Passion Turns to Hostility in Clashing Protests at Washington Square Park

October 17, 2023 – Washington Square Park: Hundreds of protesters filled Washington Square Park Tuesday afternoon. (Photo by Andy Harris)

The conflict between Israel and Hamas reached Washington Square Park in Manhattan, New York City on Oct 17. People of all backgrounds on both sides of the conflict came to the park located in Greenwich village to voice their support of the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. The Lower Manhattan park became ground zero for dueling protests of pro-Israelis and pro-Palestinians.

The Within Our Lifetime (WOL)  organization gathered immense support as deafening chants for the liberation of Palestine could be heard for blocks. “We will free Palestine within our lifetime,” was one of several call and repeat chants used during the 90-minute peaceful gathering.

Abdullah Akl, a 21 year old student at New York University, was one of the co-leaders of the chant, and organizer of the “Free Palestine” movement. 

“We organize rallies with the ultimate purpose of fighting for a free Palestine within our lifetime,” Akl said. “We’re calling out Israel for what it’s doing. We’re also calling out Israel for something much bigger. Something that the United Nations, Harvard Law, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, called out for, that Israel is committed to apartheid against Palestinians.”

For Akl, what drove him to spearhead the movement at such a young age are two words: truth and justice. The 21-year old believes the two are synonymous with each other.

“People from all ages, students and elders are coming out to today’s rally, because they know that they’re on the side of truth. They know that they’re on the side of justice,” Akl expressed. “That’s what drives me in this work.”

The Palestinian-led organization has been working to build their NYC support since 2015, and several hundred New Yorkers were present this Tuesday evening. The various leaders, both Jewish and Muslim, spoke passionately about the conflict and the horrific scene in Gaza, following the bombing of the Al-Alhi al-Arabi Hospital, resulting in the death of at least 500 people.

Rabbi Dovid Feldman, the spokesman for Neturei Karta International, a movement of “Jews United Against Zionism,” gave his full support, while emphasizing that the current state of the conflict dates back to several decades of violence. 

“We need to realize and understand that nothing had started just now, just a week ago, just last Saturday, [Oct. 7] Feldman said. “This is unfortunately an outcome of decades of brutal occupation, which, unfortunately, is getting everyone into this cycle of bloodshed on all sides of the conflict.’

Feldman shared that Jewish people in New York City have faced hatred because of the war. Furthermore, he wanted to highlight the distinction between Zionism and Judaism, while making clear his faith did not align with Benjamin Netanyahu’s tenure in Israel. 

“I have to face hatred here in New York, because the state of Israel commits actions, which happens to be in total contrast to Judaism happens to be totally forbidden in Judaism,” Feldman stated. “Sadly, they do this on the account of all Jews and misuse the holy religion of Judaism to justify not only crimes of international crimes of Judaism. Killing and stealing all of this oppressing an entire people all of this is criminal according to Jewish law. The Prime Minister of Israel [Benjamin Netanyahu] is the greatest danger to the Jewish people. In no way does he represent the Jewish religion. A person that doesn’t practice Judaism, in no way can represent the Jewish religion or the Jewish people.”

Feldman was accompanied by children holding up the Palestinian flag, along with signs that said “State of Israel does not represent world Jewry” and “Free Palestine.” It was paramount for the Anti-Zionist Orthodox Jewish group to educate their children on knowing the difference between Judaism versus Zionism while also standing up for world peace.

“We do want to educate our kids, we want our children, our young to know, to understand our religion, understand how our religion is being misused, how our religion is being desecrated, and how our people are being endangered, and how sadly, people in our name are committing so many crimes, and we have to stand up, teach our kids teach everyone to stand up in the face of all this, what is taking place,” Feldman said. 

The Within Our Lifetime organization voiced their frustration regarding the bombing and condemned the loss of life. New York University President Linda Mills did as well in a statement on Oct. 8. 

“The fighting is uncommonly intense, with widespread violence, injuries, and loss of life, as well as hostage-taking of Israelis by Hamas,” the school president wrote in an email sent to the NYU community. “Understandably, NYU is very focused on our Tel Aviv program, and we continue to monitor conditions closely.” 

Samar Adham, a 26-year-old graduate student pursuing her doctoral degree in history, spoke publicly at the Within Our Lifetime rally alongside Abdullah Alk. In addition, Adham was the 2022 Falak Sufi Memorial essay prize winner for her research on “Britain’s Prison Labor Camps: Imperial-Zionist Class War Against Palestinian Men.” 

In a horn speaker in front of over 600 people, Adham made it clear about her discontent with the New York University’s newly appointed president’s comments on the matter: 

“Last week, NYU President Linda Mills sent an email to NYU about how focused she and the administration is on the Tel Aviv campus,” Adham said. “Why does Linda have a university on occupied Palestinian land?” The comments regarding the president were followed by boos and chants of “shame” as protestors stood arm-in-arm with Palestinian advocates. 

Many pro-Palestinian supporters are aggrieved by the involvement of the United States in this conflict, and believe the U.S. is actively embracing imperialism by sending funds- and weapons to Isreal to help them in the war. “We know that the bombs being dropped on Gaza are U.S. manufacturers and the U.S. bankrolls Israel millions of dollars, billions of dollars in military aid. We know that if it weren’t for the United States, Israel would not exist,” Al-Saleh said. “And so it’s almost our duty, as Americans, as people that back have family back home, to be calling our own government, to be calling out our politicians, our elected officials, and telling them to stop on the supply side, is that what’s going to happen? It’s not going to be happening with my money,” Akl noted of how Americans can make an impact.

October 17, 2023 – Washington Square Park: Pro-Palestinian protests filled Washington Square Park Tuesday afternoon. (Photo by Miles Johnson)

As the “Free Palestine” protest concluded, a pro-Israeli silent protest formed at the arch of Washington Square Park. The two groups were quickly at each other’s throats as a peaceful gathering turned to a hostile shouting match between two inspired groups of people. Both groups of people yelled obscenities at the other side as they each believed they were in the right, with only the New York Police Department standing in between them to mediate the conflict.

October 17, 2023 – Washington Square Park: Pro-Israeli protests filled Washington Square Park Tuesday afternoon. (Photo by Andy Harris)

Pro-Israeli members told us they were there independent of the pro-Palestinian protest, and they were engaged by the “Free Palestine” group. “We were just here doing our own thing, so they felt the need to leave their own spot when they had so many more people come to us and intrude our own silent thing is in essence, like it’s a little bit rude in my opinion,” Lia Orbach, a 21-year-old Israeli American said on the front lines of the protest. A heavy NYPD presence formed a barricade of officers keeping the two groups separate to avoid violence.

October 17, 2023 – Washington Square Park: Jewish-based protests against the occupation of Palestine. (Photo by Miles Johnson)

The consensus from both groups was that the other party was misinformed. In conversations with both groups, they each believe the media perpetuates narratives that are inaccurate and confusing. “I think it’s been completely one sided and not just the reality. It’s like, everyone [has] just been looking at the media, whether it’s CNN or MSNBC, every major news network is giving a very weird filtered coverage of the situation and even their own producers,” Akl told us.

Supporters of Israel in the struggle felt the same way about the media’s poor coverage of the war, claiming that Israel is being misrepresented.

“The media, for whatever reason, is always against Israel. I don’t know why. We see a little more support today after what happened. I think the world was watching but do I think they’re 100% for Israel? No. But they are the media and they are trying to make a story,” Riky, an Israel-American woman who declined to give her last name, said. 

The conflicting reports of who is responsible for the 500 dead left added to the confusion and difference on both sides regarding who they believe was responsible for the attack. Mai al-Kaila- the Palestinian Authority health minister accused Israel of “a massacre,” while the Israeli Military spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said the opposite in comments to reporters. Israel claims the bombing was the result of a misfire by Hamas, the Palestinian militant group.

“Hamas tried to shoot a rocket from the hospital and it blew itself up,” Riky stated in the midst of of a shouting match between pro-Palestine and pro-Israel supporters. “They blew up their own hospital and killed their own people.” 

The only other concept these two sides agree on, in theory, is that all violence needs to be stopped. This comes specifically from Israeli and Palestinian civilians that have no influence on their governments. Bella Ingber, a junior at New York University expressed her disgust in associating “Free Palestine” with the 1,400 Israeli lives lost by the Hamas militant group. “How dare you use the death of innocents to legitimize your movement,” Ingber exclaimed “When I hear ‘Free Palestine’ in association with a terrorist organization I am afraid. NYU, your Jewish students are scared. They’re scared to go to class. They’re scared to walk around in our religious garb. We should not be ashamed. Do something.”

One of the sources included in this article previously gave Pavement Pieces a false last name without informing the reporter. After further investigation, Pavement Pieces published the source’s real last name, and included the source’s false last name. Per requests from the source after publication, this article has been updated to grant the source’s request for anonymity. In addition, the article has been corrected to accurately identify Samar Adham as an NYU graduate student, and a speaker at a WOL event, not on their behalf. Pavement Pieces regrets the errors.