By Cindy Mindell
WESTPORT – Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) is a not-for-profit organization that promotes the non-political, non-military mission of providing educational, social, cultural, and recreational programs and facilities for the wellbeing of Israel’s soldiers and their families. Established in 1981 by a group of Holocaust survivors, FIDF raises money through 23 chapters in the U.S. and Panama.
On May 12, the Westchester/Connecticut chapter held its first annual women’s luncheon, to educate supporters about the roles of women in the Israel Defense Forces. Nearly 100 women gathered at Temple Israel in Westport to hear from active-duty soldiers and officers, as well as former brigadier general Gila Klifi-Amir, who served as an advisor on women’s affairs to the IDF chief of staff and is now national director and CEO of FIDF.
Event committee member Robin Colin-Greene, an attorney who lives in Westport, was seated near the door of the second-floor social hall where the noontime event was taking place. She was preparing her notes to introduce Klifi-Amir.
“All of a sudden, you heard screaming,” Colin-Greene recalls. “It sounded like there were a lot of people fighting right outside the door, five feet away. I only heard ‘Palestinians’ and couldn’t understand what they were saying. Somebody thought she heard ‘fatwa.’” Many attendees later reported hearing loud banging on the door.
Several women could see a large man through a window in the door, with something draped over his arm. “Somebody yelled, ‘They have a gun,’” Colin-Greene says. “People just panicked – it was as if you were in the World Trade Center and a plane was coming right for the window. It was sheer pandemonium. In seconds, people had run out the far door of the room, screaming.” Other women hid under tables. Many tried to call 911, and one finally succeeded.
Westport and Weston police responded shortly after 1 p.m. and learned from Temple Israel staff that two men had entered the building and asked to read a statement at the luncheon. When told to leave, the pair refused, proceeding up a staircase to the social hall. They were physically restrained by staff members and held in a meeting room until the police arrived, placing the synagogue building (housing a nursery school) into lockdown, as well as the neighboring Coleytown elementary and middle schools and Unitarian Church preschool.
The luncheon proceeded as police checked the building and property. Finally, the two protestors, identified as Dan Fischer and Gregory Williams, were arrested for criminal trespass and breach of peace. They are both described in the Westport Police report as 25-year-old students residing in New Haven.
Later, the Ledger learned that Fischer grew up in the Fairfield Jewish community before attending Wesleyan University and University of Haifa. He is currently a student at Southern Connecticut State University. Williams graduated from the Yale Divinity School this month and is continuing his studies at Duke Divinity School this fall.
On his Facebook page, Fischer posted his and Williams’s version of events:
“2 Jewish peaceful protestors were assaulted and arrested last week as they interrupted a Connecticut synagogue’s fundraiser for the genocidal Israeli army.”
Colin-Greene, however, doesn’t see them as ‘protestors.’
“They were terrorists because their intent was to terrorize those women in that room and they did,” she says.
Temple Israel emailed statements from Rabbi Michael Friedman and the synagogue’s president, Steven Phillips, recounting the incident and assuring the community that the building had been secured.
The following day, State Senator Toni Boucher (R-Wilton) issued a public statement and personally called on the presidents of Yale, Duke, and Southern Connecticut State universities to take action against the two students.
“Peaceful protestation is acceptable; I did it to free Lithuania and Czechoslovakia when I was in high school and we wanted to make a statement,” Boucher told the Ledger. “You can speak or write – you have the power of the pen to do that – but it’s wrong to put people in a position of risk. You never trespass on private property and force yourself into a room.”
Rabbi Yehuda Kantor, co-director of Chabad of Westport, encouraged attendees to report their experiences to the State Attorney’s office and Office of Victim Services, as well as the presidents of the universities the two protestors currently attend and will be attending.
As the Ledger went to press, an initial hearing was scheduled for May 21, with bail set at $1,500 for each of the two men. New Haven-based Middle East Crisis Committee has established a legal defense fund.
When contacted by the Ledger, Anat Chavkin, director of the FIDF Westchester/Connecticut Chapter who organized and attended the May 12 program, refused to comment on what steps FIDF is taking to ensure security at future events.
However, other Jewish organizations, fearful that the incident will deter supporters from attending their events, took immediate action. For example, two days after the FIDF incident, the Westport chapter of Hadassah hired a security officer to keep a watchful eye on the group’s luncheon.
Now the Jewish community is moving forward. The Westport-based Federation for Jewish Philanthropy of Upper Fairfield County has a two-pronged response, according to CEO Steven Friedlander, based on the issues of safety and intimidation.
“We need to separate the safety issue from allowing ourselves to be intimidated,” he says. “We always have to do whatever we need to do to ensure the safety of all people,” he says. “If that means hiring additional security in order to congregate, that’s what we’ll do. As to the intimidation issue, the attempt to disrupt or interfere with the activities of our daily lives and our right to practice our religion and free speech is something we will not tolerate, and we will not interrupt our events and celebrations. We control our response to terror, and we must not allow ourselves to be intimidated at all.”
CAP: Dan Fischer and Gregory Williams