The director of an organization responsible for a controversial anti-Israel billboard in Walnut Creek gave a public talk last week that brought out a group of pro-Israel protesters and ended in the arrest of one of them.
Alison Weir, who appeared March 30 at the Walnut Creek library, is the executive director of If Americans Knew, a nonprofit whose website “is filled with anti-Israel rhetoric and derogatory commentary about Zionism,” said Dan Lapporte, president of Congregation B’nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek, speaking to J. in February. He sent an alert to members after the billboard went up on Interstate 680 calling for an end to U.S. aid for Israel.
Approximately 100 people attended Weir’s talk, including the Israel advocates who sat near the front of the room and a teenager who stood outside the lecture hall distributing handmade fliers that challenged the speaker’s sources of information and countered her claims about Israel.
Controversy over the billboard’s factual accuracy and its potentially anti-Semitic message produced a two-month flurry of letters to the Contra Costa Times and a guest commentary by Weir in response, all of which brought attention to her talk.
One of the letter writers was Kyle Zagon, 18 and a senior at Northgate High School, who took it upon himself to research the claims on the billboard and the organization that funded it. “Her website funnels you to a list of authors, many of whom are known anti-Semites, including people who have been affiliated with the Institute of Historical Review, which is a known Holocaust denial organization, and Paul Findley, who thinks that Israel is behind 9/11,” said Zagon. “And she is calling these books ‘must-reads.’
“I really wanted people to know more about who she is, because if someone just sees the billboard without that context, they won’t know that it’s not coming from a fair place, and that it’s so loaded,” he said.
Zagon decided to attend Weir’s talk. Working with his history teacher Meg Honey and Rabbi Raphael Asher, emeritus rabbi at B’nai Tikvah, he printed the flier that questioned the veracity of Weir’s claims.
Zagon contacted the pro-Israel advocacy group StandWithUs and the Jewish Community Relations Council in advance to seek guidance, and invited friends and family to join his protest. He also hoped to use the Q&A session at the end to ask Weir questions about her background, which he found vague and troubling on her website.
“I wasn’t engaging with whether or not Israel should exist — I wasn’t trying to change anyone’s opinion,” Zagon said about his flier’s message. “I just wanted to create an opportunity for people to take a minute to second-guess who they’re getting their information from. My ultimate goal is to educate people, to inform them on the issue, for people to get their information from reliable sources and not someone who’s hate-mongering.”
Weir, a resident of Richmond, has come under criticism for her associations with white nationalists and anti-Semites, and she has been interviewed on white supremacist radio programs, including Clay Douglas’ “Free American.”
“My impression is that she will speak to anybody in order to spread her message, so she goes on radio shows wherever she can,” said Margli Auclair, executive director of the Mount Diablo Peace and Justice Center, which invited Weir to speak, rented the library space and co-sponsored the event along with Rossmoor’s Voices for Justice in Palestine and Friendly Favors. Weir’s talk was to focus on her 2014 book “Against Our Better Judgment,” about the U.S.-Israel “special relationship.”
“Any connection she has with right-wing radio stations is that she allows herself to be interviewed by them, not that she agrees with them,” said Auclair.
According to observers at the event, the disturbance happened after Weir made a reference to the Holocaust. As the pro-Israel contingent stood up to walk out, one member of the group, identified by police as Helen Lowenstein, shouted at Weir. Some in the audience told her to be quiet, and Lowenstein reportedly stood by the doorway refusing to leave. The police were summoned at that point.
“We were called by the library and told that protesters were causing a disturbance during their presentation,” said Lt. Lanny Edwards, a public information officer with the Walnut Creek Police Department.
According to the police report, officers escorted Lowenstein into the foyer, where she continued to yell and attempted to return to the event room. An attendee came out of the room with an iPad and began recording the interaction between Lowenstein and the police officer. The two women got into a verbal altercation, and then Lowenstein says she “swiped at” the other woman’s iPad. The police arrested Lowenstein on assault charges, handcuffed her and took her to the police station across the street.
Riva Gambert, head of the East Bay International Jewish Film Festival and one of the Israel advocates in attendance, called the atmosphere “very chilling. There was a great amount of hostility in the room,” she said. “Other events usually talk about policies, but this really felt aimed at the essence of Zionism and the essence of why there is a Jewish state — an anti-Zionist screed that picked on anti-Semitic tropes and painted a very distorted picture of the history of the region.”
Zagon, who witnessed the altercation in the foyer, stood outside the lecture room with a few friends holding up an American and Israeli flag together.
“It was scary because I was expecting a lot more people to be there. For a lot of the time I was standing up there alone or with Rabbi Asher,” said Zagon. “We were called traitors, Nazis, baby killers. It was pretty awful. One guy came up to me and said I was worse than the Nazis. Someone else said they were sorry we had been indoctrinated so early by the Jews.
“It’s really surprising how much hate exists, and how people who don’t want to listen aren’t going to listen,” Zagon said. “I had expected people to be more open-minded, but most had already made up their minds about what they thought about me and Israel and Jews before coming.”