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In U.S., Gaza conflict reverberates on air and in the streets

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators protest across the street from a pro-Israel rally in Chicago, Ill., July 28, 2014. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators protest across the street from a pro-Israel rally in Chicago, Ill., July 28, 2014. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

NEW YORK (JTA) — In Europe, the fight over Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza has prompted violent street battles, firebombs thrown at synagogues and even a mid-game attack against a visiting Israeli soccer team by protesters in Austria.

In America, it has been more a battle of commentary, slogans and demonstrations.

There were 134 anti-Israel demonstrations in U.S. cities during the first 15 days of the conflict that began July 8, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Californians led the nation in anti-Israel agitation, followed by New York, Ohio, Washington State and Texas, the ADL said.

At many pro-Palestinian demonstrations, the ADL has documented comparisons of Israel to Nazi Germany, such as a placard at a protest in New York that read, “Jerusalem 2014 smells like Berlin 1939… #Zionazism.”

Paul Goldenberg, national director of Secure Community Network, the American Jewish communal security initiative, said that at first he was concerned that anti-Israel protests in the United States might turn violent, but that hasn’t happened.

“I would say at this juncture we are cautiously optimistic that we will not see the type of violence we have seen in Europe,” he told JTA.

“People are afraid to go to synagogues and Jewish community centers abroad. I don’t want that to happen here. That’s not what we have here in this country,” Goldenberg said. “People need to continue going to synagogue, going to federations, going to their community centers. At this point there’s no imminent or specific threat that we are aware of.”

There have been a few cases of anti-Semitic vandalism.

On Monday morning, an Orthodox synagogue in North Miami Beach, Fla., Congregation Torah V’Emunah, found a swastika and the word Hamas scrawled on the outside of the building. A day earlier, cars owned by a Jewish family in Miami Beach were egged, smeared with cream cheese, and defaced with graffiti reading “Jew” and “Hamas.”

In Malibu, Calif., graffiti reading “Jews=Killers” and “Jews are Killing Innocent Children” appeared near the entrance to a Jewish summer camp. Pro-Palestinian graffiti was sprayed on a Chabad center in Las Vegas and on an Orthodox synagogue in Lowell, Mass. 

In Chicago, leaflets threatening the Jewish community were left on car windshields on July 19, a day after hundreds of pro-Palestinian protesters held a rally in downtown Chicago. That rally included a “die-in” where 400 people lay supine to represent the Palestinians said to be killed in the conflict up to that point.

Last week, Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization focused on criticizing Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, organized a “die-in” outside the New York office of the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. The demonstration resulted in nine arrests of protesters who entered the office and refused to leave, including Rebecca Vilkomerson, JVP’s executive director.

Meanwhile, pro-Israel supporters took to the streets in a variety of U.S. cities to voice their support of Israel’s actions in Gaza. Pro-Israel rallies in New York and Chicago on Monday drew thousands of Israel supporters, including U.S. senators and congressmen.

“We are here today to say we cannot have any cease-fire before Israel gets rid of Hamas’ weapons,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said at the New York demonstration, held in midtown Manhattan outside the United Nations.

Many of the battles in the United States over Israel have taken place in cyberspace. Use of the Twitter hashtag #Hitlerwasright has soared since the launch of Israel’s operation in Gaza, according to the ADL.

The website of Cong. Beth Am Israel, a synagogue in Penn Valley, Pa., was hacked, with the homepage replaced with images of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, the Palestinian teenager killed in Jerusalem in early July by Jewish extremists.

On a JetBlue flight from Florida to New York on July 7, just before the IDF launched its Operation Protective Edge, an argument over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict broke out between two passengers that got one of them, a Jewish doctor from Queens named Lisa Rosenberg, kicked off the flight before takeoff. Later it emerged that the passenger with whom Rosenberg argued, who on the plane had identified herself as a Palestinian, was in fact Jewish.

In a much talked-about July 14 “Daily Show” episode, host Jon Stewart aroused the ire of many Israel supporters with a segment in which he lamented the “asymmetrical nature of this conflict.” Noting the Israeli military’s practice of warning Gaza residents to leave before their building or neighborhood is bombarded, Stewart said, “At that point what are Gazans supposed to do?

“Evacuate to where? Have you [bleeping] seen Gaza?” Stewart said. “What – are they supposed to swim for it?”

David Horovitz, editor of the Times of Israel, slammed the segment as unfair and misleading. “Jon Stewart — so funny, so wrong on Israel-Gaza,” he wrote.

Stewart responded to critics with a follow-up bit caricaturing the pitfalls of wading into commentary about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the segment, a gaggle of critics popped up around Stewart’s chair and yelled at him every time he tried to open his mouth to talk about the conflict. The segment was called “We need to talk about Israel.”

Days after the segments aired, a Gallup poll conducted July 22-23 showed that younger Americans — Stewart’s core audience — are much less likely than older Americans to view Israel’s actions against Hamas as justified. Fifty-five percent of those over age 65 said Israel’s actions were justified, compared to 53 percent of those between 50 and 64; 36 percent of those 30-49, and 25 percent of those 18-29.

While celebrities who took stances on the war were alternately hailed and criticized for their comments, two pro-Israel outbursts drew special plaudits in pro-Israel circles: radio shock jock Howard Stern’s on-air tirade ripping fellow celebrities who opposed Israel’s campaign against Hamas, and Joan Rivers’ rant to TMZ about how the Palestinians are to blame for the conflict.

“They started it!” she yelled in the impromptu interview with TMZ outside an airport terminal. “You’re all insane! They started it!”

Morton Williams, a New York supermarket retailer with a history of pro-Israel marketing efforts, went a different way to demonstrate its support for the Jewish state. The company pulled all Turkish products from the shelves of its 12 New York-area stores in response to a boycott in Turkey of Israeli products.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been an ardent critic of Israel’s campaign in Gaza, branding Israel a terrorist state and saying its actions in Gaza “surpassed what Hitler did to” the Jews.

“Israel is the one true democracy in the Middle East trying to survive against hostile neighbors seeking its destruction,” CEO Morton Sloan said in a statement cited by CBS News. “Turkey, by siding with those who would destroy Israel, deserves our condemnation. We will lift our own boycott of Turkish products when Erdogan changes his anti-Semitic course.”

With the Gaza conflict now in its fourth week and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowing to press on until all of Hamas’ tunnels into Israel are destroyed, Goldenberg says the greatest security concern for American Jews should be the prospect of so-called lone wolf attacks.

“My concern is as this goes on it’s that lone wolf — the individuals that are being inspired by the Internet or media as the media attention continues on the casualties in Gaza — that may become inspired to act much more violently,” he said. “If you see something, say something.”

(JTA’s Miriam Moster contributed to this report.)

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