First Person | Local

Supporting worshippers at Phoenix mosque, local Jews met with gratitude

Sarah Johnston, center, a Jewish woman from Tucson, with other proponents of religious tolerance who gathered May 29 outside a Phoenix mosque to counter an anti-Muslim protest. The photo includes representatives of the three Abrahamic faiths, Islam, Judaism and Christianity, says Johnston. (Marty Johnston)

Recently, Jon Ritzheimer, a former Marine and self-described “patriot” announced on Facebook that he was holding a “protest” and a “draw Muhammed” contest at the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix during their May 29 Friday night prayers. He invited bikers whom he encouraged to come armed. My husband heard about the protest and asked me if we could counter-protest. After discussing the pros (defending another minority group’s right to worship without fear, creating a little bit of peace in the world) and the cons (violating Shabbat by driving from Tucson), we decided to go. Marty spoke with various groups including the Phoenix chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations and found a group of people planning to attend the protest to form a quiet, peaceful ring around the mosque to protect worshippers from the hate.

We arrived at the site of the protests around 4:30 p.m. As we were getting our bearings, the various groups became involved in shouting matches. At one point, a Quran was destroyed. Then the police, who had cordoned off the streets, moved in and separated the groups. They put barricades up and formed a line down the middle of the street. We were on the side of the street closest to the mosque and the mosque president spread the word that they were allowing counterprotesters into the mosque for water and to use the restrooms. The anti-Islam crowd continued to shout threats and derogatory comments about Islam from across the street. Meanwhile, we stood quietly and talked amongst ourselves. I met two wonderful women, one who described herself as pagan and who is now my Facebook friend and one who self-identified as Muslim. She told me her daughter works in Dallas with many Jewish people and how grateful she was that I, as a Jew, was there. She said, “We are all brothers and sisters, the Jews, the Muslims and the Christians.” As we talked I discovered that she was an Iraqi refugee who is working on becoming an U.S. citizen.

Soon after, Marty, who had been wandering our side of the street, came to check on me. He reported that he had seen a neo-Nazi wearing a T-shirt with an SS symbol on the other side of the street. Another counter-protester said he’d seen that the neo-Nazis had been invited and were instructed not to come in identifiable clothing because they wanted to use the protest as a recruiting event. At this point, many of the people who were on the other side of the street just to support “First Amendment rights” crossed the street and joined our side, due to the hatred they were seeing displayed by the original protesters.

As the evening wore on, individuals began to drift away. Prayers were held at a nearby, smaller mosque. Although some Muslims were exposed to the hate and vitriol of the protesters, many reported feeling supported and accepted by those of us counter-protesting. At 8:30 p.m., we decided to leave the protest to return home. While ascertaining with the police that it would be safe to leave the main group, we were told that there were over 200 officers on that block alone. We were able to walk to our car in safety. Ironically, the most dangerous part of the night may have been arriving at the dark lot where we had parked and finding it full of nervous police officers who were using it as a staging area for their armored vehicles. Sarah Johnston is a Jewish convert who lives in Tucson.