At a Rotary Club of Ashland forum for mayoral candidates Thursday, several members hooted or walked out when candidate Keith Michael Erickson, listed as Biome on the ballot, introduced his philosophy by disputing Israel's right to exist.
"He started his five-minute intro with humor, joking about his dreadlocks and bald head and talking about how passage of the legal marijuana measure would narrow the disparity between the rich and poor," said Rotarian Kim Lewis. "Then he talked about how Palestine has been abused and that Israel should be dismantled."
Members shouted "outrageous" several times and some walked out, Lewis said.
"I hit the bell (for time over) as loudly as I could. I was so irate, I was ready to put the guy in a headlock, but (candidate and former mayor) Alan DeBoer gave me a look," indicating to sit still, Lewis said.
Retired utility executive Sid Field said he walked out.
"I don't have a problem with people having free speech, but he won't get my vote. I believe Israel is a sovereign nation and what he said offended me and is not appropriate. He was supposed to be there to speak about the needs of Ashland and I don't know why he had to speak on that subject."
DeBoer and Mayor John Stromberg, who are running against Erickson in the Nov. 6 election, then gave their stump speeches as normal, and in the question-and-answer period, DeBoer said he had never heard Erickson speak on such matters before in forums.
DeBoer said Friday he was "completely shocked and saddened" to hear Erickson "insult everyone in Israel."
"It was so improper," DeBoer said. "Hate-mongering is not acceptable at Rotary or anywhere in Ashland, and I told him so after the forum. This was our last candidates' forum and I'm sorry it had to end this way."
DeBoer said all three candidates stayed to the end and politely answered questions from Rotarians.
Erickson could not be reached by phone Friday, but his column on his website, biomeformayor.org, said he is being publicly accused of anti-Semitism, for which he threatens to sue.
"I love the Jewish people as a religious, a racial and a national identity," Erickson writes. "I am not anti-Semitic, nor have I ever expressed hatred of the Jewish People."
Erickson's column says he opposes "the philosophy of political Zionism" and supports "the dismantling of Israeli apartheid, the return of Palestinian refugees, and the ending of the Israeli colonization of historic Palestine."
Erickson wrote that he plans to hold public forums on "the distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism."
His website says the Ashland Daily Tidings refused to print his guest opinion or run his photo showing him posed in front of a Palestinian flag flanked by the smaller flags of Israel and the U.S.
The Tidings doesn't run guest opinions by candidates and the photo was of poor quality and inappropriate for a candidate's profile, Tidings editors said.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.