How I Got Protesters Yelling At Each Other To Talk

Insults were hurled, arrests were made... and some progress was, too.

Outside my office today, two groups of protesters verbally assaulted each other, screamed insults, and tore each other's hats off before they attempted to exchange words.

But when they did, some common ground was found.

The event occurred on 42nd Street and 3rd Avenue in New York City, where Milo Yiannopoulos, Pamela Geller and a host of other far-right conservative provocateurs had come to give speech after speech deriding American-born Palestinian activist Linda Sarsour.

On June 1, Sarsour is set to give a commencement speech at City University of New York's Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy, an appearance that has infuriated many on the right. Sarsour's politics are controversial. She has supported movements to boycott Israel financially and is one of the faces of the anti-Trump resistance. A columnist for the progressive Jewish magazine Forward recently wrote that Sarsour was "too extreme" for CUNY's commencement speech after he alleged witnessing her organize unruly protests against Israel during a New York City Council Public Hearing.

And in early March, I was standing directly in front of Sarsour reporting on a Trump protest when she was arrested outside Trump hotel for refusing to disperse from the street. 


But as the rally went on, and protesters to the protesters emerged, I noticed something odd: so many people were saying the same thing. Despite the rally explicitly being to oppose Sarsour's speech, headliner Yiannopoulos said he supported her commencement address as he hoped she would be expose herself for who she really was. It was a confounding moment as the protesters of the protesters looked on, many seeming ready to pounce on Milo, realizing they were there supporting the same thing — despite wanting that same thing for different reasons.

As this anti-Sarsour, anti-Sharia, pro-Trump rally ensued, I noticed a peculiar group across the street: a collection of Haredi Jews who were holding the flag of Palestine and rallying against Zionism. As a Jew who has lived in Jerusalem and studied in yeshiva, I found the image perplexing. I'd heard of these pro-Palestine ultra-orthodox Jews, but I'd never seen them in person before.

Their presence created an interesting juxtaposition. On one side, there were people in Make American Great Again hats chanting that Sarsour hated Jews. Some even held signs that literally read "Linda Sarsour hates Jews." On the other side, there was a Haredi rabbi in Orthodox garb saying the complete opposite.

"I know Linda Sarsour," Rabbi Dovid Feldman told me. "I can tell you for a fact Linda Sarsour does not hate Jews."

Rabbi Feldman explained that he was part of Neturei Karta International, a group of Orthodox Jews who oppose Zionism and the state of Israel. Their opposition is based on a few things, namely that God decreed Jews in a state of exile and that the State of Israel contradicts Judaism. In essence, he declared the state of Israel a materialistic possession that God prohibited Jews from having, and said that the Torah forbids us from ending the exile until the Messiah returns to redeem Jews.

Isaac Saul / A Plus

While Rabbi Feldman explained his beliefs to me, a younger Orthodox Jew approached us screaming "FAKE JEWS! FAKE JEWS! FAKE JEWS!" He shoved his camera phone in the rabbi's face and screamed at him violently, telling him he was a disgrace and asking if it was Purim — a Jewish holiday often celebrated with costumes. He was suggesting that the rabbi was merely dressed as a Jew.

Calmly, Rabbi Feldman looked at me and said he wished he could sit with that gentleman for a day and share his views. A few moments later, Trump supporters from across the street joined the younger man in chanting "fake Jews" and berating the pro-Palestine counter-protesters with curses and insults.

As the younger man left to berate some other counter-protesters, I stopped him and asked him to stay and talk. I asked him why Rabbi Feldman and Neturei Karta made him so angry. 

"They support Iran, who wants to exterminate Israel," he said. "They are Holocaust deniers. They hold up the flag of Palestine and oppose the Jewish state. They're sick."

As the man spoke, Rabbi Feldman listened quietly, then corrected some of his accusations. He explained he does not support Iran, though his group has met repeatedly with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has called for the destruction of Israel. He does not deny the Holocaust — in fact, he'd lost relatives in the Holocaust — but he has attended conferences where Holocaust deniers were present. And, most importantly, he saw no conflict between supporting Palestine and his religion.

"I don't need a state of Israel to have a Jewish identity," Rabbi Feldman said. "There is a decree from God that Jews are in diaspora."

Rabbi Feldman pressed on further with the young man who had just been screaming in his face, who had called him a fake Jew and claimed he was sick. He asked the young man if he was affiliated with Chabad, another Orthodox Jewish Haredi movement. The young man said he was, and the rabbi pointed out that Chabad leaders are also anti-Zionist, something the young man had to concede

After a few minutes, the two actually began talking calmly. They argued and the young man would often anger at the rabbi's words, but they managed to exchange a few ideas and stopped insulting each other. Once the rabbi left, I spoke alone to the young man, who said he believed that the rabbi truly felt he was doing the right thing, but that leaders like Ahmadinejad had manipulated him into dividing the Jewish people. 

Slowly, the Neturei Karta began packing up their things. As they did, I watched another incredible moment unfold. A Trump supporter who had led a chant to thank the police officers for arresting a counter-protester, only to later scream and curse at Rabbi Feldman, watched as the same police chief he gushed over approached the group of Neturei Karta.

A Trump supporter (right), screams obscenities at a group of pro-Palestine Haredi Jews. Isaac Saul / A Plus.

And when he did, it was clear that he and Rabbi Feldman knew each other. The rabbi smiled and greeted him. They held their handshake, exchanged pleasantries, hugged, smiled, laughed, and thanked each other both for providing the space for the protest and for using that space peacefully. I watched as the Trump supporter's anger began to diffuse, as the dots began to connect, as he realized the man he had been screaming obscenities at was now sharing a smile and a hug with the police chief he had just hailed a hero minutes before.

To my amazement, it almost looked as if he was realizing their sides weren't actually so different. 


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