On July 12, 2015, activists plastered about a dozen posters over an adobe wall at the intersection of E San Mateo Road and Old Pecos Trail. The pictures were of Palestinian children who died during Operation Protective Edge, an Israeli military campaign in Gaza that claimed the lives of 2,177 people, including 72 Israelis and 2,104 Palestinians, most of whom were civilians. It was the one-year anniversary. Someone placed roses at the base of the wall.
The posters didn't last long. An anonymous dissenter tore them down, setting off a chain of actions and reactions that continues today. For about eight months now, on this residential street corner thousands of miles away from the Middle East, Santa Feans are hashing out one of the longest-running and bloodiest conflicts of our time. Their weapons are posters, paintbrushes and plywood. Pro-Palestine signs come up, neighbors complain, and someone tears the signs down. The cycle repeats.
Most recently, the message took the form of a 4x8 plywood board, fastened to rebar stakes cemented to the ground. Two steel chains secured the sign to a 5-gallon bucket of cement on the other side of the wall, which belongs to a retired physicist named Guthrie Miller. Remy Fredenberg, an artist who specializes in advocacy works, painted a Palestinian flag over the board and overlaid it with white text, announcing: "Stop $45 billion to Israel. Don't support apartheid. Justice for Palestinians."
The sign draws attention to a major peg in US foreign policy around the post-World War II agreements over the region's borders. More than half of all US foreign military aid goes to Israel, yet there's a growing belief that the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the partitioning of East Jerusalem, and a blockade surrounding the Gaza Strip all amount to state-sanctioned discrimination against Palestinians.
Michael Peleg, a University of Miami dentist vacationing in Santa Fe with his wife, was so offended when he saw the sign that he emailed City Manager Brian Snyder to air his grievance. "We would like to think there is no room in your state filled with a mosaic of cultural backgrounds and such a rich heritage for this type of behavior," Peleg wrote. "We ask you in your position to help right what we believe is a bigoted wrong." Peleg also noted that he had spent "many thousands of dollars" in the city and planned to contact the police, local media and the American Israeli Political Action Committee, widely considered one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the country.
Locals also took note. Robert Willis, who lives just down the street on Old Pecos Trail, contacted SFR to complain, saying he believes "in freedom of expression, but this is a neighborhood, and to scar a neighborhood with this particular message is inappropriate."
Willis claims to have seen four college-aged men with "dark complexions" installing the makeshift billboard. He reported it to his rabbi. "I think it's a very hateful sign," says Rabbi Berel Levertov of the Chabad Center for Jewish Life of Santa Fe, who says the US plays a pivotal role as protecting Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East, then added, "Besides, it is probably illegal to put up such a sign."
On that last point, Levertov is wrong. Prompted by complaints, the city sent an inspector to Miller's property to determine whether the display violates any ordinances. It doesn't.
"Even if we would prefer a different method of participating in community discourse, this person is well within their first amendment rights to use the sign in the way that they are using it on private property," says city spokesman Matt Ross.
If you drive to the spot in question today, you won't see any words, though. Shortly after the Palestinian flag appeared, someone painted over the sign with light blue, a white Star of David fixed in the center. And then, on Easter, someone covered the star's six points with green paint.
Jeff Haas, a civil rights lawyer, claims responsibility for that last modification. "The idea was I want the sign to be neutral right now," Haas explains. His group, Santa Feans for Justice in Palestine, claimed responsibility for everything else: the fliers, the plywood, and all the construction on Miller's property.
The group is not composed of dark-skinned college students, as Willis described, but a mix of locals, including a retired professor and half-Arab store clerk. They once called themselves Another Jewish Voice but changed their name after growing in scale and demographic scope. "The media just doesn't cover the Palestinian situation, and as I understood it better, I basically felt obligated to step forward," said Cheri Ibes, a 68-year-old rehabilitation therapist. Ibes joined in October 2014 after meeting Haas at a speaking event featuring Max Blumenthal, the author of two books on the conflict, and Amy Goodman, the host of Pacifica's progressive news program Democracy Now!
Recently, Santa Feans for Justice in Palestine raised money for a village in Gaza called Khuza'a, which was heavily damaged during the 2014 war. Funds went to installing a water purification tank and rebuilding a bombed-out kindergarten. All in all, they have donated $11,489, according to a spokesperson for the Middle East Children's Alliance, the California-based nonprofit that was the group's beneficiary.
Haas, 73, says his support for Palestine naturally extends off a lifetime of activism, including involvement in the Civil Rights movement and opposition to US invasions of Vietnam and Iraq. As a Jew, he bristles at a suggestion Willis made that his sign amounts to anti-Semitism. "They want to make criticizing Israel illegal. Why should it be? … Aren't we entitled to raise some criticism?" he says.
As for his sign, Haas says he hopes it will encourage people to do more research on the Israel-Palestine conflict but adds, "no one thing changes minds completely."
Jamie Lapan, who lives near the disputed corner, witnessed each incarnation of Haas' installations, as well as the various defacements. Her takeaway: "Somebody's spending a lot of time in their garage."
Eds: An earlier version of the story misattributed a statement to Levertov.