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Liberal Towns in New Jersey Are Increasing Attacks on Pro-Palestine Activists

A group of neighbors in South Orange and Maplewood have become a reference point for pro-Palestine organizing in New Jersey suburbs. Now these liberal towns are upping repression against the local activists.

Samuel Karlin

April 12, 2024
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Photo: Instagram (@soma_for_palestine)

Pro-Palestine activists in New Jersey are coming up against repression. Five months ago, a collection of neighbors in South Orange and Maplewood (SOMA) New Jersey came together to form SOMA Collective for Palestine. This group has been advocating for a ceasefire and denouncing Israel’s genocidal offensive in Gaza in a community that is heavily Zionist. In fact, SOMA is a highly wealthy community and part of the eighth wealthiest congressional district in the country. The fact that the movement for Palestine reached even this community is a testament to its support from large sectors of society.

The collective has been regularly speaking out at town council meetings in South Orange and Maplewood, and for five months straight they have held public rallies every Sunday to demand a ceasefire. These rallies, known as Ceasefire Sundays (CFS) have become a reference point for pro-Palestine activists throughout New Jersey and have drawn people from across the state. They have also been met with regular harassment and even threats of violence from local Zionists.

While elected officials in the town initially “cooperated” with SOMA Collective for Palestine, they are now increasingly repressing the rallies. In South Orange, the town has been enforcing a permit to prevent CFS. The town’s laws require permits in order for residents to host events in public parks. Of course, CFS is not an event, but a protest, and it is a violation of our democratic rights for towns to ban people from using public spaces for protest. This has not stopped the town from using this bureaucratic maneuver to threaten charges against SOMA Collective for Palestine if they hold CFS without a permit.

Neighboring Maplewood has no such permit laws, but Zionists have regularly shown up to harass SOMA Collective for Palestine. In town council meetings, elected officials have gone on rants slandering SOMA Collective for Palestine and making it clear that they are on the side of local Zionists who continue to harass the collective. Members of the town council and town newspapers have spread a lie by Zionists that the collective has made antisemitic comments at their rallies. This is especially heinous considering a large portion of the collective consists of Jewish members, and the local Zionists, town council, and reporters who spread these smears know this.

The Limits of Liberalism Are Being Exposed

While it was not their intention, the SOMA Collective for Palestine has exposed the limits of liberalism that Maplewood and South Orange pride themselves on. Arab members of SOMA Collective for Palestine have shared in speeches that they moved to the towns because they were attracted by the diversity of the community only for this current moment to reveal that the towns are rife with Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism.

Maplewood has “Black Lives Matter” painted on two of its roads, and it is commonly referred to throughout New Jersey as GAYplewood due to its pro-LGBTQ+ reputation. South Orange has a similar reputation as “progressive.” Yet in the face of a genocide in Gaza and rampant Islamophobia from local Zionists, elected officials and many ostensibly progressive community leaders and business owners have refused to show solidarity with their neighbors organizing to end a genocide, or been outright hostile to them.

This is not entirely new. The SOMA school district has a well-documented history of anti-Black racism which was the subject of lawsuits from the NAACP and ACLU and investigations by ProPublica and the New York Times. In response, a group of anti-racist teachers and Black community members formed the group MAPSO Freedom School (MFS) which has been the main group organizing against segregation in the school district.

Along with SOMA Collective for Palestine, MFS has also come under attack from local Zionists due to the group’s vocal support for Palestine. Under Zionist pressure, the SOMA Board of Education voted in November to punish MFS for its advocacy. Emboldened, Zionists have spent the past several months regularly harassing individual members of the group, trying to get these teachers fired for supporting their pro-Palestine students. The towns’ silence about these attacks is yet another testament to the underlying racism in the community, and the racism of Zionism as an ideology.

On top of all this, the school district is now under investigation by the federal Department of Education, allegedly in response to an educational resource the school shared for Ramadan. The resource was created by another local anti-racist teacher organization, Teaching While Muslim (TWM), and explained how it is difficult for Muslims to celebrate Ramandan while Palestine remains oppressed and is undergoing a genocide. While not based in SOMA, TWM has collaborated with MFS and is a Palestinian-led group of teachers that has been targeted by Zionists for its activism. The fact that the Department of Education is supporting the Zionist campaign against Palestine advocacy in high schools is further proof of the federal government’s attempts to repress pro-Palestine sentiment.

While the schools are under investigation, the towns now seem to be cracking down harder on SOMA Collective for Palestine’s right to continue protesting. The collective has sought to maintain a dialogue with local politicians, and even coordinated their protests with police, believing that this would encourage the towns to keep respecting their right to free speech. This strategy of relying on collaboration with the state is clearly reaching its limit as the state is becoming more willing to show its anti-democratic character. 

Especially with the towns functioning as Democratic Party strongholds and cultural and intellectual hubs for liberal movers and shakers in New Jersey, officials are likely eager to make the movement go away given the crisis that the movement for Palestine is causing for the reputation of the Democratic Party. This is why the escalation of repression against SOMA Collective for Palestine is coinciding with repression across the country against all activists who are continuing to mobilize in the streets and organize in schools.

We Need a Broad Movement Against the Attacks on Democratic Rights

In the face of escalation from the state, we must expose all examples of repression, whether in the form of police aggression which is happening in New York City, suspension of student activists like at Columbia University, or bureaucratic maneuvers as in SOMA. The movement needs to publicize how this repression shows the anti-democratic character of the state and the bankruptcy of the Democratic Party as a supposed opposition to authoritarianism and racism.

The attacks on schools in particular must be fought. Groups like MAPSO Freedom School and Teaching While Muslim are under attack because they have been at the forefront of advocacy for Palestine and supporting student activists. They cannot fight the attacks alone. Teachers unions throughout New Jersey must publicly denounce the attacks on anti-racist teachers and their organizations and mobilize members to fight the repression.

A campaign in defense of the democratic right to free speech and public protest should draw in broad sectors of civil society, the Left, unions, other social movements, and all who understand the danger that will come if attacks on the movement and free speech are able to continue advancing.

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Samuel Karlin

Samuel Karlin is a socialist with a background in journalism. He mainly writes for Left Voice about U.S. imperialism and international class struggle.

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