Incidents of Intolerance in Needham Provoke Families and Officials

June 17, 2024
• Social media posts have recently moved offline and into Needham’s public forums as the overseas violence continues.

As the war in Israel and Gaza rages on, Needham residents have weighed in on the conflict, but as a result, some say they have become victims of property theft and feel threatened for their personal identities.

After raising the concerns on Facebook, a couple residents attended recent Human Rights Committee meetings to share their experience. At the June 11 Select Board meeting, members heard from Police Chief John Schlittler and the HRC regarding the incidents of intolerance and approved a joint statement on the matter.

Those local incidents date back to November of last year, a month after Hamas — a Palestinian militant group — launched an attack on Israel, killing about 1,200 Israelis and taking more than 250 people hostage. Since then, Israel has retaliated, killing more than 35,000 Palestinians, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health. About 100 hostages remain, and 105 were released during a ceasefire.

A ‘United Against Islamophobia & Antisemitism’ sign appears outside the First Parish In Needham.

In Needham, residents have reported stolen lawn signs and have found ominous notes on their property, Schlittler told the Select Board. Police are currently taking “investigative steps,” he said, and while sign taking is not new for Needham, Schlittler said they don’t seem to be targeting individuals but rather the messaging on the signs themselves.

Residents shared a desire for visible support from the town, HRC member Jen Howard said. Even though the incidents could be random, impacted families report still feeling unsafe, Howard said.

“It’s easy to think like, ‘Oh, it’s just a bunch of kids doing what kids do.’ But the impact is very real, whoever’s doing it,” Howard said.

The Israel-Gaza conflict has resulted in intolerance, hate and acts of antisemitism and Islamophobia, the Select Board statement says, as well as a “silencing of opinions” and “disruption of religious events.”

“The Select Board abhors this behavior. Acts that threaten or violate another person’s safety or property cannot be tolerated,” the statement reads. “The Select Board is here to support Needham residents, and to promote a safe and welcoming community. We are one Needham, one community.”

During public comment, resident David Sherman suggested adding language to the statement about prosecution for illegal activities and an emphasis on a unified town against hate. Sherman also condemned a previous statement on the Israel-Gaza conflict the HRC issued in November — which he said “was really quite hateful in and of itself” — and called on the Select Board to separate itself from that message.

The behavior in Needham is “starting to really spiral out of control” Burgos said at the meeting. In an interview last week, Burgos said the HRC has been busy keeping up with complaints from residents. A short message on a sign can “mean very different things to a lot of different people,” she said.

“The ‘I Stand with Israel’ signs are triggering for some Muslim individuals, while many Jewish families have those in their yards because they want to support Israel and be true to their Jewish heritage, their Jewish roots, their Jewish religion,” Burgos said. “The ‘Let Gaza Live’ signs… those have actually been causing a lot of conflict.”

Resident Zeenat Rasheed’s “Let Gaza Live” sign disappeared from her front yard nearly two weeks ago, and she took to the HRC on June 12 to share the incident. Her sign also called for an immediate ceasefire.

Rasheed, who is Muslim, said she previously had the sign in her window, afraid of the potential “backlash” of placing it outside her home, she said.

That was, until a few weeks ago, when she saw a post on the Needham Facebook page from local teenagers soliciting odd jobs for college funds, a portion of which would be donated to the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. Rasheed said a lack of further dialogue, combined with the apparent silencing of other voices, compelled her to put the sign out.

She tried to encourage like-minded neighbors to also put out signs, but Needhamites are apprehensive about displaying pro-Palestinian messaging, she said.

“I live [in an area] that has a lot of blue ribbons and a lot of ‘We Stand with Israel’ signs,” Rasheed said, “and given that this conflict has created very strong polarized opinions and given how few Muslims there are in this town, I didn’t feel very safe being able to display our family’s political convictions, honestly our humanitarian convictions at this point, openly.”

Since the sign theft, Rasheed said she hesitates leaving her kids alone outside and obsessively checked her cameras and footage. She now lives “with this very strong sense of anxiety and fear” and believes residents feel unable to truly express themselves here.

 After posting about her experience on the Needham Facebook page, Rasheed said she received a number of negative comments.

Liat Soudry, a Jewish Needham resident, recalled a similar situation at the HRC’s May 16 meeting. Soudry has lived in town for three years and said she felt safe here, but in early May, her family found a note on their fence that said “intifada,” which is Arabic for rebellion or uprising.

Soudry associates the term with violence and suicide bombing, she told the committee, and similar notes appeared at her neighbors’ homes.

Soudry’s children now ask “why people hate us,” she said. The Israeli-American family displays blue ribbons, which symbolize a call to bring the Israeli hostages home.

“After this incident, my kids and I started to feel afraid to be in Needham,” Soudry said. “We installed more cameras around the house. We check the cameras every time before we go out of the house, every day before we go to sleep, every morning that we wake up.”

Whoever left the note evaded their cameras, but Soudry said she felt satisfied with the police reaction. She said she wished the town did more to support her family, though she did receive words of encouragement from fellow residents on Facebook, where she posted about the note.

“I don’t want to hide my identity,” she said to the HRC in May.

Before adopting the statement Tuesday, Select Board member Cathy Dowd voiced her upset over the situation Schlittler and the Human Rights Committee reported.

“We strive to be that welcoming and inclusive place. This is not welcoming and inclusive. This is the opposite,” Dowd said. “So I do feel that it’s an injury to our community.”

The town released the joint statement on its website last Thursday.

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