OpinionAntisemitism

Hatred spewed at a Philadelphia borough council meeting

It was replete with misinformation, racism, anti-Israel bias and antisemitism.

The Philadelphia skyline. Photo: f11photo/Shutterstock
The Philadelphia skyline. Photo: f11photo/Shutterstock
Rabbi Lisa S. Malik. Credit: Courtesy.
Rabbi Lisa S. Malik
Rabbi Lisa S. Malik was ordained as a rabbi by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2004. She holds a Ph.D. in education from Stanford University.

This is a tale of two meetings. On Nov. 14, I emerged elated from a meeting of the Lansdowne, Pa. Borough Council. It had unanimously passed Resolution 2023-33, “Condemning the Attacks by Hamas and Rising Antisemitism and Islamophobia in our Community.” Lansdowne is a small, multi-racial, working-class community of about 10,000 people just outside of Philadelphia. Very few of its residents are Jewish, so it was gratifying to know that Jews had the support of our non-Jewish neighbors.

At a Dec. 7 meeting of the council, however, the resolution was revoked after a horrifying meeting beset by anti-Israel hatemongers. Rabid antisemitism was expressed by both leftist speakers who attacked the resolution in person and right-wing speakers who Zoom-bombed the meeting. The heckling that I personally experienced and the abusive behavior of angry protesters were the most palpable forms of Jew-hatred—some of it from self-hating Jews—that I have ever experienced in the 25 years I have lived in the Philadelphia area.

Several of the Zoom-bombers made vile white-supremacist statements, including: “The Jews are responsible for bringing the blacks into this country. They controlled the slave trade,” “Jews control the media” and “Jews caused 9/11.” A swastika was posted. As if that wasn’t enough, we were treated to a recording of Hitler.

Some of the anti-Israel protestors at Borough Hall called these right-wingers’ sentiments “vile” and denied that they themselves were antisemitic. But then they gave voice to their own antisemitism.

This was evident shortly after the floor was opened to public comments. One speaker cited a borough ordinance that limited public comments to borough residents. Another speaker complained that “outsiders” from a “religious sect”—that is, Jews—had been permitted to speak at the November meeting.

There was plenty of outrage about Israel’s supposed treatment of Palestinians, but almost none about Hamas’s sadistic Oct. 7 rampage of mass murder, rape, mutilation and kidnapping. A few speakers meekly acknowledged that the rampage may have been “bad,” but one went on to assert that “Oct. 7 didn’t happen in a vacuum”—citing a line from the pro-Hamas secretary-general of the United Nations. Essentially, the speaker was saying that the victims of Oct. 7 deserved what they got.

Indeed, victim-blaming was ubiquitous. One speaker falsely claimed Israel had “enslaved” Gazans in an open-air prison for 17 years. A few others ranted about Israel’s “75 years of oppression” against Palestinians. There was no acknowledgment of the Jewish people’s ancestral historical ties to the Land of Israel whatsoever.

Despite the protesters’ self-congratulatory rhetoric, frequently using words like “peace” and “love,” their hateful sentiments exposed their hypocrisy. One speaker after another referred to the “fact” that Israel is committing genocide. This is not only a blood libel, but stunningly hypocritical, given that the Hamas Charter explicitly calls for the extermination of all Jews everywhere in the world. The libelists appeared not to understand the distinction between regrettable collateral damage during war and Hamas’s deliberate targeting of civilians during peacetime, including for the purpose of raping women, such as on Oct. 7. Or perhaps they did understand but just didn’t care.

One particularly egregious blood libel came from a Lansdowne resident who asserted that after Israel sent leaflets to Gazans warning them to leave the combat zone, the Israelis mercilessly killed the fleeing civilians. This was a slanderous lie.

Where, one wonders, was the outrage about the real physical entrapment of Israeli hostages—including children, women and the elderly—in underground tunnels, attics and other locations in Gaza? Where was the outrage at the inhuman massacre at the Super Nova music festival? Or the sadistic torture of civilians in Kibbutz Be’eri, Nir Oz, Kfar Aza and other places in southern Israel that were decimated by Hamas terrorists?

More lies came from a Lansdowne resident who asserted that Gazans support the Black Lives Matter movement. She falsely stated: “There is a strong history of allyship between black people in America and Palestinians going back to the Civil Rights Movement.” It was, in fact, Jews who stood side by side with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., NAACP leaders and other black activists at that time. In contrast, the Palestinians and the entire Arab world were completely indifferent to the black struggle. To this speaker, the Jews who were beaten and murdered for advocating black rights did not exist.

This same speaker falsely claimed that Palestinians in Israel are “separated by class like black people” were in apartheid South Africa. Perhaps she and other Lansdowne residents who referred to Israel as an “apartheid state” don’t know that Arab Israelis have equal rights and serve in the Israeli Knesset and Supreme Court. Or perhaps, again, they just don’t care.

Most appallingly, even as she slandered Israel in the most racist manner, the speaker proclaimed that anyone who does not call for an immediate and permanent ceasefire in Gaza has “no soul.” Apparently, one can justify or celebrate Hamas terrorists’ horrific atrocities and still have a soul. If you want to destroy Hamas rather than glorify it, however, it seems you have none.

I certainly did not sense that the anti-Israel speakers and protesters at the meeting had anything resembling a “soul.” In addition to viciously attacking Borough Council president Benjamin Hoover, who initiated Resolution 2023-33, many of the speakers were disrespectful to the few other people in the room who spoke up in favor of the resolution.

I was one of those speakers. I introduced myself as one of the “outsiders” from the “religious sect” who had spoken at the November meeting and as a former congregational rabbi in Delaware County. When I served as the spiritual leader of SJCC Bnai Aaron in Havertown, Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra musicians used to rehearse and store their instruments at our facility. I thought that might give me some kind of right to speak even though I do not live in Lansdowne.

Instead, I was viciously heckled. When I suggested offering a prayer rather than a political statement, I was rudely interrupted by people ranting about the separation of church and state. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the same people did not criticize the Christian clergymen or parishioners who spoke. More disgusting was that people jeered and snickered when I mentioned the Holocaust and the beheaded babies, rape victims and hostages of Oct. 7. When I pointed out that the slogan, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” is akin to the Nazis’ genocidal phrase Judenrein (“free of Jews”), I was met with even more jeers and heckling.

Despite all this, I was glad that I spoke. It helped other Jews in the room who were not Lansdowne residents to speak out as well. One Wynnewood resident whose nephew is being held hostage in Gaza spoke passionately, expressing shock and exasperation at the anti-Israel speakers’ mischaracterization of Hamas, reminding everyone that the genocidal terrorist organization is “not a group of Boy Scouts.” A representative from the Jewish Community Relations Council stood up to read a statement that advocated for Israel’s right to defend itself and rescue the hostages. He acknowledged that the Israeli government may not be perfect, but that did not justify the heinous acts of Oct. 7.

Sadly, anti-Israel slanders were also voiced by a Jewish protester whose letter was read out loud by a friend on Zoom. Another Jewish protester who spoke in person was wrapped in a prayer shawl, an absurd act of gestural politics since Jewish prayer shawls are only supposed to be worn during prayer. He claimed to be a “proud, second-generation anti-Zionist.” Another speaker went on an insane rant, referring to Zionism as an ideology that allowed apartheid in South Africa, led to the slaughter of indigenous people in America, and is responsible for an alleged “genocide” of Palestinians.

In fact, as Alyza Lewin of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law has pointed out, Zionism is not just a political ideology created by Theodor Herzl in the 19th century. The yearning for a return to the Land of Israel has been an intrinsic part of Judaism and Jewish identity for thousands of years. While it is true that not all Jews are proud Zionists, it is antisemitic to discriminate against Jews for believing in Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state or to deny the Jews’ right to self-determination in their homeland.

According to the great Jewish dissident and Israeli politician Natan Sharansky, an anti-Israel statement is antisemitic if it demonizes Israel, delegitimizes Jews’ right to a state or applies double standards to Israel. Sadly, the preponderance of comments made at the Lansdowne Borough Hall met all three of these requirements. What I personally experienced on Dec. 7 reflected “the worst of times” for American Jews.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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