BORO PARK – A protest against Council Member Kalman Yeger’s “Palestine doesn’t exist” tweet was overtaken Thursday by a raucous counterprotest as the political divide in the Middle East flares up in New York.
At about 6 p.m. on Thursday evening, adults and schoolchildren began gathering on the corner of 16th Avenue and 45th Street. There was a car parked on the road with flags that said “Trump 2020.” In about ten minutes, the street was swarmed with people chanting “Israel” and holding signs that said “Zero tolerance for anti-Semites” with a photo of Minnesota congresswoman Ilhan Omar.
In a matter of an hour, about 200 people supporting the council member’s comment had gathered on the small block. Some were even perched on the fire-escape until they were told by the NYPD to come down.
One man approached me, looked at my press pass, and said: “This is your fault.”
This episode began this week when Yeger tweeted that Rep. Ilhan Omar was an anti-Semite, I responded that it was this very council member that has previously said that Palestine does not exist. A story by Bklyner from last year highlighting his tweets about Palestine was linked in the tweet.
Yeger responded, “Palestine does not exist. There, I said it again. Also, Congresswoman Omar is an antisemite. Said that too. Thanks for following me.”
The tweet received backlash from activists and elected officials, many of them who called for him to leave the Immigration Committee.
The man of the hour did not come to say hi. Rather, Yeger’s fierce supporter Assemblymember Dov Hikind was in attendance. He repeated several times that Yeger “has a right to his point of view.” He then led a chant saying, “Linda Sarsour is a terrorist,” referring to an Arab-American activist who wasn’t actually there.
About 30 minutes into the protest– or lack of– people angry with Yeger’s tweet showed up. In total, there were a bit over a dozen. There were so few of them and so many of counter-protestors, that their voices drowned when they were trying to speak. But nonetheless, that did not stop them from chanting, “From Palestine to Mexico, all the walls have got to go.”
There were a few members of a militant extremist group with a violent history, the Jewish Defense League (JDL), who were very vocal, stuck out their middle fingers, and shouted “boo” when protestors were chanting.
“We’re standing up for our rights. Linda Sarsour condemned tweets that the NYC councilman made and he was only tweeting the truth,” one woman with a JDL shirt on told Bklyner. “We’re allowed our opinions… There is no such thing as Palestine… He tweeted the truth and we came here to stand up for him.”
When Bklyner noted that the tweet was not about Sarsour, rather it was about him denying Palestine, someone in the crowd that had formed shouted, “The truth is a very bitter pill to swallow for many people.”
“Jews don’t murder people like the Arabs do, OK?” another man told Bklyner.
One protestor told Bklyner she was there to support Palestinians. She said Palestinians deserve their identity.
“I can’t say that they don’t exist. It doesn’t make sense to me. I am here for their humanity,” Sabrina Zahir. “It’s anxiety provoking for me to hear the shaming and the hateful words. My heart is beating fast.”
When the number of counter-protestors began to grow, cops formed a line on the edge of the sidewalk to keep the sides separate. But at one point, some crossed the line and began shouting “Go home” to Palestinians.
Throughout the hour, people were shouting hateful things, and asking questions to Muslim women such as “Did the Arabs murder any people today? They did they burn any pregnant women?”
Some held the Israeli flag and shouted, “Linda Sarsour, where are you?” At one point, a woman asked me if I knew where Sarsour was. When asked, how I could possibly know, she replied, “She’s your people, so you should know.”
Children as young as nine booed the Muslim women that walked by. They stuck out their tounges and shouted “Israel.”
“This is causing hatred. We used to live in peace with our Palestinian neighbors. We know that there’s no religious conflict between us,” Yitzchok Deutsch told Bklyner in the back of a police van that was driving protestors to their cars.
“We need to address that those people surrounding us and chanting at us don’t represent the Jews from Williamsburg and Boro Park,” he said. “There are thousands of us and we just want peace.”