The State of Our Town

At some point in recent State of the Union addresses, presidents have usually said something positive about, well, the state of the union. President Reagan was the first (“the State of our Union is strong”) and President Biden the most recent (“the State of our Union is strong and getting stronger!”). It’s a trope that will likely outlive us all.

I’m no president (thank God, for both me and the country), but I am a member of Teaneck’s Advisory Board on Community Relations. And though I speak only for myself and not the Advisory Board or anyone else, I would say with great sadness that the state of our community relations is not strong. Indeed, it’s badly frayed, and the fabric is tearing.

And as Exhibit 1 in support of that statement (my litigator days are never far from mind), I would offer the demonstration in front of Congregation Keter Torah on March 10 by anti-Israel supporters of Palestinians in Gaza, and related protests and social media activity.

I wasn’t present at that chaotic event, but I saw videos and read detailed descriptions of it in numerous articles, including one in last week’s Jewish Standard and another in the New York Times. And I experienced first-hand some of the demonstration’s aftermath in social media discussions among Teaneck residents that quickly became sharply contentious, sometimes nasty, and often divisive. Those divergent opinions about the demonstration, the war in Gaza, and the overall Middle East situation made more impenetrable the already existing barriers between neighbors.

Before I grapple with what, if anything, can be done to improve the situation, permit me some personal thoughts about the demonstration. It arose mainly from a viral statement made during Good & Welfare at a meeting of Teaneck’s Council, in which a resident, in a screed against Israel’s actions in Gaza, asserted that an Israeli real estate event that was scheduled to take place at Keter Torah, a large Teaneck Orthodox synagogue, should be canceled because, he alleged, it violated domestic civil rights and international law. If not, there would be a demonstration protesting it. His statement about the event’s alleged illegality was repeated and supported at the meeting by Denise Belcher, a council member.

The only true part of either statement was that there would be a protest. Otherwise, the allegations of illegality were unsupported and are unsupportable; the real estate event was simply not illegal. I wasn’t surprised by the resident’s statement because he is a well-known malcontent whose contemptible anti-Israel statements and activities have been rampant in Teaneck for years. I was, however, deeply distressed that a member of council would so unconscionably join in such meritless and vile accusations against her constituents. I expect more from my representatives.

I am, of course, as opposed to the protest’s message and the actions of the protesters as I am to the many anti-Israel car rallies recently plaguing our town, which included numerous non-Teaneck participants. The tired accusations hurled against Israel at all these protests of genocide, apartheid, land theft, terrorism, and 75 years of occupation, and the hackneyed chants of “from the river to the sea,” “death to Israel,” and “Hitler was right,” are both false and despicable.

Yes, the Middle East situation is highly complex and contains competing narratives. But honking horns, yelling at passersby, waving flags, hanging out of cars, running red lights, marching and chanting vile slogans outside a synagogue, burning Israeli flags, throwing paint balls, yelling at and frightening people, and turning a residential area into a closely protected police zone doesn’t turn lies into truth. Rather, it turns protest into harassment of Teaneck’s Jewish community, a group that wants to live peacefully in their homes beside their neighbors, even those with whom they disagree. (Note that I use harassment in its non-legal meaning of “creating an unpleasant or hostile situation, especially by uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical conduct.”)

My feelings about these protests become more nuanced, however, as I grapple with the question of how to react. There was a public letter to the Town Council from Rabbi Michael Taubes, one of Teaneck’s highly respected congregational rabbis and educational leaders who is also a lifelong resident. His letter was deeply thoughtful and, as expected from the son of Professor Leo Taubes, one of my writing mentors, articulate and well-written. (Parenthetical aside: After my wife, Sharon, and I moved to Teaneck, we were privileged to become friends with Professor Taubes and his wife Rina. It took me several years, though, to actually call him Leo to his face.)

R. Taubes is clearly disturbed by the protests. Yet, though he, like I, strongly disagrees with their premise, he understands that “in the United States, people whose views I find most abhorrent … have the freedom to express their views in public.” But he is concerned with the targeting of a house of worship, the harassment of people going to attend a private event, and the protesters’ aim of antagonizing and intimidating Teaneck’s Jewish population.

He is also concerned with the possibility of this becoming “a step upon a slippery slope towards potentially serious challenges to freedom of worship.” And he asks whether the time hasn’t come “for our elected representatives to put their heads together with other dedicated communal leaders to come up with a creative way to put an end to, or at least substantially limit, these rallies?”

R. Taubes graciously spared me some of his valuable time to discuss his letter. We chatted about protests in general and the fact that even false and vile chants are protected under the First Amendment. But we also noted that not everything that took place at the demonstration was protected speech. Thus, shooting a paintball at a person or a car is assault and/or battery, ripping an Israeli flag out of the hands of a supporter of Israel is theft, and both possibly could be deemed hate crimes. But I concluded after some initial legal research that protesting on sidewalks in front of houses of worship is protected speech. Unless the protest invades the house of worship, the free exercise rights of the worshippers do not outweigh the free speech rights of the protesters.

Moreover, would we really want to protect houses of worship against protest? Remember, this protest was during a real estate event and not worship times. So imagine a hypothetical in which a Teaneck mosque invited a member of Hamas’s “political wing” (as if there really is a difference between Hamas’s “political” and “military” wings) to give a speech justifying the events of October 7. Clearly, the Teaneck Jewish community — joined, I would hope, by many of their non-Jewish neighbors — would want to exercise their First Amendment rights to protest such an obscenity. But a rule protecting a Keter Torah-like event would similarly protect this type of mosque event. (Note: This is just a hypothetical. I don’t believe that my Muslim neighbors would condone such an abhorrent event in their place of worship.)

As for non-resident protesters, even they have protected rights. I’m old enough to remember the civil rights era, when Freedom Riders from across the country, who traveled through the South in the early 1960s to protest segregated bus terminals and in support of voting rights, were derided by southern bigots as “outside agitators.” The fact that those protests were holy ones in the view of moral people, while the protests in Teaneck are the mirror opposite, makes no difference to what is constitutionally protected. We can be annoyed, even angry, that outsiders come to our town and disrupt our lives for an unjust cause. That annoyance and anger is justified; passing laws to stop them is not.

R. Taubes also noted with concern the expense to Teaneck for police protection to “keep the peace” during these protests. I also don’t like a higher police overtime budget line item resulting in increased taxes. But that’s a cost of American constitutional democracy. Remember, there was increased police protection and thus increased costs to Washington DC’s residents when 300,000 of us recently rallied there, and there will undoubtedly be increased police protection at the forthcoming Yom Ha’Atzma’ut celebration in Votee Park. We are grateful to our wonderful police department, which protects Teaneck’s residents so well, and we should therefore shoulder these costs gratefully, even as we grumble at our tax bills.

So my answer to R. Taubes’s question is that I doubt there are any creative solutions to stop the protests. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be done. First, the police can continue to arrest people who break the law. In addition, the town leadership also has freedom of speech and the power to use it. As such, they can openly and vocally support a beleaguered and besieged group of residents being singled out on a regular basis by provocative and harassing tactics; support the free exercise of religion, including worshipping in peace and tranquility; and support the right of all Teaneck residents to be able to live freely in their homes without being frightened and bullied.

Moreover, there’s something we can do. As my rabbi, R. Chaim Strauchler, said in his sermon last Shabbat, “Now is not the time for us to cower in fear.” Rather, we can “stand up as proud Jews and proud Americans, and proudly fight for our people in Israel and here in Teaneck; we can proclaim our rights as Americans to not be intimidated and to not be discriminated against; we can assert our rights to the free exercise of religion and not be physically attacked by supporters of terrorism.”

In a country which, in the words of George Washington in his letter to the Jews of Newport, “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” we need to ensure that we “who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants.”

The First Amendment, in just a few short words, enshrines two precious freedoms in both constitutional law and our American ethos: the free exercise of religion and freedom of speech. These freedoms live side by side in our second foundational document as we in Teaneck live side by side with our many diverse neighbors.
And just like those freedoms sometimes bump heads but eventually exist in peace, may that also be true for Teaneck’s neighbors, so all can, again in Washington’s words, “sit in safety under [their] own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make [them] afraid.”

[Note: This column appears – with pictures and sub-captioned “Some reflections on the tensions in Teaneck” – in the front of the Jewish Standard, rather than in the Opinion section. It immediately follows a news article by Leah Adler about one response by the Jewish community to the demonstration I discuss.]

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is the author of “A Passionate Writing Life: From ‘In my Opinion’ to ‘I’ve Been Thinking’” (available at Teaneck's Judaica House and its website). A retired lawyer and long-time resident of Teaneck with his wife Sharon, they’ve been blessed with four wonderful daughters and five delicious grandchildren.
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