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Flotilla fallout becomes rallying cry for U.S. Jews

Baltimore Jews rally in support of Israel, June 4, 2010. (Rebecca Gardner / Baltimore Zionist District)

Baltimore Jews rally in support of Israel, June 4, 2010. (Rebecca Gardner / Baltimore Zionist District)

NEW YORK (JTA) — The last time American Jews took to the streets in significant numbers to make the case for Israel’s right to defend itself, during Israel’s war with Hamas in early 2009, rockets were raining down on southern Israel from the Gaza Strip.

This time it’s a public relations war rather than a military one that has sent American Jews into the streets warning that a campaign is under way to wipe Israel off the map.

In indignant statements to the media, in Op-Eds and at rallies around the country, American Jews jumping to Israel’s defense are casting the fallout to last week’s flotilla incident — and the mounting opposition to Israel’s blockade of Gaza — as part of a campaign to delegitimize Israel’s right to defend itself.

“Why did Israel even have to resort to blockade?" syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote. "Because blockade is Israel’s fallback as the world systematically de-legitimizes its traditional ways of defending itself — forward and active defense.”

“If none of these is permissible, what’s left?” Krauthammer asked rhetorically. “Nothing,” he answered. “The world is tired of these troublesome Jews, 6 million — that number again — hard by the Mediterranean, refusing every invitation to national suicide.”

As with the Gaza war, and the Lebanon war of 2006, Israel’s defenders see in the global assault on Israel’s enforcement of the blockade of Hamas-run Gaza — a territory controlled by an organization committed to Israel’s destruction — nothing less than a threat to Israel’s existence.

“Once again, my friends, Israel is under siege,” Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, declared at a pro-Israel rally Sunday in Los Angeles opposite the local Israeli consulate.

Some 3,000 people showed up for the demonstration, including California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The international outcry against Israel is an attempt to delegitimize the Jewish state, Israeli Consul Jacob Dayan warned the crowd.

“Enough of the campaign of lies spread by the defenders of terror,” Dayan said. “Those on the flotilla were not peace activists.”

The precipitating incident occurred May 31, when Israeli commandos killed nine Turks upon encountering violent resistance to their effort to board a ship in international waters that was part of a Gaza-bound flotilla bearing aid materials and pro-Palestinian activists.

The incident became a rallying cry for pro-Palestinian activists, who held rallies across the country and around the world protesting Israel, including at some Jewish sites. In downtown Cleveland, some three dozen protesters stood outside the Jewish federation building last Friday chanting slogans and holding signs including “Stop Israel Pirates.” In Washington, activists flocked to the Israeli Embassy calling for it to be shut down.

Many Jewish groups said the worldwide reaction to the flotilla incident smacked of hypocrisy. 

“Why did we not hear the same voices of condemnation raised as thousands of rockets poured down on Israel or on behalf of Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped by Hamas more than four years ago and held incommunicado ever since?” the main Jewish umbrella group, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, asked in a statement.

The Jews countered with rallies of their own in communities across the country.

In Baltimore, several dozen demonstrators stood at a busy intersection in 90-degree heat waving Israeli flags and placards calling for the release of Shalit, an Israeli soldier, and blaming Turkey for the flotilla incident. In New York, demonstrators gathered across from the United Nations and at other rallies scattered around the metropolitan area. In Philadelphia, some 250 pro-Israel demonstrators gathered last Friday across the street from the Israeli consulate at a rally organized by the Zionist Organization of America, providing a counterpoint to the pro-Palestinian demonstration that had taken place three days earlier at the same site.

To be sure, American Jews have not been uniformly supportive of Israel’s actions on the high seas. Some American Jewish groups questioned the wisdom of Israel’s blockade of Gaza and the way the flotilla raid was conducted. J Street, Americans for Peace Now and Ameinu all issued statements critical of Israel’s Gaza policies.

“There wouldn’t have been a flotilla if Gazan children had enough food, had schools and clean water to drink,” Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, the left-wing pro-Israel lobbying group, told JTA.

“This is not a hasbara problem,” he said, using the Israeli term for public relations. “For decades Israel and friends of Israel have complained about a hasbara problem. What they have is an occupation problem,” Ben-Ami said. “We can either complain about the way the world views Israel or change the way we behave.”

While some American Jews and many Israelis said they support the blockade of Gaza in principle but disagree with elements of its implementation, and the way the Israeli Navy handled the flotilla interception, that nuance was not readily apparent in the pro-Israel rallies across the nation. Rather, the message at the demonstrations was kept simple: We stand behind Israel.

One speaker at the L.A. rally, David Pine, West Coast regional director for Peace Now, tried to deviate from that message, saying, “Despite the way one individual military operation was handled, ultimately it will take a negotiated resolution that provides for a two-state solution.” He was drowned out by a chorus of boos. When the chairman of the local Jewish federation, Richard Sandler, tried to quiet the crowd, audience members continued to boo Pine, with one yelling out, “Traitor!”

In Philadelphia, Steve Feldman, director of the greater Philadelphia district of the ZOA, summed up the approach he expected of supporters of Israel. 

“I would not be satisfied,” he said, “until every Jewish person in the Philadelphia area, every person of good conscious in the area, everybody who knows right from wrong in the area, will be out supporting Israel, because Israel is in the right.”

(The L.A. Jewish Journal, the Cleveland Jewish News, the Baltimore Jewish Times and the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent contributed to this report.)

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