspaper. The library board even allowed me to say a few words during the public comment period, and I explained that my talk would be pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian, pro-peace, and pro-human rights in its focus. Other speakers compared me to Hitler and made many false claims about Jewish Voice for Peace, including that JVP was a violent arm of the Iranian government and a hate group whose leadership and membership was made up by a majority of non-Jews.
After two hours of public comments, the Board met in closed session and ultimately decided to stand up for free speech and allow the event to go on the next afternoon. When this was announced, one community member shouted that the decision was "obscene" and then the Board ended the Zoom meeting.
I arrived in Montclair the next day with Philadelphia Friend Pamela Haines, and there were about 15 police officers and four squad cars in front of the library. They had also place barricades near the library entrance to keep counter-demonstrators from harassing people going into the event. We entered the library, and I was able to give my talk.
Click here to listen to Steve’s talk in Montclair. It begins about 20 minutes into the program.
The library’s community room was filled to capacity with an audience of about 150 people. About 40 minutes into my talk, a few audience members started yelling at me, saying that I was spreading lies and hate speech. When we got to the Q & A part of the event, these same audience members repeatedly singled out JVP and repeated the same inaccurate and slanderous comments about the organization that were stated in the public meeting the night before. I was especially grateful that Montclair Friends were there, all sitting in the front row and beaming at me throughout the talk. They were so supportive.
After the event, the police insisted on escorting Pamela and me to our car, in case anyone might try to physically attack us. They also escorted the JVP members out of the backdoor of the library for their safety. As I was being escorted to my car, a leader of the loud counter-demonstration opposing the event shouted into their bullhorn that Gaza should be turned into beachfront property for Israelis. This same vocal segment of the community pressured the Montclair town council to meet November 13 to consider a resolution to singles out JVP and declare it an antisemitic hate group, and to endorse the firing of the Library Board members for allowing our event to take place on November 12. This is heartbreaking and profoundly undemocratic.
I am so appreciative of the heavy lifting and leadership of Jewish peace groups within the growing peace movement in the US, groups like JVP, If Not Now!, and the Center for Jewish Nonviolence. I have now also seen firsthand what they are up against. I urge all people of goodwill to support them and have their backs in these trying times – and to push for a ceasefire now, the release of the Israeli captives, and the restoration of humanitarian aid to the 2.2 million civilians in Gaza.
by Steve Chase, Friends Meeting of Washington, DC (11/14/2023)