Israel wasn’t on the agenda until township opened Nov. 20 meetings for public comments.
It was supposed to be a regular town council meeting. On the November 20 agenda: economic redevelopment, the use of leaf blowers and cannabis sales. What was not on the agenda was the war in Israel, the Hamas terror attacks and the town’s response.
Yet, when the meeting was opened for public comments, several individuals rose to express their discontent with the local town council, whose views, as one speaker said, “do not represent me.”
They took aim at the flying of an Israeli flag over Town Hall, of the handling of a planned protest by students who support “Palestine” at West Orange High School and the township’s statement on October 7 issued just hours after the terror attacks and kidnappings by Hamas, expressing the West Orange’s support of Israel and the local Jewish community.
“Supporting Israel is both a matter of upholding our democratic values here at home and also promotes stability abroad in the region,” said the October 7 town statement. “Israel’s commitment to human rights aligns with Western values and deserves our attention, prayers, and full measure of support today and during the difficult days that lie ahead.”
At the November 20 meeting, a woman who identified herself only as Noha said: “You have taken the freedom, with no consideration to us, to express that you stand with Israel with the explanation that this is a place that upholds Western values in the region. Are you aware of how problematic and upsetting that is?”
She added that the Israeli flag, which was flying on Town Hall in the aftermath of the October 7 terrorist attacks, “is a constant reminder of the pain our Palestinian community is enduring right now. … We want a Palestinian flag next to the Israel flag. We demand a ceasefire now. Choose peace.”
Eric, who said he is Jewish and moved to West Orange three years earlier with his family for the diversity of the community, also spoke out against the town’s support of Israel. He said there is a “false equivalence of equating the State of Israel with Judaism.”
He went on to claim that “Israel has intentionally bombed hospitals and schools” and that “Israel is wiping out entire family lineages.”
The Israel Defense Forces have rejected any claims that they are targeting civilians, saying that Hamas and other terrorists use innocent people as human shields and that they are using schools to hide weapons and have built terror tunnels under the hospitals.
The Israel flag that is flown “in front of our town hall [is] a flag that represents death and destruction to so many,” Eric continued. “Never again means never again for anyone. Free Palestine and ceasefire now.”
According to Stephanie Ladone Johnson, the town’s October 7 statement “offered nothing in the way of services for its residents. This administration declared that West Orange stands with Israel without community input, conversations with constitutions [and] literally no evidence to support this stance.”
“You do not speak for me,” she said, telling officials that they have “created a township where people cannot speak against the settler colonial regime of Israel without being attacked. … You are on the wrong side of history.”
Several speakers also took aim at the town council for not supporting students’ rights to walk out of class to raise awareness for Palestine and the “suffering” of the Palestinian people.
Among those in the audience listening to the speakers disparage Israel was Sheila Lefkowitz. A longtime resident of West Orange, she attends nearly every town hall meeting; when she heard what was being said on November 20, she knew she had to take action.
“I was worried because they were making their story known. They were not of the same viewpoint as my neighbors and I, and I thought it was important for the town to hear all sides,” Lefkowitz said, noting she was particularly dismayed to hear the calls to take down the Israel flag. “It made me scared. This is not isolated to West Orange; it is happening all over the country.”
She immediately reached out to several Jewish community leaders including Larry Rein, the town’s deputy mayor, to let them know what was happening at the meeting.
According to Rein, members of the community immediately sprang into action, with some 50 people showing up in person and another 40 or so tuning in online. At one point, there were more than 130 people watching the town council meeting remotely. By the time members of the Jewish community had arrived to share their viewpoints, the anti-Israel speakers had already left.
Among those who did speak on Israel’s behalf was Joseph Rozehzadeh, a dentist, who escaped Iran when he was just 12 years old. He told the council that the way Hamas murdered children on October 7 was so brutal, the only way they could identify them was through their dental records because teeth were the “only things left.”
“This is not a fight over land, but of people who want to destroy the Jewish people,” he said. “Living here in America, I support the [Israeli] flag being up. Every year it should be flying high and strong, and Am Yisrael Chai.”
Renee Glick, one of the founders of the Stand Up for Israel MetroWest group, participated remotely and told the council via Zoom: “As a Jewish member of our community, I am very distressed to hear many pro-Palestinians in our community standing for Hamas. As a result, many Jewish public students are facing antisemitic threats on a daily basis and fear for their safety.
“Hamas is classified by the U.S. as a terrorist organization. Hamas has taken terrorism to an unprecedented level, beheading and burning babies, raping and mutilating teenage girls, and kidnapping and torturing the elderly and disabled,” Glick continued. “To stand with Hamas, regardless of your political views on Israel, means you stand with evil.
“After 9/11 no one dared demand a ceasefire from the U.S. Likewise, Israel should not be forced into a ceasefire until terrorism is obliterated and the hostages are safely returned”
“The end result is that the Israeli flag is up today,” Rein said, a day after the meeting. He noted that the Town Council did say that if Palestinian supporters want their flag to fly in West Orange they will have to go through the official process and apply for it like all other groups.
“I’m proud of our community,” Lefkowitz said. “All I had to do was place two or three calls, and people showed up. People provided different points and all made good contributions” to the meeting.