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Sentiment Ran High at Rally for Israel
Last week's gathering was the highest profile event of its kind -- regarding the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza -- so far in Philadelphia, although similar events are being planned by other groups.
Many synagogues ran buses in for the event -- as did Jewish day schools -- and young and old swarmed the area, waving Israeli and American flags, and chanting "Am Yisrael Chai" and "Dayenu" between speakers.
On stage, above a banner reading "Fight Terrorism, Support Israel," advocates for world Jewry made their pitch and declared their solidarity with the Jewish state. Among the speakers were representatives from Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, as well as State Rep. Josh Shapiro, Philadelphia NAACP President J. Whyatt Mondeshire and a surprise guest, Pennsylvania senior senator Arlen Specter.
The event also served as an introduction of sorts for Daniel Kutner, the region's newly appointed Israeli consul general.
"As consul general for the Mid-Atlantic region, I only wish our first meeting was under different circumstances," stated Kutner. "But it's incredibly heartwarming to see the citizens of Philadelphia expressing their support during such a difficult time."
"You are all here because you love Israel," he added, thanking the crowd. "You support Israel's right to live in peace and to defend itself. I assure you, your support does not go unnoticed" by Israel's citizens, soldiers and leaders.
Specter also spoke up for Israel's right to fight back, saying that "any other course would be foolhardy."
He asserted that Arab nations must recognize Israel's right to defend itself, and said that Israel would carry on its operation for the security of the Jewish people.
"No one wants this violence to happen, but peace is on them right now," said Josh Hirsch, a student at Dickinson College. "If people are firing rockets into your country, it's the duty of the government to protect them."
He added: "I don't want to be here right now, because I wish there was peace. No one wants to be in a place like this. No one wants violence, but you've got to protect the Jewish homeland."
Andre Watson, 37, an African-American who lives in Center City, said that he was there to support Israel because his roots are in Judaism. "The person I pray to is a Jewish carpenter. It is important to support our Jewish brothers and sisters."
The suffering of the Palestinians, he said, "is in the hands of the Palestinians; not in the hands of the Jews."
Josh Yarden, who is in his 40s and is the Israel-education consultant to CAJE, the local umbrella organization of Jewish education, said that he wants people to understand the complexities of the situation.
"I lived in Israel for 18 years, slept in bomb shelters and served as an Israeli soldier," he said.
"This is not about right and wrong," he said. "When someone's commitment is to destroy you, you have to defend yourself."
But, he added: "I'm glad I'm not making decisions where to target."
The event was the second pro-Israel rally in Love Park in less than a year; another was held in March 2008.
For and Against
But not everyone there was supporting the Jewish state.
About 60 counterprotesters were gathered at the entrance to Love Park, holding signs with slogans like "USA and Israel Are the Real Terrorists" and "Philly Jews -- Not in Our Name," and chanting the slogan"Free, free Palestine, occupation is a crime!"
Among those making their voices heard was Nova McGiffert, from the Philadelphia contingent of Jews for a Just Peace, a group that concentrates on the rights of Palestinians.
"We want to promote human rights for everyone," said McGiffert. "The kind of killing happening in Gaza is not a Jewish value, and as Jews, we can't stand back and let it happen."
The 26-year-old said that she and other local Jews on that side of the protest line were there to show that "the people of Philadelphia should know that this [rally] doesn't stand for all Jews."
Those sentiments, however, weren't shared by all young people.
Josh Twersky, a 16-year-old junior from Stern Hebrew High School, noted the reaction from the counterprotesters. "This is a fair analogy of the problem -- the counterprotesters are standing over there and not listening to anything we're saying."
South Philly resident Benny Schmidt, of Chabad of Center City,O used the event as an opportunity to pray and put on teffilin with those who wouldn't ordinarily wear it -- a tradition he said a Lubavitch rebbe began during the Six-Day War back in 1967.
"Since all Jews are like one body, it affects another Jew elsewhere who's fighting for Israel," he said. "Maybe that can save a life and strike fear into the hearts of those he's fighting."
One of those he prayed with was Avi Oslick of Fishtown, who took some time to don the traditional prayer gear as a way to support Israel and its right to protect its citizens.
"We don't want war," said Oslick, "but peace as it is hasn't worked.