A crowd of roughly 100 peaceful protesters gathered outside the on Wednesday night, decrying the man speaking inside—former President George W. Bush.
The protesters held up signs that labeled the country’s 43rd president a “war criminal” and a “torturer” for his authorization of enhanced interrogation techniques during his presidency. Some symbolically wore prison jumpsuits, in reference to detainees of facilities such as Abu Ghraib. When people attending Bush's appearance began to file out of the St. Louis Park synagogue around 7 p.m., the handful of remaining protesters chanted “shame.”
Bush spoke to an intimate crowd of about 250 inside, and members of the media weren't invited. The American Jewish World reported that ticket prices started at $1,250. The newspaper also reported that a sell-out would net Beth El a minimum of $312,500, after paying the former president $100,000 for his appearance.
In a letter obtained by the newspaper, Beth El President Gil Mann said Bush’s appearance was meant to coincide closely with the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“This national tragedy defined much of his presidency, and the lessons of that time should prove illuminating and provide important perspective today as our country strives to be more united,” the paper quoted Mann as saying. “His appearance, like those of other world leaders who have spoken at Beth El, such as President Bill Clinton and Israel(i) Prime Minister Ehud Barak, is an important fundraiser for our synagogue.”
But those outside had different feelings about Bush’s appearance.
“I’m disappointed (in Beth El),” said St. Louis Park resident and National Holocaust Museum charter member Diane Steen. “I don’t understand why the Jewish faith isn’t abhorred at what George Bush allowed to happen. This is a shame on this particular synagogue.”
Fellow St. Louis Park resident Judy Chucker, who is Jewish, agreed with Steen.
“It’s very disturbing that a synagogue would permit this, “ she said. “I have dear friends who belong here, and I know they don’t like Bush.”
Chucker added that she hopes the president’s appearance—and the protest she participated in—at least generates some healthy dialogue.
“I think it’ll promote discussion,” Chucker said. “I was teasing my girlfriend who belongs here, and I left a message for her, and I know we’ll be discussing it when she gets my message.”
Richard Ketring drove from Ashland, WI—245 miles east of the Twin Cities—to attend the protest.
“He has taken this country down a rat hole,” Ketring said of Bush. “And we’re a long way from getting out.”
Despite strong words from Ketring and others, the protesters remained civil throughout the evening, never clashing with the handful of St. Louis Park police officers, Minnesota State Patrol troopers and Secret Service agents milling around the perimeter of the synagogue. At a few points, the protesters started singing and playing instruments, and when the sun faded a bit, they lit candles.
“It’s a remembrance of all the torture victims,” said Anne Galloway, of Minneapolis. “Because of U.S. policies, these people were tortured brutally, and a lot of them are very innocent.”