UNDERCOVER // Shloime Zionce Goes Undercover at a Pro Palestinian Rally

When Palestinians and their supporters gather for a protest in the streets of Austin, Texas, a disguised Shloime Zionce hides in plain sight, mingling with the crowd to get an exclusive insider view of their ambitions and tactics.

It’s a bright and sunny day in the Texas capital city of Austin, when two masked men emerge from a nondescript parked gray minivan, wearing keffiyehs over their shoulders. They look around nervously, surveying the growing crowd of people flocking to the Texas State Capitol building. One of the men is sporting a watermelon-themed bucket hat is sporting a red T-shirt and a simple baseball cap. They lock the car and head down the hill leading to the entrance to the Capitol building, blending into a crowd of mostly young men and women, almost all of whom are wearing keffiyehs too. The sounds get louder and louder as they approach the epicenter of the action, where a big group of people have set up a rally and are protesting in commemoration of the 76 years since the “Nakba” (Arabic for “catastrophe”), in which Palestinians allege that they were forced from their homes. Young activists brandishing megaphones shout slogans at the crowd and the crowd shouts back, repeating the slogans and amplifying the already high decibel sounds. The two men stand at the sidelines, surveying the chaos. Both of them are fully aware that if their true identities are uncovered, they could be in immediate danger.

I should probably stop talking about myself in the third person. The two men you’ve just read about are Rabbi Aryeh Wolbe and myself. Yes, I’m the one in the silly watermelon hat. He’s the one in the red shirt. We’ve driven almost three hours from Houston to attend this rally, knowing that the only way we could truly get an in-depth look at the pro-Palestinian movement would be to get inside it, and that doing so would only be possible, and semi-safe, if we were in disguise. Rabbi Wolbe, who runs the Torah Outreach Research Center of Houston (TORCH), is a dear friend of mine and has agreed to accompany me on today’s adventure—to provide both company and security. I’m not sure what’s in it for him, but I sure am grateful to have him with me. These protests are known to get rowdy, and, all too often, turn violent. Having an extra pair of eyes and someone to watch my back puts me more at ease, enabling me to work the crowd with confidence.
The crowd I speak of comprises a wide assortment of people. There are people wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts, and dozens of others wearing matching red T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Socialism Is the Future” in big white block letters. Although Austin is known to be the most liberal city in Texas, this turnout is still surprising for an extremely red state. By my rough estimation, approximately 50 percent of the people gathered are either Arab or Muslim, and the rest are mostly white liberals who have come to show their support. They have positioned themselves at the intersection directly in front of the State Capitol. For good measure, the Texas State Police have shut down the Capitol grounds for the day, in an effort to avoid unpleasantness. The protestors have formed their own security force, a yellow-vest-clad group of mostly white, bearded and ponytailed men carrying radios. The yellow vests seem to be intimidated by the large police presence, and they are doing their best to show that they too are strong. While they may be large in numbers, the only show of force that the yellow vests can muster is some sort of ritual where they link their arms together and stand between the protestors and law enforcement, as if to show that they are “protecting” the demonstrators.

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