Nine people were arrested this morning during an act of civil disobedience at the offices of the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, a non-profit committed to the education and wellbeing of the IDF. A total of 14 people, ranging in age from 20s to 70s, participated. It was part of a larger protest against the war in Gaza, organized jointly by two Jewish groups that advocate for Palestinian human rights: Jewish Voice for Peace and Jews Say No!
The 14 protestors entered the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces’ offices south of Times Square (on Golda Meir Square) at 11 a.m. “We said we wanted to discuss donations, which was correct,” said Felice Gelman, who elected not to get arrested. “They said, ‘Wow, all these people, fantastic,’ and opened the door.” Then the protestors explained: “We are here to demand that you end your support of the IDF and stop your contributions to the war in Gaza.”
“They had a very freaked-out response,” Gelman said. “First they told everyone ‘Stay in your office, don’t come out,’ and we said, ‘We’re very peaceful people here, we’re just here to tell you that we insist you stop your contributions to these deaths.’”
The Friends of the IDF called the police immediately.
“They were very, very agitated and freaking out, telling us we were trespassing,” recalled Candace Graff, a 24-year-old participant in the protest, who left the building before the arrests.
While waiting for the police, the protestors sang songs (“We are peaceful Jewish people, we are singing”), and then started to read the names of the more than 600 victims of Operation Protective Edge in a call and response. An employee of Friends of the IDF took pictures on his cellphone.
By 11:10 a.m., two police officers arrived. “I don’t know if you want to reach out to—I don’t even know who to reach out to,” one of the officers said into his cellphone after assessing the situation and stating the address of the events. “They’re not violent. Not violent at all, nothing like that. It’s a civil disobedience type of thing.”
That’s when the Friends of the IDF objected to my standing outside the office, and I was escorted to the elevator.
Outside the building, the somewhat larger protest was underway. About 20 people held placards reading “Stop Funding Mass Killing” and “American Jews Say: Israel Stop Killing Civilians.” They, too, read aloud the names of victims of the Israeli assault on Gaza. Five people were lying on the ground with red-stained sheets over them. “Jews stand with Gaza!” the protestors chanted. “Stop the bombing now!”
Though the protest was small, members of “Jews Say No!” who routinely protest on the Upper West Side said that in recent years, people have been coming over to them more and more often and thanking them for what they are doing. Today’s protest got a lot of attention from people walking through the busy square. Many stopped to look.
Some also stopped to shout. A group of young men in dress shirts and ties came outside and heckled an older woman handing out pamphlets. “Get ‘em out of here!” They shouted at her. “Send her to Gaza!” and “I’ll drag these fucking bodies across the fucking street!” Other disputes erupted between protestors and bystanders. “Zionists don’t deserve a microphone!” One of the protestors shouted.
Just after 11:30 a.m., NYPD counter-terrorism officers arrived and were ushered upstairs to where the protestors who’d gone inside were being held. A half hour after that, two police vans drove into the loading zone and the garage door was pulled down after them. Minutes later, the vans drove off with the nine protestors, who had been arrested.
Dorothy Zellner, a founding member of “Jews Say No!” says the organization consists of “concerned Jews in and around New York City” and was formed in December 2008 to express opposition to the siege of Gaza. A 76-year-old former civil rights activist, Zellner explained the motivation behind today’s action: “People are just horrified beyond words—sick, sick at heart, at the carnage that’s going on,” she said. “There is absolutely no excuse for the civilian casualties. And this is coming from a country that claims it has precision bombing. It’s an outrage and our Jewish tradition forbids this. Our Jewish tradition says you must care for the other. You must respect and care for the other. It’s a tradition that is being violated and we as Jews cannot stand it.”
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Batya Ungar-Sargon is a freelance writer who lives in New York. Her Twitter feed is @bungarsargon.