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Local Activists Defend a Beleaguered Israel
Alarmed by the continuing international outrage directed at Israel following last week's raid on a Gaza-bound ship, local Jews are stepping up their activism in defense of the Jewish state.
In public meetings, briefings at the Israeli consulate, letters to the editor, e-mail blasts and street demonstrations, activists are voicing their anger and frustration.
"The whole world is against this tiny people. It just doesn't make sense," said Esther Rabizadeh, a resident of Cherry Hill, N.J., who was born in Iran.
She was among some 250 people attending a pro-Israel rally on June 4 -- one of the most visible signs of support since the May 31 incident, in which Israeli commandos boarded a Gaza-bound boat intended to break the blockade.
The rally, organized by the Zionist Organization of America, drew demonstrators draped in Israeli flags and chanting "Free Gaza From Hamas." They stretched around the corner of 19th Street and JFK Boulevard -- just across the street from the offices of the Israeli consulate.
Rabizadeh and others said that they were appalled at how quickly much of the international community had condemned Israel in the aftermath of the May 31 flotilla incident.
The crowd included about 50 students from Temple and Drexel universities, as well as a number of Christian supporters of the Jewish state.
"I'm 100 percent Italian, but I just love Israel," said Ralph Bucci of Wilmington, Del. He carried a sign that read "Christians Stand With Israel."
Several demonstrators said that they felt Israel had not handled the situation correctly, but that the Gaza blockade is necessary, and that the subsequent international condemnation represents an inherent anti-Israel bias and an effort to delegitimize the Jewish state.
On the other side of the street, about a dozen people -- mostly Jews affiliated with Bubbes and Zaydes for Peace in the Middle East, and other groups -- demonstrated against the blockade.
"As a Jew, I have no choice but to speak out against injustice," said Cy Swartz, one of the demonstrators. He said that there are better ways of keeping weapons out of the hands of Hamas, and that the blockade has resulted in a humanitarian crisis -- a point the Israeli government and eyewitness accounts dispute.
Both groups typically organize protests outside the consulate on Friday afternoons, but each said that the flotilla incident had added urgency to the gatherings.
Steve Feldman, director of the Greater Philadelphia District of the Zionist Organization of America, said that a majority of the crowd was made up of ZOA members, but other groups, including the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia, helped publicize the event.
"To be perfectly straight, I would not be satisfied 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," he said.
A few days earlier, about 300 pro-Palestinian demonstrators gathered in front of the building housing the consulate and marched to City Hall. Shuvy Leibman, a 22-year-old senior at Drexel University, and about a dozen other students went to City Hall carrying pro-Israel signs. He said that harsh words were exchanged, although the situation did not become violent. Leibman was also among the Drexel students who took time off from finals week to attend the ZOA rally.
"This was not a peaceful protest," he said, referring to the flotilla incident. "The majority of the flotilla were peaceful, but on the Mavi Marmara, they had clubs, they had knives, they were not going to go down without a fight."
'Pretty Much on the Same Page'
In addition to public protests, pro-Israel activists have flooded The Philadelphia Inquirer with letters to the editor, competing for space with some expressing outrage over Israel's actions.
For its part, the local chapter of the Jewish Labor Committee circulated an e-mail to union leaders stating that the group was "alarmed by the harsh condemnation of Israel."
Adam Kessler, director of the JCRC, said that by and large, "the right and left are pretty much on the same page. I think that the Jewish community is not really debating whether the Israelis are right or wrong."
Kessler convened a group of professionals from local Jewish groups this week to help coordinate strategy. He said that although the incident happened more than a week ago, the ramifications continue, largely because the activists behind the flotilla campaign seem intent on delegitimizing Israel.
"It's all a question of making sure people are informed and getting information out," he said.
JCRC, which is part of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, has sent out talking points on the issues, stressing that there is no hunger crisis in Gaza, and that Israel's actions were consistent with international maritime law.
Kessler was also among a group of some two-dozen leaders of communal organizations -- representatives from Reading, Lehigh Valley and Atlantic County, N.J., were also there -- gathered at the Israeli consulate last Friday to hear the latest details emerging from the Israeli government.
"This was not an effort to deliver humanitarian aid," said Israel Consul General Daniel Kutner. "It was a publicity stunt" designed to help Hamas remove the blockade, to put Israel on the spot and "contribute to its delegitimization."
The angst over the flotilla incident was also likely responsible for the standing-room only turnout for a June 3 lecture by analyst David Makovsky at Old York Road Temple-Beth Am.
Makovsky, an author and senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that in the wake of the incident, the United States was working with the Israelis to "pare down" the list of what is allowed into Gaza, while also making sure that nothing gets in that would harm Israel's security.
"The good news is that the United States and Israel have stood shoulder to shoulder in this crisis," he said, referring to the ongoing stream of communication between Washington and Jerusalem, and the U.S. success at averting a harsh U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israel.
The flotilla incident was also broached at a program organized by J Street featuring retired Israeli navy chief Ami Ayalon. Nearly 100 people attended the event at the Gershman Y in Center City.
Elliott Ratzman, co-chair of J Street Philadelphia and a professor at Temple University, said that the default position of most Jews "is to believe the Israeli government."
While he was critical of the raid, he asserted that there are a limited number of public outlets for local Jews to question the actions of Israel's leaders.
Lori Lowenthal Marcus, director of Z Street, a locally based group that staunchly defends Israel, said that she continues to get more than 100 e-mails a day concerning the flotilla incident. She said that her group is continually sending updates and new video to its members.
Said Marcus: "It really was clear to people who care a lot [that] bad information was getting out. Israel was being vilified for doing something that was clearly defensive."
Exponent executive editor Lisa Hostein contributed to this report.