MILTON – This small town, with a population of 28,000 people, has been roiled over the past week by one of the world's largest and most intractable disputes – the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Immediately after the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas militants on Israel, the Milton Select Board unanimously voted to hang the Israeli flag in front of Town Hall through the end of November.
On Tuesday, Nov. 14, during the "citizen speak" portion of the Select Board meeting, resident Nawar Muhsin requested that the Palestinian flag stand alongside the Israeli flag.
Muhsin said that just as Milton raised a flag in support of innocent Israelis killed in the attacks of Hamas, the town should also raise the Palestinian flag in support of innocent Palestinians being "horrifically killed as we speak for a crime they did not commit."
"We stand against antisemitism," Mushin said. "We stand against Islamophobia and any bigotry that devalues a person's humanity."
That request has yet to receive a vote.
It couldn't be voted on at the Nov. 14 meeting because it was not on the agenda. The board then scheduled a special remote-only meeting for Friday, Nov. 17, at 11:15 a.m. to discuss the request, but it took no action. Instead, a second special meeting was scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 23, at 5 p.m.
In the meantime, dueling change.org petitions – one entitled "raise the Palestinian flag," the other "stop the display of the Palestinian flag" – have drawn hundreds of signatures on each side of the issue.
"Sometimes symbols overtake the substance," said Milton Select Board Chair Mike Zullas at the Nov. 17 meeting.
"Sometimes symbols can impede dialogue and impair understanding. Sometimes symbols can cause people to retreat to their respective corners. ... I feel that that's what's happened here."
Board member Roxanne Musto, who is Jewish, strongly opposed displaying the Palestinian flag, which she said is symbolic of terrorism, genocide and antisemitism.
Musto, who introduced the motion to fly the Israeli flag, said that the Palestinian flag is the flag of Hamas, and its display would not signify support for the Palestinians living in Gaza or the Muslim community in Milton or anywhere else.
On Tuesday, Rabbi Alfred Benjamin of the Beth Shalom Congregation of the Blue Hills, Milton's only temple, sent a message to the select board in support of displaying the Palestinian flag.
"It is important for the wider community in Milton to know that our Selectboard understands that Hamas does not represent all Palestinians; that there are many in the Palestinian and Muslim community who seek peace, looking forward to the creation of a Palestinian State that would live side by side with the State of Israel," Benjamin wrote.
"I would strongly support the Selectboard should you decide to put up a Palestinian flag next to the Israeli flag. It would be a symbolic act that encourages all of us to look forward to a hoped for future; an act that says what's going on now is not the way it has to be. And for anyone who might object, please remind them that Hamas has a flag and that no one is asking for it to be welcomed into our town."
Board member Richard Wells suggested that in December, after the Israeli flag is taken down, that a simple peace sign be displayed for the rest of the year "to sooth many of the feelings of residents."
Board member Benjamin Zoll opposed Wells' motion, saying that even a peace symbol can be construed in different ways. Instead, he urged the board to adopt a statement calling for a public forum to bring the community together to discuss difficult issues.
The draft statement reads as follows:
"Rather than to continue the symbolic act of hanging any flag in the gazebo, we want to support all our residents by facilitating a thoughtful conversation in our community on how we can work together in positive and constructive ways.
"Our goal is to schedule a community forum led by the Milton Interfaith Clergy Association and Milton Muslim Neighbors to provide more inclusive and tangible support for all those affected by the horrors going on now in the Middle East."
Milton Muslim Neighbors is a nonprofit civic organization that does charity work in the region.
Taking a different tack, board member Erin Bradley proposed removing the Israeli flag for the remainder of the month, though she voted in favor of raising it in October. Bradley suggested holding a vigil for all innocent lives lost on the same occasion as taking down the Israeli flag.
"I'm wondering if the best thing for us to do right now is to take down the flags, take a minute to come together and learn about each other's communities and places that they're coming from."
Responding to emails and comments of Musto, Bradley emphasized that the Palestinian flag is not the flag of Hamas, which has its own flag. "A simple Google search will tell you what the flag of Hamas is," she said.
Bradley, who had her video turned off but was audibly upset during her remarks, said that conflating the Palestinian people with Hamas militants is wrong.
Responding to Bradley, Musto said that after Oct. 7 attack many Palestinians in Gaza supported the Hamas attack and "thought it was a good thing. Musto cited "a lot of evidence that's out there" to support her claim.
Alluding to Rabbi Benjamin's support of displaying the Palestinian flag, Musto said that the views of religious leaders do not necessarily reflect the views of the broader religious communities they represent.
The Milton Select Board didn't reach any decisions Friday and no motion was made to display the Palestinian flag. They tabled a vote on whether or not to adopt the statement until a second special meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 21, at 5 p.m.
Zullas told The Patriot Ledger that an up or down vote on raising the Palestinian flag depends on "what members offer as motions."
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