ANNAPOLIS – Bearded Orthodox Jews, guitar-strumming Israel supporters and a dancing Condoleezza Rice impersonator, among others, congregated outside the Naval Academy’s main gate Tuesday while a conference inside talked about Middle East peace.
But with constant shouting matches breaking out, the demonstrations were anything but peaceful.
“It’s kind of a peculiar atmosphere,” said Jake Hayman, a peace demonstrator, before being cursed at by an elderly immigrant woman who took offense to his sign advocating a two-state solution to the Middle East crisis.
He was one of several hundred demonstrators who came to promote a wide spectrum of ideologies during the Annapolis peace conference between President Bush, Secretary of State Rice and Middle East leaders on academy grounds. The conference was aimed at restarting long-stalled negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.
The protestors, media and police were concentrated in a two-block area near the academy’s main entrance.
If the conference were in New York or Washington it would attract “a flood of people,” said Hayman, of OneVoice Peaceworks Foundation. Instead, Annapolis only brought out the more interesting “diehards,” he said.
Annapolis residents, who had to deal with hovering helicopters, blocked roads and a heavy police presence, took it in stride.
Bill Schmickle, who owns the Flag House Inn down the street from the main gate, said he awoke to find an officer with a bomb-sniffing dog on his porch Tuesday morning.
“It’s a lot smaller demonstration than we ever imagined it would be,” said Schmickle.
His wife, Charlotte, said it was unlikely that the dignitaries meeting behind the academy’s tall brick walls would catch a glimpse of the protesters.
“Obviously they are there so the media can see it,” she said, gesturing toward the crowd of demonstrators dotted with television cameras.
The majority of the protestors were from Jewish groups who opposed the conference, fearing it would lead to dividing Israel into two states. But frequent showdowns occurred between them and groups supporting the peace conference or a Palestinian state.
Tensions bubbled up when a group of several dozen Orthodox Jewish men from Brooklyn marched down a sunny street in the historic district, their long hair and beards waving in the wind. Unlike most Jews present, they carried signs saying the existence of Israel was against Jewish law.
As cameras clicked, one woman tried to hold her pro-Israel sign in front of the anti-Israel sign of an Orthodox man. When she would not stop, the bearded man in black struck her several times with the long, thick cardboard tube supporting his sign.
As more pro-Israel demonstrators arrived, police separated the two groups, who continued to shout at each other through the officers.
Israel is “an abomination of god,” yelled a stout man with flowing gray hair and beard who called himself Great Prince Michael.
Down the street a group of elderly Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union chanted “down with Rice.”
“It’s just a whole lot of different kinds of people we aren’t used to seeing in Annapolis,” said Jeremy Olsen, a first-year student at St. John’s College in Annapolis.
“There are not a lot of people talking, just a lot of yelling at each other,” Olsen said. “It’s just kind of ridiculous. At school we discuss everything.”
A few took advantage of the media presence to gain attention for unrelated agendas. Ben Treuhaft left his home in New York City at 5 a.m. to hold up a sign with a Cuban flag saying “Send a Piana to Havana.”
“I have a bone to pick with Condi Rice,” said Treuhaft, adding that his efforts to send pianos to poor Cubans have been blocked since a 2006 change in regulations.
“Where is she?” he asked.
Treuhaft did catch up with a woman wearing a prison suit and an oversized papier-mache Rice mask who tried to join a group of pro-Israel Jews playing guitar, singing in Hebrew and dancing in a circle. As she tried to dance her way in, a man nudged her out.
“My wife said I’m stupid for coming down here,” Treuhaft said. “But I think it was worth it.”
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