Folks in the leafy New York suburb of Englewood, N.J., are up in arms, according to news reports, over plans by the Libyan government to pitch a tent on a Libyan-owned property in their town. The pavilion is supposed to house strongman Muammar Gadhafi while he attends the opening of the United Nations General Assembly in September.
Gadhafi traditionally puts up a tent whenever he travels abroad, so he can sleep outdoors under the open sky. Apparently he and his friends like to stay up late in their sleeping bags, tell ghost stories and make shadow animals on the tent flaps with a flashlight. Sometimes they sneak out and throw things at the neighbors’ houses. That’s when they get into trouble.
Englewood residents say they don’t want a dictator who supports terrorists camping out in their midst. Libya’s terror record hits close to home for New Jersey. The 189 Americans killed in the infamous 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, included 32 Jersey residents. Locals say Gadhafi’s presence overnight in the state would be an affront to the victims’ families. The issue is particularly inflamed right now because of the televised hero’s welcome that Gadhafi gave on the evening of August 20 to the convicted Pan Am bomber, Abdel Basset al-Megrahi. The convict was serving a life term in a Scottish prison but won early release that morning on humanitarian grounds because of terminal cancer.
The issue raises numerous sensitive issues for New Jersey. The state doesn’t like to house individuals with a history of homicide, unless they have names like Tony or Uncle Junior. Moreover, the state has had some painful experiences of its own with sleepovers involving Middle Easterners. Just ask former governor Jim McGreevey.
Not everyone opposed the visit. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the author and television host, who lives next door to the Libyan property, was in favor of welcoming Gadhafi, as he wrote in a Jerusalem Post essay published the morning of August 20. Well, he supported it until he was against it, following the al-Megrahi homecoming that evening.
The dispute raises some complicated legal issues. Englewood has clear laws against pitching tents outdoors, but it has granted a continuing exemption to a local synagogue that puts tents in its parking lot for weddings and bar mitzvahs. Denying Gadhafi the same right might bring charges of religious discrimination. We could end up in the International Court, site of so many Jewish nightmares. Imagine a late-August bar mitzvah suit dismissed in a summery judgment from the bencher. The suit: seersucker, no cuffs. (Add your own double-entendres here.)
There may be an elegant solution, however. The legality of putting up poles and anchoring them with long cords was addressed a decade ago in the next town over, Tenafly, which fought a three-year court battle to prevent local Orthodox Jews from erecting an eruv, a symbolic Sabbath barrier strung from telephone poles. The town’s formal complaint was that the eruv defaced public property, but the underlying motive, many believed, was fear that the eruv would bring in an undesirable element. The parallel is inescapable.
Tenafly ultimately lost the fight against the eruv, but it kept the issue tied up for three years, which is more than Englewood needs.
Alternatively, Englewood might simply argue that Gadhafi would be happier staying indoors. Sleeping outdoors in late September, someone might think he’s built himself a sukkah, which could get him in hot water back home. He might be better off getting a room at a charming beduin-breakfast. (Ooooh.) (Sorry.)
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).