WASHINGTON – Angry residents of a heavily Jewish Boston suburb are demanding an apology or else the resignation of two city officials, after they sponsored a resolution inviting a Guantanamo inmate to move to the town upon his anticipated release.
The resolution was unanimously approved by a subcommittee of the Board of Aldermen before sparking a public outcry once community members learned of the proposal. It ended up being dismissed by the full board at a meeting last Tuesday, but many residents are still furious that the issue got as far as it did.
“I think an apology would be nice, but I think the damage has already been done,” said Kerry Hurwitz, who got e-mails from friends, pro-Israel organizations and her synagogue when news of the resolution’s impending vote came out.
Her first reaction was, “This is a terrible idea. It’s putting our children at risk.”
Following the full board’s unanimous decision to take “no action” on the resolution she said, “I felt relieved but also a little bit angry that this happened at all,” adding, “This is crazy. What were they thinking?”
The resolution itself cites Abdul Aziz Naji’s local connections – he is represented pro bono by two Newton-based lawyers – in expressing a willingness to “welcome this cleared detainee into our community” as soon as Congress repealed the ban on settling released Guantanamo prisoners in the US, which the resolution also urged.
“Newton has historically welcomed refugees from a variety of countries and under many circumstances,” the resolution also stated.
“Newton’s history of supporting human rights makes it fitting that our community provide safe resettlement to a man who has been unjustly imprisoned by the US government at Guantanamo Bay.”
Stephen Linsky, one of the two cosponsors of the resolution, explained that to implement a repeal of the ban – something he supports – communities would have to accept detainees, and he wanted his support to be more than empty words.
“This isn’t about rewarding any individual. It’s about aiding US interests, and how we can help,” he said. “It means raising our hand to do our part.”
But when another alderman, Charlie Shapiro, heard about the resolution, he thought it was far from being in Newton’s interest, let alone the country’s.
“Under normal circumstances I would have been the first to welcome immigrants to the City of Newton, but I draw the line at anyone who is associated with terrorism in any way, shape or form,” said Shapiro.
He called an emergency meeting to let locals speak out on the issue, which otherwise wouldn’t have gotten a public hearing before the scheduled vote.
Typically, hearings aren’t held on resolutions because they’re non-controversial, according to Shapiro.
“Generally speaking you’d be recognizing the librarian for 50 years of community service,” he explained. “This was a totally different category.”
Thirty people ended up coming to the hastily arranged meeting – an unheard-of turnout – with one in favor and 29 opposed.
“The resolution was completely unacceptable, and most of the people who showed up at the meeting I held thought it was outrageous,” said Shapiro.
At the full board meeting on Tuesday some 80 people came, a “highly unusual” number in the words of Shapiro, who noted, “There’s usually zero.”
Though the public was not able to speak at that meeting, many of those who came held signs saying “Recall clueless aldermen” and “No Jihadis in Newton.”
The key organizer behind the effort, Charles Jacobs, welcomed the 24-0 board vote of “no action” on the resolution, but has continued to push for action to be taken again Linsky and his cosponsor, Ted Hess-Mahan.
“I think they owe the citizens an apology,” he charged.
Naji has been cleared for release from Guantanamo but has admitted to working for the charitable arm of Lashkar-e-Taibe, the organization behind the terror attack in Mumbai that included the murder of two Chabad emissaries.
According press accounts and the research Jacobs conducts as head of Americans for Peace and Tolerance, a group devoted to exposing Islamic extremism, before receiving his lawyers Naji told his US interrogators he pledged to fight in Lashkar-e-Taibe’s jihad against India and was given mine-laying training in the group’s camps.
Linsky, however, said that Naji posed no threat to Newton residents.
“If I had ever felt that, of course, I never would have engaged in the resolution,” he said, though he added, “I understand where people were coming from.”
He did, however, acknowledge that it was clear that the process hadn’t provided enough opportunity for public input and debate.
“We really needed to afford more time for that,” he said.
He said the strong reaction “reflected that there is certainly a diversity of opinion in our community” and he cast his vote for “no action” to give a greater opportunity for the debate to continue.
He noted that while opponents of the measure have been “extremely vocal,” he’s heard from many others that have been “very supportive.”
In response to the calls for an apology, he offered to sit down personally with anyone who wanted to share their concerns.
“We had the beginning of the conversation. I don’t know that a lot of people feel that it was bad to raise it,” Linsky said, noting that the issue might be taken up again later, likely after the board had dealt with the budget.
Jacobs did come up with one reason he thought it would be good for the resolution to someday pass, and allow a former Guantanamo inmate take up residency in the affluent and politically liberal Boston suburb.
“Why don’t you bring them, because that will be the real torture,” he quipped about Naji. “He’ll have to see assertive feminists and happy gays and Jews and Christians who are free ... all living happily together.”