Jewish groups mobilize for Israel

Demonstrators call for the release of kidnapped Israeli soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, at a rally in Washington on July 10. (Yaakov Hammer)

Demonstrators call for the release of kidnapped Israeli soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, at a rally in Washington on July 10. (Yaakov Hammer)

PHILADELPHIA, July 18 (JTA) — The American Jewish community is mobilizing on several fronts to assert Israel’s right to defend itself in the face of increasingly bold Arab attacks. As Hezbollah rockets rained down on northern Israel and the Israel Defense Forces launched fresh attacks in Lebanon, American Jewish organizations were stressing the complicity of both Iran and Syria in the escalation.

They were also urging world leaders to condemn the offensives, praising President Bush for his quick statement of support for Israeli actions and pointing out that the attacks — both from the Gaza Strip in the South and Lebanon in the North — were emanating from areas Israel has already evacuated.

Several thousand protesters descended upon the United Nations this week in a show of support for the Jewish state. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel and Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Dan Gillerman, were among those speaking out in Israel’s defense at the July 17 rally.

The rally, sponsored by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, was the second one in New York within a week.

Similar rallies took place around the country.

Participants at Monday’s rally, who came out in droves despite the blazing hot New York sun, carried Israeli flags, placards reading “Israel Must Defend Itself” and “Stop the Terror” — and water bottles. From time to time, they erupted in well-known Hebrew ballads and chanted “America stands with Israel.”

Clinton condemned the “unwarranted, unprovoked attacks from Hamas, Hezbollah and their state sponsors,” and called these groups “the new totalitarians of the 21st century.”

Wiesel described the threat more poetically.

“Violence is their objective, murder their obsession and hatred their language,” he said. “They and only they are responsible for the lives lost in Gaza — not Israel.”

Gillerman, for his part, scoffed at concerns voiced by some at the United Nations that Israel is employing a “disproportionate use of force.”

“You’re damn right we are,” he said to a roaring crowd.

Within hours of news July 12 that the Lebanese militia Hezbollah had killed eight Israeli soldiers along the northern border and kidnapped two more, a flurry of news releases from American Jewish organizations went out almost simultaneously in support of Israel.

Jewish leaders had consulted privately in recent weeks over how to respond to Israel’s military actions in Gaza following Hamas’ late June abduction of Cpl. Gilad Shalit and the killing of two other soldiers near the Gaza Strip border.

But with Hezbollah’s brazen action across the Lebanese border, Jewish groups sprung into action.

“It’s important to show solidarity, so that our elected officials see that across the board, American Jews are standing with Israel,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents. “Overall, I’m finding that there is a unanimity in support of Israel.”

Immediately, groups began reaching out to international contacts to shore up support for a tough Israeli response.

“We are in a full-court diplomatic press,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, which sponsored a solidarity mission to Israel that landed July 17. “The entire agency has been mobilized, there have already been individual telephone conversations and face-to-face meetings with several presidents, a couple of foreign ministers and a number of ambassadors” stationed both in the United States and abroad.

“The reaction to those conversations has ranged from very supportive and understanding to moderately so,” Harris added.

The AJCommittee launched an Israel Emergency Assistance Fund on Tuesday to assist institutions working with victims of rocket attacks in northern and southern Israel. Contributions can be made online at www.ajc.org.

Harris declined to specify with which nations his group had been in contact, although he said they were in Eastern and Western Europe, South America and sub-Saharan Africa. They were approached, he said, with an eye toward influencing members of key United Nations committees that “might be in a position to vote on matters of the Middle East.”

On July 13, the United States vetoed a Qatari-sponsored resolution at the U.N. Security Council calling for an immediate Israeli withdrawal from Gaza as well as the release of Shalit.

In light of Hezbollah’s attacks, the Conference of Presidents is highlighting Lebanese non-compliance with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls for Hezbollah’s dissolution.

The Conference of Presidents has scheduled a solidarity mission to Israel for July 23-25.

The Conference of Presidents, in partnership with the Rabbinical Council of America, has set up a system to forward American messages of support for Israel to the White House, the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, the Israel Defense Forces and the U.N. secretary-general. E-mails can be sent to WeStandWithIsrael@rabbis.org.

The Anti-Defamation League placed four ads over the weekend in the International Herald Tribune, targeted at European leaders attending the G8 conference.

Europe is “the soft underbelly of support for Israel to do what it needs to do,” said the ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman. “The U.S. is there — Europe is not. Europe is wavering. Europe is talking out of all sides of its mouth. They say the soldiers should be released, but Israel is overreacting.”

The group also ran ads in The New York Times and The Washington Post commending Bush for his support. Bush repeatedly has repeatedly said Israel has the right to defend itself, blaming Hezbollah for the violence and calling for Syria to be held accountable for supporting the Lebanese militia.

Some of the Jewish groups’ talking points were echoed July 13 in a Washington program that included speakers from the U.S. House of Representatives and Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Daniel Ayalon.

“The reason we see now this deterioration is because of a premeditated attack or strategy that, unfortunately, is being concocted in Damascus and in Tehran,” Ayalon said at a Israel Project-sponsored forum at the National Press Club.

Iran, he said, is attempting to impose its influence on the Middle East and to divert attention from its “feverish” pursuit of nuclear weapons.

If the Islamic republic is successful, he said, “then no one, but no one on this globe is safe.”

Meanwhile, top U.S. Jewish leaders will meet with Israeli Embassy staff, senior Congressional leaders and Bush administration officials — among them Elliott Abrams, a deputy national security adviser, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Md.) — to discuss the crisis with Hezbollah. The United Jewish Communities, the federation umbrella body, and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, its equivalent for community relations councils, are organizing a “fly in” for 40-50 Jewish leaders on July 20.

UJC, which also is planning an emergency solidarity mission to Israel leaving the night of July 22, along with the Jewish Federations of North America, has established the Israel Crisis Fund to aid vulnerable Israelis including the young, the elderly, immigrants, the disabled and victims of terror. Some $1 million has already been committed to the fund. Donations can be made through http://www.ujc.org or at 1-877-277-2477.

The Jewish National Fund is also launching a special fund-raising campaign (www.jnf.org).

American Friends of Magen David Adom is asking Americans to donate money to ensure blood supplies for the wounded.

AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, said it is focusing its efforts on Washington’s halls of power.

“The U.S. government is galvanized in support of Israel and AIPAC is working with both Congress and the administration to express and affirm their support for Israel’s right to defend itself against these unprovoked acts of aggression,” said spokeswoman Jennifer Cannata.

The Reform movement, for its part, defended Israel’s right to defend itself, while calling on Israel in a statement “to do everything possible to assure that basic civilian needs, including electricity and water, in Gaza and elsewhere, are met.”

“Jewishly and politically, that’s an important point to note,” Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, told JTA. “Beyond that we, I assume, pretty much stand with the broader community and we want our people to rally to Israel’s side.”

JTA staff writers Rachel Silverman in New York and Ron Kampeas in Washington contributed to this report.

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