In the Swirl of Hatred: Can We Listen and Weep?

by Brayton Shanley

Ongoing, Relentless Nakba Exhibit

I have known for months now that my good friend and pro-Palestinian activist, Skip Schiel, had a photo exhibit scheduled at the Newton Public Library.  The exhibxait title, “The Ongoing and Relentless Nakba: The Palestinian Catastrophe of 1948 to Today” could be a frontal challenge in these times, for a town with a sizeable Jewish population.  I asked myself: “Will the bloody truth of Israel’s ground war in Gaza be “coming home to Newton?” A warning sign arrived the day before the opening reception for the exhibit when local media predicted that 50-75 protestors would be at the library.

Having always been impressed with Skip’s career as a photojournalist I was excited at the prospect of his sharing 21years of solidarity with the suffering of Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli government and military.  His presentation consisted of 14 photos of Palestinian people, and images of their destroyed homelands, now in Israel, and mostly forbidden for them to visit.

Skip, was to share his own long history in Israel-Palestine, followed by three commentaries by Palestinian residents of Newton.  The hope was that the Palestinian voices would complement Skip’s photos with personal narratives of their own Nakba experiences. 

I called Skip the day of the presentation and shared a serious concern:  What will you do if pro-Israeli Jews attend with the express purpose of interrupting or worse?

The plan was that if such a disruption occurred, the main moderator Jill Charney, a Jewish Native of Newton, along with chosen conflict de-escalators and the police would intervene and re-set the ground rules: civil engagement with no interruptions.  I was still worried: Was this realistic? Were the program directors underestimating how pro-Israeli, pro-Zionist locals might power their way in and disrupt the presentation?

Still, my commitment to this bold and timely gathering was strong, and I felt compelled by friendship and the historic nature of this Gaza bloodbath to attend.  These times demand direct engagement as the “whole world is watching” the ongoing slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza.

Arrival at The Library

Arriving at the library an hour before the presentation, I noticed a pro-Israeli contingent buzzing around the main room.  One Jewish protester noticed that the first two rows of seating were “reserved.”  Outraged, he started taking away the “reserved” cards with about ten of his companions, all of them insisting: “This is our library.  It is a public space.  There are no reserved seats.” 

They continued to hang out and harangue about the evening gathering to come. I wondered whether I was observing their preparation for a plan to be the first in the room, take over the front seats and then grab as many of the other seats as were available. That would position them well to disrupt any attempt to present the views of the program.

The general tone of the 100 or so people lining up outside the library seemed peaceful enough.  The pro-Palestinian people in the line struck me as a bit pensive, and no doubt, intimidated by the pro-Israeli presence which dominated.

Skip arrived with his friends Peter Lowber, Steve McKnight, and John Bach.  Together, we set out food for the attendees.  A friend of Agape, and a native of Mosul, Iraq, Sabah Kader, arrived, receiving a “special pass” and entered the presentation area.  Sabah is an Iraqi Muslim with strong Palestinian sympathies.

About one half hour before the presentation was to begin, the police allowed 150 or so people to enter.  With only 48 chairs mostly taken up by the pro-Israel protestors with a mix of others–supporters, and people ready to listen with an open mind. Most of the pro-Palestinian attendees were left to stand in the back and packed in rows behind and around the seated people.

I shared privately with Skip that the “reserved” signs had been taken down angrily by pro-Israel people. Predictably he appeared concerned.  The scene was becoming increasingly volatile with the pro-Israeli contingent, holding placards high, positioning themselves to take over the room and the talk.

This Presentation Won’t Happen

An elderly Jewish man from Newton, turned to me and spontaneously commented: “This library is awful.  It never takes any chances.  I have been to Israel, and they won’t even have me come to speak here.  I am against Netanyahu, but I support the State of Israel.”  I responded: “The library seems to be about to take a huge risk now.”  But he insisted: “This presentation will not happen.  They will interrupt it.  It will be impossible.” 

I then moved to the front to be near the speakers and the police.  The mood was so intense that any altercation could ignite the anger seething in the room. 

The police sergeant in charge attempted to quiet the increasingly boisterous pro-Israeli crowd: “This presentation will be conducted with civility.  We are here to protect a civil discourse.”  As the crowd quieted down some he continued: “All placards must be put down.  If you disturb the meeting, you will be removed.”  His threatening tone seemed to keep the crowd momentarily contained and on good behavior. 

“When one person is speaking, the rest of you will be quiet” he insisted. At this, the protesters sitting up in front broke into sneering laughter. When he repeated his demand for quiet, the laughter continued. But he had made his demands clear and walked into the crowd at the front of the presentation hall, with the rest of the police. 

Next, Jill Charney, the moderator for the evening, stood up to a continual drone of sarcastic remarks and began with a strong and yet strained voice: “This presentation is about the art of photography and its effect on us.”  Each point she made was met with steady, derisive comments.  Several protesters shouted out: “This is one-sided.  Where is the ‘other side’?”  When Jill praised the Library Director Jill Mercurio for having this event, the protestors chanted: “Shame.  Shame. Shame.”

A slow, non-stop pandemonium began to pervade the room.  In the front row, two men broke out into a frightening, vicious shouting match. When the police officers began to move in their direction, the vitriol subsided but returned in full rage 5 minutes later.

Skip was next to speak.  For reasons unknown, there seemed to be no microphone available.  As he began to talk without a mike, and could not be heard, the decibel level of the chanting grew.  With courage and stature, Skip walked up the aisle to speak directly to those who appeared civil and eager to listen.  They responded with enthusiasm, by “mike checking”, also called “the people’s microphone,” repeating back the lines of his statements.

At this point, the two opposing groups were chanting at each other.  The lyric of the pro-Israeli chant accused the pro-Palestinians of being “pro Hamas.”  The Palestinian supporters returned with: “Free, free, free Palestine…  Free, free, free Palestine.”

Pro-Palestinian attendees who were standing with me next to the sergeant asked him: “Is there anything you can do?”  He responded: “If it gets too dangerous, I will clear the room.”  Standing next to him, I asked: “I assume that shouting down the speakers isn’t grounds for arrest.” He concurred, “There is free speech, but if it is too threatening, we can stop it.” “Does there have to be physical violence before you can move in?” I asked. He nodded yes, “but it looks liked we will wait this out until 8 o’clock when the presentation ends.”

As I gauged the sergeant’s eyes, I could see a sense of powerlessness, that this man was now a vulnerable cop, something I rarely see.  He had a good face and modest demeanor even as he sternly threatened the crowd with arrest if they continued to act aggressively.  At this point he had done his job.   His moderation was surely reinforced by scenes of daily student arrests at Emerson College, MIT, Harvard and Umass Amherst. Anything the police did here could be seen as another violent overreaction.

Having successfully prevented the program from continuing, the protestors seemed fully in control.  They continued to sing “Peace, Shalom” and other Hebrew songs.

It was only a half hour into the presentation when Skip and the organizers ended it and regrouped outside to continue a discussion with the three Palestinian speakers. Inside, pro-Palestinian folk and Skip’s supporters began to file out slowly and the room became a pro-Israeli rally of songs chants and wide grins of victory.

Where is the Dialogue?

By this time, I was personally feeling famished for some connection with either the Jewish protesters or the Jews present who might be sympathetic to Palestinian plight.  Outside, a spontaneous circle began to form with two women and a local journalist who was covering the scene. 

These Jewish women complained that “If these presenters are for peace, why not include Jewish people?”  I responded, “Maybe the next gathering at the library needs to be a compassionate listening circle where both sides just listen to each other’s grief, trauma and hopes for peace.”   

An older woman, wrapped in an Israeli flag and smiling, walked into our circle.  I turned to her and asked: “What do you think?”  She commented: “I agree that if we are going to be at peace, both sides have to be heard.”  Immediately, we locked into conversation. 

I began: “We need to talk to each other, really listen, both pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian folks.  We are all grieving and in pain.  We must learn to listen to the pain of the other.”   She broke in, “I am in pain.  My family members were killed and wounded by Hamas suicide bombers.”  I responded back, “I cannot imagine, really, what it is like to be Jewish and to survive the legacy of the holocaust.  The pain, the horror, the fear.  I cannot imagine.” I could feel strong emotions coming on.

Her face softened as she began to listen intently, and then spoke: “Israelis want peace more than anyone else in the world.” “So do Palestinians” I quickly returned.  “They are being killed and their children are in trauma.”  She shot back: “So are Jewish children.  They are in terrible trauma.”  There was enough initial trust for our emotional honesty to work.

Listening to the Pain

At this point, another elder Jewish woman, who had been vocal and aggressive during the attempts at a presentation, joined us.  I sensed that she was drawn to the tone of sympathy that we were expressing together.  Again, I repeated: “We need to listen to the pain and anguish of the other side, have the compassion to ask ourselves: ‘Why is my adversary suffering so much?” 

With a hard look and serious gaze, she revealed her resignation, her realism: “Yes, I see, but sometimes it is too hard or too late to step back over that line that has already been crossed, to heal the division.”  I trembled at the thought of how common this view would be among both sides here tonight. 

We seemed to be getting somewhere when the woman wrapped in the flag said to her more cynical friend, “see that woman over there in the brown sweater,” pointing to a group of people nearby, “she said she has never met a Jewish woman like you. Really, she said that!”

The woman in the brown sweater moved into our circle and repeated her provocative comment. Looking straight at the “cynical one” saying: “I have never met a Jewish woman like you.  I am Jewish, and I have never met Jewish women like you… the meanness…the aggression.”

Like so many of the Palestinian sympathizers in the room, I was mindful that the night’s anger and attack mode from the other side came from a belief that if we are anti-Zionist, we are antisemitic.  We are anti-Israel.

What struck me most in this confrontation was that in response to this direct criticism of these pro-Israel Jewish women by another Jewish woman, what occurred was not defensive hostility but silence.  All of us just stood uneasily in silence.   I wondered if these strong words had penetrated their defenses.  Was it necessary for this cluster of Jewish women to hear this challenge from a pro-Palestinian Jewish woman in the brown sweater? 

Just then another upset looking elderly Jewish man approached our circle, looked at the Jewish women and at me and asked: “Is he a good guy or a bad guy?”  The women demurred, didn’t seem sure.  I filled the awkward moment with: “I am working on being a good guy.”  I meant it in a spontaneous, light-hearted way.  However, as I think about my response now, perhaps this might be the question that all of us who want the war and mass murder to end must come to terms with.  Are we the good guys or the bad guys?

If we can hold down our hatred and disgust for those on the other side and begin to listen and care about our mutual pain, fear and, most of all, trauma, won’t the fire of hatred within us decrease?   Our circle of pain and raw truthfulness seemed to be ending as we made our way to the exits and the street. 

Outside we saw the same two groups, still on opposite sides of the street: the Jewish protestors on one side singing their Hebrew songs, pro-Zionist chants, playing a recording of The National Anthem and waving American flags.  Across the street were the pro-Palestinians, some reception organizers, Quakers, and peacekeepers, with a more thoughtful and peaceful presence, standing with the Palestinian flag.

Did the pro-Zionists prevail over the Palestinians once again?  Or did they simply win a short-term victory at the Newton Public Library?  They managed to shut down the program, take over the presentation room and make it their own.  They dominated the street with their numbers and their volume.  Long term, however, only compassion for the adversary’s suffering will heal and protect us from these decades long, unresolved hatreds. 

Perhaps, as a first gesture of sympathy for the other, we can hold in abeyance our anger and judgement and begin to listen, with a common passion to the shared grief and trauma of these Arab and Israeli peoples, and weep.

Author Brayton Shanley is the co-founder of The Agape Community, a lay Catholic nonviolent community, founded in 1982, interfaith, ecumenical and open to all.

(See article by Skip Schiel in Agape’s Servant Song, Vol. 32, No. 1-Spring 2024, “Gaza and Dual Loyalty” found on Agape’s website:

Skip Schiel will exhibit his photographic series, “The Ongoing and Relentless Nakba: The Palestinian Catastrophe of 1948 to Today” at the main Newton Public Library from May 2 thru May 30.  Skip Schiel Teeksa Photography

Agape Community 2062 Greenwich Rd. Hardwick, MA 01082 413-967-9369 [email protected]