President Biden's Nantucket Visit Consumed By Israel-Hamas Conflict

Jason Graziadei •

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Pro-Palestine protestors on Main Street on Saturday. Photo by Charity Grace Mofsen

Just as President Joe Biden and his family arrived on Nantucket last Tuesday night for their annual visit to the island, the details of a cease-fire in the conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza were just starting to trickle out. 

While the yearly Thanksgiving trip to the island for Biden has typically been a respite from the world stage during his presidency, this time it would be consumed by current events and the politics of a war that has spurred protests across the country.

Over the past six days, Biden's time on Nantucket was spent on the phone with world leaders, issuing statements on the unfolding events, announcing a hostage release from a conference room at the White Elephant hotel, and getting confronted himself by pro-Palestine protestors on the streets of downtown Nantucket.

President Biden and First Lady Jill Biden were heckled by protestors on their way into the Brotherhood on Friday. Photo by Kit Noble.

In some ways, Biden's visit to Nantucket was similar to his past two excursions to the island as President: he once again made a trip to the Nantucket Fire Department on Thanksgiving to deliver pies and chat with the firefighters there. He took time to do some shopping on Black Friday and have lunch, once again, at The Brotherhood of Thieves. The family celebrated his 81st birthday together at the compound of private equity billionaire David Rubenstein, where he stayed for the third year in a row.

But all of those rituals were interspersed with breaks back to reality and the requirements of the President of the United States to exert influence on the unfolding events in the Middle East.

Biden made calls to the leaders of Qatar and Egypt. He was on the phone several times with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu regarding the cease fire and pending release of hostages. There were numerous briefings by his national security team throughout his six-day visit to Nantucket, and on Sunday, he returned to the White Elephant hotel's conference room to announce the release of the 4-year-old Israeli-American hostage Avigail Idan. 

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"Today has been the product of a lot of hard work and weeks of personal engagement," Biden said from the White Elephant. "From the moment Hamas kidnapped these people, I, along with my team, have worked around the clock to secure their release. We saw the first results of this effort with the release of two American hostages in late October followed by the release of two Israeli hostages. I have consistently pressed for a pause in the fighting for two reasons: to accelerate and expand the humanitarian assistance going into Gaza and, two, to facilitate the release of hostages."

Biden's unwavering support of Israel has prompted sharp criticism and protests across the country as the Israeli airstrikes in response to Hamas' Oct. 7th attack have reportedly killed thousands of people in Gaza. 

And so even when Biden attempted to enjoy the little spare time he had on the island, he found there was no escape from the controversy over the conflict in the Middle East and the United States' support for its ally Israel.

As he walked to the Brotherhood on Friday, several people in a crowd across Broad Street yelled "Free Palestine!" and "Cease Fire!" as he entered the restaurant. And that was only the beginning.

A few hours later on Main Street, where the Bidens had gathered to watch the town's annual tree-lighting ceremony, a small group of pro-Palestine protestors chanted and unfurled banners a short distance away from where President Biden was standing.

The group was in the front row of the crowd on Main Street, behind the police barricades, as they chanted "Biden, Biden, you can't hide, we charge you with genocide" and unfurled banners that read "Free Palestine" and "End Apartheid & Genocide."

Video of the incident showed the Bidens noticed the protestors before calling over the group of Nantucket High School carolers for a private chat as the crowd on Main Street sang "Here Comes Santa Claus" amidst the protestors' chants.

Nantucket Chamber of Commerce executive director Pete Burke got on the mic and said "Excuse me this is a community tree lighting. We respect your right to free speech, but this is not a political event."

The group included a handful of current and former Nantucket residents, including Sarah Nabulsi, Molly Zegans, Flora Medawar, and Ethan Philbrick.

“Nantucket’s annual tree lighting ceremony is supposed to be a celebration of peace, family, and a spirit of togetherness. We decided to confront Biden to remind the President that for Palestinians, there is no peace within the everyday violence of an apartheid state," said Ethan Philbrick, 38, a professor and artist who was born and raised on Nantucket and now resides in Brooklyn, in a statement released after the protest. "As Nantucketers, we want to make it clear that there is nothing to celebrate, nothing to be thankful for, while 12,000 Palestinians, many entire families, have lost their lives to Israeli air strikes. It is time for President Biden to get on the right side of history and call for a permanent ceasefire and an end to the siege on Gaza and the apartheid state."

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Protestors at the Christmas tree lighting ceremony. Photo by Charity Grace Mofsen

The following day - when Biden typically heads back downtown for shopping and to attend mass at St. Mary's church - his routine was once again disrupted by protestors. Nearly 30 people gathered at the Milestone rotary around 2:30 p.m. holding pro-Palestine signs and a banner that read "Ceasefire 4Eva." Once again, the protesters included mostly island residents, including Virginia Bullington, Robert Inglis, and Sean Allen, among others. 

A smaller group from the Nantucket Jewish congregation Shirat HaYam stood across the street and shared a statement with the Current about their counter-protest. The situation prompted President Biden's motorcade to take an alternative route to the downtown area - going down Surfside Road to avoid the protestors altogether.

But the group marched from the rotary to Main Street, where Biden would soon arrive. While Secret Service agents and State Police Troopers kept the protestors and other curious onlookers well away from President Biden as he shopped at several stores, some people booed him, while one person yelled "shame on you!" and another shouted "armchair murder." Those jeers were mixed in with plenty of cheers for Biden, but down at the other end of Main Street, the larger group once again unfurled its banner and left signs at the Christmas tree where the former Main Street fountain once stood before it was destroyed by a vehicle last month. 

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Photo by Charity Grace Mofsen
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Photo by Charity Grace Mofsen

“There aren’t many opportunities to protest on Nantucket, and because we’re on an island it’s difficult to join protests on the mainland," said Robert Inglis, 65, a retired wastewater operator who has lived on Nantucket for 33 years. "So I decided to help organize a protest on the island. Over recent decades, I have been distressed over the systematic repression of Palestinians by the Israeli government in what appears an apartheid state. Since the October 7th Hamas attacks, that repression now looks like systematic annihilation in Gaza. We are calling on President Biden, all Americans, and the rest of the world for an immediate and permanent ceasefire in Gaza and a full flow of humanitarian aid to support the lives of Gazans."

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