Temple Israel event disrupted as men protest Palestine occupation
Two men protesting a Temple Israel program sponsored by an Israel Defense Forces support group were arrested Tuesday after disrupting the event, an incident that briefly triggered a lockdown at several nearby schools.
The men, both 25-year-old New Haven residents, later issued a statement -- describing themselves as "Jewish anti-apartheid activists" -- contending they had planned to read a statement from a Palestinian woman whose son was killed in Gaza and who later had to flee her home there.
Daniel Fischer and Gregory Williams were both charged with first-degree criminal trespass and second-degree breach of peace for their intrusion at the Coleytown Road synagogue during the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces luncheon about 1 p.m. Tuesday, according to Capt. Sam Arciola, police spokesman.
"Shortly after the initial dispatch to responding units, the communications center started to receive additional calls reporting that a person had a gun," he said. "The first two arriving officers were able to take custody of the two individuals on the second-floor meeting room where staff had physically detained them."
As a precautionary response, Coleytown Elementary, Coleytown Middle and Bedford Middle schools, as well as the pre-school at the Unitarian Church and the Temple Israel Nursery School were all put in lockdown, officials said.
"No gun was located during the incident, but a witness had observed one of the men approaching with a shirt over his arm and hand, which led some witnesses to believe he was carrying a gun," Arciola said.
The men had entered the synagogue "and were confronted by staff and told to leave," he added. "The two suspects refused and walked past staff, and attempted to enter the meeting place."
He said Temple Israel staff had to physically prevent the intruders from entering the meeting room. "As the two were detained outside the meeting room it was reported that they were shouting various statements regarding the IDF," Arciola said. "The actions of the two protestors created enough concern to the attendees that several people had exited the premises in fear for their safety."
The Friends of the Israel Defense Forces luncheon program was scheduled to feature remarks by Brig. Gen. (Res.) Gila Klifi-Amir, a 30-year veteran of the IDF who served as the chief of the general staff's advisor on women's affairs and handled matters relating to women's service in the Israeli military, according to advance publicity for the event.
Steven Phillips, president of Temple Israel, later emailed a statement to members of the congregation, saying: "A thorough search of the intruders, our building and our grounds by police found no weapons of any kind. To ensure our safety, the police will remain at Temple Israel and maintain a presence throughout the rest of today and into tomorrow ...
"These incidents are always extremely disturbing. Fortunately, no one was in danger. I would like to thank the staff and the police for the poise and professionalism with which they handled the situation. We are very lucky to be served by them both.
Lisa Goldberg, the synagogue's executive director, also credited the police for the way they handled the situation. "Two protesters arrived at the event; they didn't belong there, so we called police ... The police did a great job."
Goldberg noted that although there had been speculation that either protestor may have dad a gun or other weapon, that was not the case. "There was no weapon," she said.
At the start of Wednesday's Board of Selectmen meeting, First Selectman Jim Marpe, referring to the Temple Israel incident, thanked police for their immediate response, saying two off-duty police officers were working at a nearby road repair site and arrived on the scene almost immediately.
"There was concern there might be a weapon," Marpe said. "I hope we don't see another incident like that."
He said when he arrived at the synagogue, "everything was under control."
"Don't forget there were from 80 to 100 women in the room who were terrorized," added Selectman Avi Kaner. "They sought cover under the tables," he said. "They didn't know if there was a weapon."
In their lengthy statement emailed Tuesday night, Fischer and Williams -- calling themselves "peaceful activists" -- said they "were particularly concerned that the event, a women's luncheon sponsored by Friends of the IDF, claimed that the occupying army is `a world leader in integrating women in the armed forces.' The activists intended their demonstration to call attention to the experiences of women living under the apartheid regime in Palestine."
Events like the IDF luncheon, they contended, " normalize the brutal occupation" of Gaza by Israeli forces.
Williams, in the statement, says the protesters were "shocked to learn that several schools had been put into lockdown after attendees at the talk made a false report to police that he and Fischer were armed. `We were nonviolent. The real threat to children is the IDF. If people felt so threatened by two protesters chanting `Free Palestine' and reading testimony from Gaza that schools went into lockdown, imagine what it is like for one of your community's schools to become a bomb shelter during an IDF raid.' "
"All ended well and our students returned to homeroom where they were given an opportunity to debrief and ask questions," Szabo said in her message.
Parents of Bedford Middle School students received a message from Principal Adam Rosen that at approximately 1:15 p.m. he was instructed by police to place his school into lockdown because of an emergency nearby.
"Because this emergency was not located at BMS, we used a `shelter-in-place' protocol," he explained. "In this case, students remained in their classrooms with their teachers."
He said BMS administration "immediately alerted students at the start of this security procedure that there was no emergency at BMS." He added that students remained "safely in their classrooms for 10 minutes" and that "normal instruction resumed at 1:25 p.m."
Arciola said that a vehicle that witnesses reported had dropped off the protestors has been located and the driver has been identified. He will not be charged with any criminal charges, Arciola said.
Bond for Fischer and Williams was set at $1,500 each and they are scheduled to appear May 21 at Superior Court in Norwalk.
Westport officers were assisted by the Weston police personnel during the incident.
Staff writer Anne Amato contributed to this report.