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Jewish groups condemn ‘disrespect’ at Newton forum

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Newton Mayor Setti Warren called a community meeting last week after two incidents of anti-Semitic graffiti were discovered at a middle school, but a group of activists tried to take over the discussion.
Newton Mayor Setti Warren called a community meeting last week after two incidents of anti-Semitic graffiti were discovered at a middle school, but a group of activists tried to take over the discussion.(Photo by Katherine Taylor for The Boston Globe)

Leaders of two Jewish organizations on Monday condemned the behavior of a group of activists at a community meeting in Newton last week, saying the struggle against anti-Semitism must be part of a larger effort to build "respectful tolerant communities."

In a joint statement, the American Jewish Committee Boston and the Jewish Community Relations Council said the activities of those who disrupted a meeting at City Hall on Thursday night "do not represent the broader sentiments of the Jewish community."

The meeting Thursday was called after two incidents of anti-Semitic graffiti were discovered at the Day Middle School, but it was not conceived as a forum to discuss only those incidents. Instead, it was billed as a "community discussion on Newton as a welcoming community for all."

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"To our dismay, a group of activists — who have been identified in the media as members of the Jewish community — disrupted the proceedings," said the joint statement from AJC Boston and JCRC. "An African-American mother was heckled while discussing her own child's experience of racism. There were loud contentions that the only concern worthy of discussion was anti-Semitism. The overall affect was to shift the focus of the meeting from concerns about anti-Semitism, as well as racism and homophobia to the conduct of the meeting itself."

In a multicultural society, the struggle against anti-Semitism "does not take place in a vacuum," the statement said. "It is part of a larger struggle to build respectful tolerant communities where citizens not only tell their own story, but are able to listen and have empathy for the struggles of others."

The director of AJC Boston, Robert Leikind, said in a telephone interview that the two groups were moved to issue the statement because of feedback from members.

"There were people whose experience with prejudice and whose pain was being diminished, and that called for a response," Leikind said. "This seemed like a moment that called for civility and respect and that seemed absent."

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Charles Jacobs, the leader of the activists, said in an e-mail to the Globe that he was "quite surprised" by the statement.

Jacobs, founder of Americans for Peace and Tolerance, has had a longtime grievance with the city's schools about what he says are pro-Palestinian and anti-Semitic textbooks.

"Given that Jews in Europe and in the Middle East are hunted, hounded and murdered because of an anti-Semitism which falsely portrays the world's only Jewish state as among the cruelest of nations . . . and given that the Saudis and United Arab Emirates have been caught funding 'lessons' that taught these things in the Newton schools . . . and given that (Newton) School Superintendent David Fleishman was forced to remove some of this material and yet told the people at the meeting that he knew nothing about it, I think the meeting was, under these circumstance, quite civil," Jacobs wrote.

The statement from AJC Boston and JCRC did not downplay the seriousness of the current escalated climate of anti-Semitism locally and globally.

"To be clear, anti-Semitism has once again emerged as a virulent global phenomenon," the statement read, adding that the incidents of anti-Semitic graffiti at Newton schools "requires serious attention."

"Moreover, it is hardly a secret that pernicious elements exist that are seeking to import anti-Israel and anti-Jewish bias into American school curriculums. We share this concern. However, it does not justify conduct that was manifest at this meeting or the disrespect that was shown to neighbors, who also had difficult experiences of their own to discuss."

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Fleishman was booed when he spoke at the community meeting, and had a police escort to his car at the end of the evening.

In an interview Friday, Fleishman said that Jacobs's complaints about the Newton curriculum being biased against Israel "are issues from the past," which were resolved in 2013.

"They have all our curriculum, our faculty at both high schools spent hours putting together all the material, unit by unit, in response to freedom of information requests," Fleishman said of Jacobs's group.

Fleishman sent an e-mail to faculty on Monday discussing the events of the forum.

"What was intended to be a community discussion to ensure Newton is a welcoming and inclusive place for all turned into a display of disrespectful and uncivil behavior," Fleishman wrote. "Some in the audience were particularly insensitive toward a Newton parent who courageously shared a

story of racism faced by her son."

On Tuesday afternoon, Jacobs's organization issued a statement denying that the woman had been heckled.

In a video of the community meeting posted on the city's website, the woman talks about her son's experiences with racism. Twice she is interrupted, prompting someone in the crowd to call out, "Let her speak."

After the woman sits down, the Warren tells the crowd that the woman "was talking about her perspective. What we don't want to do is in any way denigrate her perspective."

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Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at eishkanian@gmail.com.