Protest sends library photo exhibit into confrontation and chaos

A photography exhibit at the Newton Free Library depicting people and scenery from the West Bank has been getting pushback from some in Newton, and on Thursday night, a loud protest erupted at a reception for the exhibit.

Scores of people holding Israeli flags and signs supporting Israel disrupted the event with chants, yelling and singing, met with rallying calls in support of Palestinians.

“They attempted (unsuccessfully) to shout out/drown out the Palestinian speakers with loud speakers and yelling. When the speakers recongregated outside and across the street from the library, they crossed the street to follow the Palestinian speakers in an attempt to further disrupt and harass, which was only stopped because of the Newton police,” Sean Sullivan, who was at the event, said.

The exhibit

Skip Schiel is an artist known for his social justice-aimed photography and activism for the people of the West Bank and Gaza.

His exhibit at the Newton Free Library is titled “The Ongoing & Relentless Nakba: The Palestinian Catastrophe of 1948 to Today” and features photographs taken of people and landscapes in the West Bank in 2018 and 2019.

The library committee that approved the exhibit did so last summer. Since then, a Hamas-backed terrorist attack on Israel and resulting Israeli military campaign in Gaza have made the Israeli-Palestinian conflict an even more sensitive topic.

That’s especially true in Newton, which has a large Jewish population and has seen a spike in anti-Israel and antisemitic hate crimes in the past year.

The confrontation

Two of the protesters at Thursday night’s reception, Miriam and Jeff Kosowky, recently held a rally against antisemitism after their yard display of Israeli hostages was vandalized.

The Kosowkys were at the exhibit before the reception, holding signs in the back of the exhibit room and talking to visitors about the Arab-Israeli conflict, and as the 6 p.m. reception started more protesters arrived.

Videos sent to the Newton Beacon (with request by the person who sent them to not be identified) show that within minutes, the previously quiet library was a hotbed of noise and chaos. Some chanted “Free Palestine!” while others sang Israeli songs.

At one point, one man even offered to buy another man a first-class plane ticket to Gaza.

Before the exhibit started on May 1, Mayor Ruthanne Fuller sent an email out to the community saying that she didn’t feel the exhibit was appropriate given the current situation in Israel and the growing tensions in Newton but respected the library’s decision to allow it.

“I applaud the efforts by the Newton Free Library to be a role model for how a community library can help residents learn about deeply painful and contentious topics,” Fuller wrote. “Rather than canceling or postponing this art show, the Library is helping us learn, engage, think critically and converse civilly.”