Jim Kenyon: Charity and protest in Upper Valley tied to conflict a world away 

Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

By JIM KENYON

Valley News Columnist

Published: 12-09-2023 11:38 PM

When Tom Harty, the pastor at United Church of Bethel, brought up an idea to parishioners on a recent Sunday morning, he wasn’t quite sure what the reaction might be.

Harty, a former Vermont State Police trooper, recognized that any individual or group that wades into the war between Israel and Hamas risks being denounced for picking sides.

And the last thing Harty, who has led the church for 20 years, wanted to do was “drive a wedge” in his congregation.

With Advent season approaching, Harty asked church members to consider opening their check books to benefit children in war-torn Gaza.

“I got some blank looks at first,” the 68-year-old Harty told me in an interview. But when kids are involved, he added, everyone agreed, “there’s no side to take.”

Since the Israeli bombing campaign and ground attack began two months ago, more than 5,000 children have reportedly been killed and thousands more injured in Gaza, UNICEF posted on its website last week.

It’s estimated that 1.7 million people in the Gaza Strip have been displaced — half of them children. “They do not have enough access to water, food, fuel and medicine,” warned UNICEF, an agency of the United Nations. “Their homes have been destroyed; their families torn apart.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has described the Palestinian civilians killed — an estimated 16,000 so far — as “collateral damage” in the war started by Hamas on Oct. 7.

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“There’s no excuse in any shape or form for what Hamas did,” Harty said, referring to the Gaza-based terrorist organization’s barbaric attack in which 1,200 Israelis, mostly civilians, were killed and about 250 people taken hostage.

But, Harty added, “it’s not being antisemitic to criticize the Israeli government for its disproportionate response.”

With 2 million people squeezed into an area that’s one-fifth the size of Orange County, Gaza’s children are at the mercy of the Israeli military and its 2,000-pound U.S.-made bombs, Harty pointed out.

United Church of Bethel, which draws 35 to 40 people on most Sunday mornings, has raised about $1,000, and that was before a cookie sale on Saturday. Along with donations from members, the church itself, which dates back to 1816, will contribute from its “mission funds,” Harty said.

The money is earmarked for a United Nations’ Gaza children’s relief fund. “We’re trying to help out in a tiny way,” Harty said.

Donations can be made online at www.unitedchurchofbethel.org, or mailed to United Church of Bethel, Gaza Children’s Fund, P.O. Box 28, Bethel, Vt., 05032.

Howard Coffin, a church member, worked with Harty on hatching the fundraising effort.

“We’re doing what churches should be doing,” said Coffin, a historian and author whose specialty is the Civil War. “If anyone in the world needs help now, it’s these children.”

‘Drop the charges’

At the Hanover Inn on Monday evening, about 50 protesters marched outside while Sian Leah Beilock was inside, conducting the first stop on her “Presidential Welcome Tour.”

The demonstrators were showing support for two Dartmouth students who were arrested on Oct. 28 for refusing to leave a camping tent they’d occupied for six hours on the lawn outside the president’s office.

Freshman Kevin Engel and junior Grace Hillery said they were trying to raise awareness on campus about the war in Gaza. But the Beilock administration didn’t see it the same way. College officials claimed the student-activists were part of a campus group that had threatened “physical action” in one of its writings.

The college called in Hanover cops who hauled the two students away in handcuffs. Engel and Hillery were charged with criminal trespassing. (On campus, Hillery is known as Roan Wade. She’s in the process of changing her legal name, but court records have her as Grace Hillery.)

Their arraignment, which they’re not required to attend, is scheduled for Dec. 18 at Lebanon District Court. In a recent interview, the students told me they plan to plead not guilty to the misdemeanor charge. Kira Kelley, a 2011 Hanover High graduate who is now an attorney with the Climate Defense Project, a nonprofit based in Minneapolis, Minn., is representing them pro bono.

At Monday’s rally, which was led by a group called Upper Valley for Palestine, demonstrators carried a large banner stating, “Drop the Charges.”

In having the two arrested, “Dartmouth has weaponized the police and the state against these two students who didn’t do anything wrong,” said Christopher Helali, a Dartmouth graduate student who served as a spokesman for the protesters.

“Dartmouth is trying to silence a lot of the Palestinian activism and Palestinian perspective on campus,” he added.

A Hanover police officer stood watch during Monday’s rally. No arrests were made. At the request of Hanover Inn management, police asked protesters to move off college property, which they quickly did.

“Dartmouth welcomes protests on campus as long as neither force nor the threat of force is used, and so long as the orderly processes of the institution are not deliberately obstructed,” college spokeswoman Diana Lawrence told me via email.

As for Beilock, she either slipped out a side entrance or left the inn after protesters had gone home following their two-hour rally, which also questioned Dartmouth’s investment policies regarding companies that manufacture military weapons.

Beilock’s next stop on her 10-city tour is Monday evening in Manhattan at Pier Sixty, a swank waterfront venue overlooking the Hudson River.

A college news release didn’t say whether guests were welcome to bring their camping tents.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.