Teaneck harassment trial involves pro-Palestinian bumper stickers

by Philip Weiss on May 25, 2010 · 76 comments

Bernie Thau is on the board of the Hebron Fund, which raises money for settlers in the West Bank. Rich Siegel is on the board of Deir Yassin Remembered. Tomorrow morning Thau goes on trial in Teaneck Municipal Court for allegedly harassing Siegel a month back over Free Palestine bumperstickers on Siegel’s car.

Siege, a Teaneck musician, grew up as a Zionist, headed a Zionist youth group, even spent time in Israel. But a few years back out of despair over the unending violence, he began reading. He thought he was going to deepen his commitment to Israel, instead he read the New Historians with growing outrage.

“I became appalled. I was raised with the notion that Israel could do absolutely no wrong and never did anything to harm anyone… I had believed that We as Jews are privileged to be part of this group that the whole world hates for no reason– and by the way we’re smarter than everyone. And by the way the Arabs also hated us for no reason, we just wanted to go there and be their neighbors….When I became aware that there were Jewish terrorists, and that Jews had sought to create an exclusivist territory, while still playing the victim card about the Holocaust– it’s been a thoroughly appalling revelation. That led me to be active, just being so angry about being lied to. I was lied to all my life, by my synagogue, my family, by my Jewish community.”

Today Siegel believes in the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. He decided to get his views out there in a very assertive way by putting four bumper stickers on his 13-year-old gray Honda Civic. His wife was OK with it. Two of the stickers said, “Free Palestine, End the Occupation.” Another said, “Stop US Aid to Israel,” and another said, “We refuse to be enemies. Christians Jews and Muslims working for peace and justice.”

The bumper stickers got attention. A lot of people give Siegel the thumbs-up, or honk approvingly. But Teaneck/Fairlawn are a hotbed for Gush Emunim-land-of-Israel types, and many people get ticked off by the Honda and give him the finger. He’s used to that. Some have vandalized his car.

On the afternoon of April 20, Siegel noticed a Toyota following him a little too close as he was headed home down River Road in Teaneck. The car followed Siegel after he turned on to one side street and then another, traveling into his neighborhood. Siegel says the driver followed him right up to his house and then pulled up alongside his parked car and gave him the finger. Then he drove to the end of the block and turned around and drove slowly past Siegel’s house again.

Siegel had the presence of mind to record the man’s license plate number and decided to file a police complaint against him. The driver was Bernie Thau, who is active in the Jewish community of Fairlawn, New Jersey. After a probable cause hearing a couple weeks back, at which Thau appeared and denied his guilt, Judge James Young of the Municipal Court found sufficient evidence to hold Thau for trial for harassment. Sgt. Thomas Sullivan of the Teaneck police, who investigated Siegel’s affidavit, says the charge is a misdemeanor and the maximum penalty is six months in prison and a fine.

Siegel says: “I’ve suffered absolutely no damage from this. If I had, I would have sued. But the deal is, I have a right to free speech. This guy followed me home because he hated my bumper stickers. I’ve had previous experiences, my car’s been vandalized several times. On two occasions, the fender was bashed in. Someone came to my car with a crowbar and bashed it in. We have a right to free speech in this country, and yet the Zionist community seems to feel that free speech does not apply when it comes to criticism of Israel. To me, I’m just angry… And yes it makes us [my family] feel a little bit unsafe. If it made us very unsafe, I’d take the bumper stickers off.”

Thau says he has not slept well since he was charged, and that he has nightmares. He regrets what he did, he wants to make a public apology to Siegel and get the case behind him. I asked him whether he’d reached out to Siegel.

“After the probable cause hearing, I went over to get a drink of water and I said something to Siegel and he said, I don’t think we should be speaking to one another.”

Thau says he had not been aware of Siegel’s larger experience: “Regardless of his politics, he has been treated wrong by a number of people.”

He would be happy to make a contribution to Deir Yassin Remembered, he says, to get the situation to heal.

Thau did not dispute Siegel’s version of the incident except to say that “some of it was a little over-exaggerated.” Why did he do it?

“Overall, it was an impulsive act. It was not meant to harass, it was meant more as a political statement.” And the Hebron Fund? You might as well mention his work with a synagogue charity, which serves 57 local families who need food.

We’ll keep you posted.

PS. Here’s a song that Siegel co-wrote, called “In Palestine,” that is dedicated to the hundreds of Palestinian children slaughtered by the Israelis in Gaza. This guy is a wonderful musician. Notice the merger of Jewish and Palestinian narratives–and no question about who’s being hurt now.