It is like no other demonstration I have ever participated in. You turn to face the oncoming traffic with each changing of the traffic lights. Sometimes you might move five or six steps and pivot to face and get closer to the scores of vehicles that will be coming at you from one of three directions until the next light change. Many of the people in the cars, so close, are eyeing you, reading the signs. I am holding two. One reads “Stop the killing,” the second, “Free Gaza.” Occasionally, the motorists or their passengers shout their displeasure or make a vulgar gesture, but surprisingly, many more people react positively, they give us the V sign, honk their horns or give us a thumbs up. The usual 45-minute protest elicits about a half dozen negative reactions and maybe two and half dozen positive ones. Last week a man wearing a t shirt with Arabic printed on it stuck his head out the window smiling and shouted, “Thank you.”
One protester called it a vigil. Ed Kinane, who with his wife, Ann Tiffany, is an organizer of the protest, told me that vigil is “too liturgical.” He calls it “an action” or simply Street Heat. It is a demonstration of solidarity with the weekly Friday Palestinian “Great March of Return” protests which are held at the border fence in Gaza. Every Friday (with a break for the Syracuse winter) between 4:30 and 5:15 PM, since shortly after the Gazans began their border protest, on March 30, 2018, a small group of dedicated activists stand at a busy intersection in the Syracuse, New York (pop. approx. 150k, metro area 750k) suburb of DeWitt displaying signs protesting the shooting and killing of unarmed demonstrators by the Israeli army and calling attention to the plight of the occupied Palestinians of besieged Gaza and the West Bank.
I have participated in what I think of as the DeWitt Gaza Street Heat action since May 10th. I came to both express solidarity with the Gaza demonstration and also to show support for the regular demonstrators since the Palestinian solidarity group to which they belong has come under a relentless assault of completely spurious charges of antisemitism by some in the local Jewish community.
Not long after the DeWitt demonstrations began, the Jewish Federation of Central New York sent a letter to the Syracuse Peace Council (SPC), a group which is comprised of smaller groups who work for various progressive causes. The letter accused its pro-Palestinian activists who are in The Justice for Palestine Committee, of “anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic bigotry” which “constitutes the core of the JPC’s [The Justice for Palestine] local activism of hostile anti-Israel expression.” Ed Kinane feels that although the Street Heat demonstrations were not mentioned in the letter, that the demonstrations may have been its immediate cause. After all, the Street Heat takes place in the suburb where many Jews live and we are often reminded of this fact by the electronic billboard at the intersection which periodically flashes an advertisement for the local Hebrew day school.
The location of the action was not specifically chosen, Kinane told me, because it is in the Jewish suburb of Syracuse. Kinane has led demonstrations for his anti-drone campaign at the same site. He says it simply is a good place to demonstrate: there is heavy traffic, good safe places to stand, and it is easy to find a close spot to park. Despite this, all who participate are now very much aware that we are in the Jewish part of town. This was brought home when some members of a nearby synagogue complained that the demonstrations were causing them “to feel uncomfortable” when they pass by on their way to Friday prayers.
This is not the first time demonstrations against Israeli occupation have occurred at this site. Andy Majer, who was a long-time staff member at the Syracuse Peace Council and is still active in its group that works in support of the local indigenous Onondaga Nation, told me about demonstrations by a Jewish group called Women in Black in the 80s and 90s. Majer also participated in an anti-occupation demonstration at the DeWitt site in the early 2000s with a group called Syracuse Jews for Peace. After that demonstration he was denounced from a synagogue pulpit by Rabbi Charles Sherman, who was a long-time rabbi at Temple Adath Yeshurun. The Rabbi told his congregation that Majer was a “traitor” and a “self-hating Jew.”
The two leaders of the present-day DeWitt demonstrations are longtime activists in many varied causes. Their dedication and persistence are well-known in Central New York and beyond. Ed Kinane, 74, a Syracuse native, is a veteran of the anti-apartheid and Latin American anti-imperialism campaigns of the 80s. Although he is not religious, Ed told me that his activism is informed by the Catholic Worker Movement and he has participated in many of their protests. Kinane was involved in the actions against the School of the Americas (SOA) in the 90s and served a one-year sentence in prison for defacing federal property at one of the SOA actions.
During the last decade he has led weekly Street Heat demonstrations at the local Hancock Air Force Base to protest the use of drones which are remotely piloted from there to help fight the “US war on terrorism” in Afghanistan and other places. He has been arrested for trespassing at Hancock so many times, he has lost track of how many long ago. In the actions at Hancock, the protesters have been joined by well-known activists Medea Benjamin and Cornel West. The ex-CIA analyst, Ray McGovern, has participated in the action and been arrested for his role in the demonstrations.
Ann Tiffany is an incredibly youthful and vigorous 84-year-old. Ann has created most of the signs available to the Street Heaters. She invariably holds a sign that reads, “Justice for Palestinians means life for the children.” Ann cut her teeth on political action in the Sanctuary Movement of the 80s, in which local churches gave thousands of Central American refugees shelter “illegally” in the US. Tiffany served a six-month prison term in the 90s as a result of her participation in the SOA protests. Tiffany went on a tour of the West Bank, as did her husband Ed, before making the Palestinian struggle one of the foci of her activism.
On Thursday, June 21, Ann was arrested along with Ed, and another regular at the DeWitt protests, Julienne Oldfield, in an action at Hancock Air Force Base. After spending 12 hours getting processed in a police station all three were at their usual posts at the DeWitt Street Heat the next day. Here is a short Democracy Now report about the action. Oldfield and Kinane are shown at the end of the line to the left of the screen.
Last February, the false charges against the Syracuse pro-Palestine activists reached fever pitch. In a short article, a Syracuse University student, Justine Brooke Murray, who is a campus reporter for campusreform.org, a right-wing website, questioned the appropriateness of Syracuse University student internships at the Syracuse Peace Council because its Justice for Palestine Committee supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS) and a few of its members participated in a demonstration which disrupted a talk at Syracuse University by Israeli Consul to the United States, Dani Dayan.
The Murray article was a report on a January event in which various members of the Justice for Palestine Committee gave presentations. Murray included a video she made at the event in her report which went viral on social media. The student reporter expressed outrage at Justice for Palestine Committee members for saying that the Palestinians have a right under international law to use violence against Israelis because they are an illegal occupier. In the Murray article, Pat Carmeli, a frequent participant in the DeWitt demonstrations, quoted Norman Finkelstein who has often expressed this view, which is simply a description of relevant international law. Just recently, Stanley Cohen explained the legal right to use violence against agents of occupation (but not civilians) in a recent article on al Jazeera. Both these men, Finkelstein and Cohen, I cannot help noting, are Jewish.
After the Murray article and accompanying video went viral, Professor Miriam Elman a Syracuse University professor, who has recently taken a sabbatical from her teaching duties at Syracuse University to work full-time for the American Educational Network, an organization which supports anti-BDS activity on US college campuses, said the video showed an “explicit hatred expressed for Zionist Jews” and the Syracuse Hillel chapter said the “local pro-BDS organization, made anti-Semitic and anti-Israel statements …. [and comments] related to using violence against those who identify as Zionists.”
Suddenly a short article and video which actually contained little that was not standard opinion among those who are active in the struggle for Palestinian rights, was transmogrified into accusations of hatred toward and the advocating of violence against, local Jews.
These new accusations echoed the earlier June Federation letter which stated that the activism of The Justice for Palestine Committee “has escalated to the point where reasonable Jewish people now have concerns for their physical safety.”
Another regular in the Friday pro-Palestinian DeWitt demonstrations is Paul Welch. Welch is about the last person who could be accused of posing a physical threat. He is the Diocesan Director of Social Action Ministry at the Syracuse Catholic Diocese. Paul went to a Franklin Graham rally at the end of May which drew 6,100 participants, with two 18” by 24” signs. One read “Jesus loves Palestinians” and the other read “Thou shalt not steal Palestinian land.” Paul had written the rally organizers that he intended to sit in a place where he and his signs would be visible but would not block the vision of any of the attendees. When he was denied entry to the amphitheater, he agreed to make his protest in one of the venue’s parking lots, standing close to its entrance. Paul is the only regular member of the regular DeWitt Street Heat protest group who is not a member of the Justice for Palestine Committee.
Another Street Heat regular is Julienne Oldfield. She is a member of The Justice for Palestine Committee, but seems the least concerned about the antisemitism charges. She thinks that what is important is to stay focused on the plight of the oppressed and to continue the demonstrations. All the rest, she assured me with a smile, will take care of itself. After spending 12 hours on Thursday in a police station following her arrest, I asked her at the Friday protest why she did not take the day off after all she had endured the day before. She looked at me with her wonderful smile and told me with the utmost sincerity, “No I can’t do that, the Gazans can’t take a day of from their oppression.”
It would be interesting to know how prevalent charges of antisemitism by local Jewish organizations against pro-Palestinian activists are. Ron Johnson is an activist in Rochester, NY. He is the founder of Christians Witnessing for Palestine, which produces the annual Witness for Palestine Film Festival. Johnson told me of a different experience with the local Jewish community. His organization and the local chapter of the Jewish Voice for Peace demonstrated against the Israeli occupation on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the 1967 June War. The demonstration was held in Brighton, an area in which many Rochester Jews live. They were met by a small group of counter-protesters, some quite rude according to Johnson. Although the head of the Rochester Jewish Federation made her dismay about the protest known in a letter to the local paper, she wrote in the Rochester Federation newsletter that she had been advised that it is best to simply ignore these protests.
In Rochester, there has been no public criticism from the organized Jewish community of any Witness for Palestine events since 2017. In one action a female member of Witness for Palestine challenged a speaker in a Jewish community space during a well-attended rally of support for the IDF. When the ensuing commotion died down, the activists left without incident and there was no further pushback from the Jewish community.
One major difference between the Rochester and Syracuse situations is the Rochester activists are not part of a larger umbrella organization like the Syracuse Peace Council to which the Jewish groups can appeal. Also, unlike Syracuse, Rochester has an active Jewish Voice for Peace group that has been supportive.
Another Street Heat participant, Pat Carmeli was born a Catholic on Long Island, New York. While in college she met her future, now former, husband and they eventually moved to Israel where the family lived “a very comfortable life,” between 1994 and 2004 in Caesarea, a little over a mile from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s villa. She raised four children as Jews in Israel. She told me that when she returned to live in the United States she felt as if she had saved her children from being part of the Israeli racist culture and its army of occupation which oppresses its Palestinian population. Pat is very proud that three of her children are active in the struggle for Palestinian rights.
Pat Carmeli has a very special role in this story. She has been the driving force in Central New York Israel/Palestine activism, at least since I made her acquaintance ten years ago. It is very possible, if it were not for her truly admirable and ceaseless efforts, there may have been no Federation letter nor CampusReform video. She has hosted and funded the local appearances of many speakers including Alison Weir, Miko Peled and Norman Finkelstein. These are all Israel critics who have been falsely and repeatedly accused of being antisemitic and/or making antisemitic remarks despite the latter two being Jewish.
Five years ago, Carmeli confronted Simon Peres with an unwanted question about illegal settlements and objectionable Israeli policy in front of 4000 fawning people, mostly Colgate University alumni and employees. A report on this incident was posted by Pat here on Mondoweiss. Carmeli is by all rational measures an unlikely candidate to be singled out as an antisemite. She finds the charges against her mystifying especially since most of her heroes and most of the speakers that she has hosted are Jewish.
Charges of antisemitism used to combat public figures such as Jeremy Corbyn and Ilhan Omar who challenge Israeli policies are well-known. The use and extent of similar false claims against local activists are not well-known. I have attempted to interview Michael Balanoff, the CEO of the Jewish Federation, and Miriam Elman for this article. Both refused. Balanoff wrote that the Federation letter is a private matter and not appropriate for public discourse. I also attempted to interview staff and members of the Steering Committee of the Syracuse Peace Council. None have been willing to talk about accusations of antisemitism against the local activists.
Every week we place extra signs against one of the street sign posts in the hope more demonstrators will come to join us. They sometime do, but not as many as we would wish did. I wonder how much the charges of antisemitism, even for people who know they are false, discourage people from joining the demonstration. Despite everything the morale of this small group is high, fortified by the supportive honks of the passing drivers and by the knowledge that more and more activists are joining in the effort to bring the injustices of the Israeli siege, occupation and the struggle for Palestinian rights to the attention of the US public. It is the faith that this small group has that the justice of their cause will prevail and their ability to not be deterred by the false claims of antisemitism, that has kept me returning to DeWitt every Friday.