The eight-month-old war in Israel and Gaza has reverberated in communities, committees and colleges throughout the country, and Needham has not been spared.

The town’s Human Rights Committee has received multiple reports of incidents that include the theft of lawn signs, disruption of religious events and the posting of menacing notes on personal property apparently tied to public expressions of speech on the conflict.

In one incident, a handwritten note with an anti-Israel rallying cry was posted at the home of a local family of native Israelis. The home had a lawn sign indicating solidarity with Israel.

In another, a youth group meeting at a local church with a “Let Gaza Live” sign on its property was disrupted by a male adult intruder, possibly inebriated, yelling that reports of deaths and destruction in Gaza were vastly exaggerated “Hamas lies.”

Needham police are investigating the incidents that have been brought to its attention, while the HRC and the Select Board have been in communication regarding a coordinated response.

The nature of that response was discussed at Tuesday night’s Select Board meeting, as the HRC and the Select Board attempted to craft a joint statement and possibly other responses to the incidents, which HRC Chair Tina Burgos said were “escalating.”

“There seems to be a sense of urgency to try to figure out what does this mean for Needham,” she said.

Police Chief John Schlittler joined the conversation to update both committees on his department’s monitoring of the incidents that have occurred to date.

“We are following up to the best of our ability with those incidents,” he said of the thefts of lawn signs and posting of provocative stickers on both private homes and public spaces, such as traffic signs.

“Our analysts are looking at it, to plot where everything’s happening, getting as much video as we can and then taking some steps investigatively that hopefully can lead to some information.

“Our detectives are following up and taking some investigative steps that I’m not going to discuss at this point,” Schlittler said, adding that police are checking with other jurisdictions to see whether there have been other incidents that “could lead to information that could assist us.”

Schlittler did offer the general finding that, “It looks to be younger people that might be doing it, based on the Ring videos that we’ve seen.” 

The art of making a statement

The Select Board is aware of multiple incidents of antisemitism, Islamophobia, intolerance and hate in Needham, and we feel compelled to specifically address these matters. 

These recent incidents, reported to Town staff, the Human Rights Committee, and the Needham Police Department include statements posted on private property, removal of lawn signs, silencing of opinions, and disruption of religious events, among others. 

The Select Board abhors this behavior. Acts that threaten or violate another person’s safety or property cannot be tolerated. 
The Select Board is here to support Needham residents and to promote a safe and welcoming community. We are one Needham, one community.

The HRC has been motivated to act by disturbing reports it has been receiving and discussing at its meetings as the weather has warmed. At its April and May meetings, there was discussion of holding a community event, such as a walk or vigil. That met with concern that such an event could be disrupted and possibly lead to confrontations, as happened at a community event in Newton last month.

“We have to meet this moment,” said Jane Howard, a member of the HRC. “People are being incredibly brave to come to these public meetings and talk about how they feel targeted. That’s why we feel compelled to be here and to make a statement.”

The Select Board included a draft statement in its agenda packet which was discussed at length. “We did read the statement that you sent. It feels a little light to me,” said HRC Chair Burgos, adding that it needed to be “more emphatic.”

“I think we need to talk about next steps because I don’t want the statement to be released and seem performative,” she added.

Select Board member Cathy Dowd said it was important not to think of the statement as an end in itself. “Action has to follow,” she said.

Dowd said she watched the HRC meetings where the incidents were discussed. “It sickened me. It saddened me. You had people who felt that they could not express their religious identity. You had people who felt they couldn’t represent their views.

“That is a terrible injury for them and a terrible injury for our community.”

Select Board member Marianne Cooley noted that lawn signs tend to be blunt rhetorical instruments that represent “absolutist” positions. She suggested the need for more dialogue. “I find that very few people in Needham actually hold those absolutist positions when you actually sit down and have conversations.”

Select Board Chair Kevin Keane agreed, noting, “A ‘noun-verb-noun’ lawn sign does not express the nuance of what’s going on.”

Select Board member Josh Levy offered revisions to the statement that met with agreement from members of both committees and led to a unanimous vote of approval from the Select Board.

At its meeting on Wednesday, the HRC voted unanimously “to sign off and accept the statement passed by the Select Board.”

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