A group of local rabbis is calling on Jews to observe a fast day in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza.
The group, part of a coalition of 60 rabbis around the country called Ta'anit Tzedek: Jewish Fast for Gaza, is advocating that Israel lift its three-year-old economic blockade, which it claims has resulted in "collective punishment" for Gaza's civilians due to the activities of extremists.
Israel's government maintains that it works to get humanitarian supplies into Gaza, but is hampered by security concerns.
"If you make a group of people so desperate, and so angry, how is it going to end? We're creating a situation where people are dying; we're creating an impossible situation in terms of humanitarian needs," said Rebecca T. Alpert.
A professor of Jewish Studies at Temple University and a Reconstructionist rabbi, Alpert acts as a local spokesman for Ta'anit Tzedek.
Israel withdrew its forces and civilians from Gaza in 2005; two years later, Hamas took over the territory after a violent confrontation with Fatah. Last December, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead to stop Palestinian rocket fire into southern Israel and faced international criticism for targeting civilians -- a charge that the Israel Defense Force has vehemently denied.
Alpert, a longtime critic of Israeli policy, argued that since the Jewish state controls Gaza's air, sea and land space, then it's responsible for the welfare of Gaza's citizens. Ta'anit Tzedek is also calling on Israel to negotiate with Hamas, considered a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States, in order to facilitate the end of the blockade.
Israel does make provisions for trucks carrying humanitarian relief to enter Gaza, but Alpert claimed that it only allows for about 20 percent of needed supplies to enter the area.
When asked about the issue, Raslan Abu Rukun, Israel's deputy consul general in Philadelphia, placed the blame for the condition of Gaza's citizens squarely on the shoulders of Hamas.
"Israel is trying its best to deliver food and medicine and any help needed for the Palestinian civilians. But we cannot afford to have any relations or any open borders with a terrorist state or what we call 'Hamastan,' " he said, adding that hundreds of food-and-supply trucks pass from Israel to Gaza each month.
"I would suggest to these rabbis to go and see the economic development that is happening in the West Bank. We have a Fatah government, the Palestinian Authority, that is trying to fight terrorism," he continued.
Since the end of the war in January, Abu Rukun explained that Israel has delivered more than 400,000 tons of aid and 57 million liters of fuel to Gaza.
Organizing Monthly Events
At noon on Aug. 19, about 15 people -- including about half-a-dozen rabbis and several members of the Christian clergy -- gathered at Independence Mall for an hourlong demonstration.
It included the recitation of a number of psalms, the singing of "Oseh Shalom," the blowing of a shofar and the reading of a work by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.
A few passersby paused to observe, but no one lingered long.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, founder of the Philadelphia-based Shalom Center, declared the third Thursday of each month a fast day. Alpert said the group hopes to use this day for a monthly public event to call attention to the plight of Palestinians in Gaza.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, worship specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism, expressed frustration that more Jewish leaders haven't called attention to Israel's "punitive" policies.
"We need to awaken our leaders to the transformative possibilities of peace," she said.
Other local rabbis involved include Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer, director of multifaith studies and initiatives at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College; Linda Holtzman of Congregation Mishkan Shalom; Mordechai Liebling of the Reconstructionist movement; Jarah Greenfield, a recent RRC graduate; and Shai Gluskin, who for years worked for the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation.
The effort has been spearheaded nationally by Mishkan Shalom's founding rabbi, Brian Walt, and Rabbi Brant Rosen, who leads a Reconstructionist congregation outside Chicago.