On Thursday, hundreds of protesters, many of them Jewish, called for a ceasefire in the conflict between Israel and Hamas that has escalated into a catastrophic humanitarian crisis.

A demonstration that started in downtown Durham intensified as a portion of the group sat down in the middle of the freeway at rush hour, blocking traffic until the sky darkened and temperatures fell near freezing. 

The action was organized by the Triangle branch of Jewish Voice for Peace. Protesters initially assembled in CCB Plaza, raising fists and signs and chanting “not in our name.” Several delivered remarks. 

Credit: Photo by Jenny Warburg

“Jewish tradition teaches that life is precious,” said Noah Rubin-Blose, a student rabbi and one of a handful of protesters wearing a tallit, a Jewish prayer shawl. “It teaches us that if one life is lost, it’s as if a whole world has been lost. So my heart is breaking over and over again as I watch Palestinian lives being treated as disposable.”

Rubin-Blose noted the relevance of this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayera, in which Abraham begs God not to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. On the morning the cities burn down, Rubin-Blose said, Abraham returns to the mountain where he pleaded with God, and bears witness to the destruction. 

“The sages of Jewish tradition say that this moment—his returning to bear witness, in his shock and his grief and his rage—this is the moment from which we derive the imperative of daily prayer,” Rubin-Blose said. “It is a holy thing to speak truth to power. It is a holy thing to say, ‘ceasefire now.’”

Another speaker, Tema Okun, stressed that “it is not antisemitic to call for a ceasefire.” 

“The massive bombardment of Gaza does not honor the Israelis who were killed,” Okun said. “It does not free hostages.”

After reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, protesters marched half a mile down Mangum Street. They split up when they reached Highway 147, with some gathering on an overpass and others descending the entrance ramp. A Prius with a “Free Palestine” sign taped to the back windshield had parked on two lanes of the northbound highway, halting the flow of commuter traffic.

Credit: Photo by Jenny Warburg

Protesters on the highway spent much of the sit-in trying to reach U.S. Rep. Valerie Foushee over the phone. 

If Foushee, whose congressional district includes Durham and Orange counties, listened to their calls for a ceasefire, the protesters would get out of the road, they said. Several of the same protesters gathered in front of Foushee’s office two weeks ago, hoping to have a conversation with the Congresswoman, to no avail. 

This isn’t the first time Foushee has faced criticism for seemingly supporting the Israeli government under prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Last year, the anti-democratic, pro-Netanyahu American Israel PAC (AIPAC) spent more than $2 million on Foushee’s congressional primary campaign in her race against Durham County Commissioner Nida Allam, a pro-Palestinian Muslim woman. The primary was the most expensive in the state’s history to date. Early in the campaign, Foushee came under fire for accepting more than $165,000 from the PAC. The Progressive Caucus of the North Carolina Democratic Party pulled its endorsement of Foushee just before the primary election because Foushee accepted the AIPAC money. In total, AIPAC funneled nearly $300,000 into Foushee’s campaign.

Foushee didn’t talk to protesters on the phone Thursday and has not responded to the INDY’s request for comment. She issued a statement to WRAL in which she said she’d been unaware of the protest.

“I understand and recognize that our entire world is hurting over the human tragedy and humanitarian crisis unfolding in Gaza, Israel and the surrounding region,” the statement reads. “Under international law, Israel has the right to defend itself in the aftermath of Hamas’ terrorist attacks. The current humanitarian crisis must be addressed urgently and I stand with the Biden Administration on ensuring clean water, food and medicine and aid is delivered to any civilian affected by this conflict.”

Protesters also called on Rep. Deborah Ross and Rep. Wiley Nickel, who represent swathes of Wake County, to take action in supporting a ceasefire resolution.

Police were present on and around the freeway but didn’t start seriously threatening protesters with arrests until sundown. 

In a press release Friday, Durham police chief Patrice Andrew stated that she feels “disappointed in the actions this group chose to take to bring attention to their cause” but “proud of the way my officers and officers from other jurisdictions came together to bring this situation to a peaceful end.”

No one was arrested. (Editor’s note: On Saturday, Durham Police Department announced that it had obtained warrants for four of the protesters and stated that more charges are pending.)

Credit: Photo courtesy of Jewish Voice for Peace

When the crowd dispersed, a little before 8 p.m., demonstrators were still dialing Foushee. 

Last week, Foushee attended Shabbat services at a Durham synagogue and gave a short speech. She expressed staunch support for Israeli military funding and vowed to “continue to amplify the voices of the Jewish community as it seeks justice, security, and peace.”

But on Thursday, when dozens of Jews tried to share their visions for justice, security, and peace with Foushee, she wasn’t available to listen.

Follow Staff Writer Lena Geller on Twitter or send an email to lgeller@indyweek.com. Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com

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