With Soldier Still in Captivity, Jews Around World Say: ‘free Gilad Now’

With Israeli and international efforts continuing to free a 19-year-old soldier captured in a Palestinian raid and held hostage in Gaza, Jews around the world are sending the message, “Free Gilad Now.” In New York, Washington, Ottawa and Santiago, Chile, thousands of protesters called on the Palestinians and Syria — which hosts some of the most violent Palestinian terrorist groups — to release Cpl. Gilad Shalit.

The largest rally Monday was in New York City, with several hundred people gathering to wave signs and fists outside Syria’s mission to the United Nations.

In Washington, about 300 people stood in front of the Syrian Embassy, chanting slogans like “Two, four, six, eight, Syria is a terrorist state,” and “Tell Assad: Free Gilad.”

In London, a delegation delivered a letter requesting Shalit’s return to the Syrian ambassador, who read the note and invited the group in.

The events, sponsored by the Jewish Agency for Israel and the World Zionist Organization, also included community meetings in Paris and Johannesburg, as well as the initiation of “Free Gilad” activities in Australia and Buenos Aires.

Jewish Agency spokesman Michael Jankelowitz said the rallies provided “another way for world Jewry to show its solidarity with Israel when the chips are down.

“It sends a clear message to everybody that Israel is not alone,” he said. The protests “signal to Damascus that everyone knows who is behind this kidnapping.”

Speakers in New York underscored that point.

“Our message is that terrorists protected by Syria are holding onto one of our boys… and we’re going to tell them: Stop the terror now!” said Rabbi Michael Miller, executive vice president and CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.

Sheldon Silver, speaker of the New York State Assembly, also directed blame toward the Syrians.

“We talk about Hamas, we talk about Islamic Jihad, we talk about Hezbollah,” he said. “Syria pulls the strings that control all of them.”

The rallies were not just tough talk, however: Many speakers urged compassion for the Shalit family.

The Rev. Michael Faulkner, a pastor at Harlem’s New Horizon Church, led congregants in a prayer for Shalit’s safe return.

“I cannot imagine as a father the tremendous upheaval in the family,” Faulkner said. “This man was just doing his duty.”

A statement released by the Zionist Federation of Australia echoed that empathy.

“We can only imagine the horrors that he is enduring, and the agony his parents and family are suffering,” federation president Philip Chester said of Shalit.

New York City Council Member James Gennaro told the crowd, “As a Catholic, I’m here to tell you that it’s not just Jews getting together around the world, it’s everyone getting together around the world.”

Indeed, non-Jewish leaders in London like Roy Thurley, chairman of Christian Friends of Israel, joined Jews in approaching the Syrian ambassador.

Mobilization for Shalit is expected to continue in various ways.

In Australia, the federation has begun distributing blue ribbons as a visual reminder of Shalit’s captivity. In Toronto, B’nai Brith Canada is planning a solidarity rally and vigil Friday at the Israeli consulate.

Shalit holds dual Israeli and French citizenship, and French officials are continuing their efforts to secure his release through diplomatic channels.

Publisher Mortimer Zuckerman, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, vowed to continue the fight.

“We have to organize as a community and do whatever we can,” he told New Yorkers sweating under the mid-day sun. “This is just one moment in what is going to be a long war.”

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