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Protesters Occupy Jewish Community Services Building
Six Jewish protesters were escorted in handcuffs from the Jewish Community Services Building in Center City on Friday afternoon after occupying the building’s lobby for a good chunk of the day.
The protesters, members of Jewish Voice for Peace, were issued citations, which requires them to appear before a municipal judge on Aug. 26, according to Capt. Stephen Glenn, commanding officer of the Civil Affairs Unit of the Philadelphia Police Department.
The building, which is owned by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, was “occupied” by the members of the Philadelphia chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace at 11:30 a.m.
After gaining entry to the building’s lobby by pretending to be volunteers for the Mitzvah Food Project, a nonprofit run by the Jewish Federation, the protesters linked arms and demanded to speak with Federation CEO Naomi Adler. As soon as they gained entry, another 40 or so members of the group arrived with signs to protest outside, in what one building official described as a "flash mob" action, when a large, coordinated group of people appears out of nowhere.
Several police officers and trucks labeled Homeland Security with counterterrorism officials arrived on the scene. Glenn said that because there had been no advance notice, they were taking all precautions.
Inside and outside, the protestors sang Hebrew songs and protest chants. “We are a peaceful Jewish people praying for Gazan lives,” sang the six members inside.
Jewish Voice for Peace, according to its website, “advocates for a lasting peace that recognizes the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians for security and self-determination.” The Anti-Defamation League has termed the group the "largest and most influential Jewish anti-Zionist group in the United States" and says it has "assumed a particularly visible role in the renewed Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel."
At the Federation building, the group demanded to speak to Naomi Adler, the Federation's CEO. Eventually, police on the scene directed them to the building's library, where they spoke by speakerphone with Adler, who had taken a vacation day. They read a petition addressed to three leaders of national Jewish organizations: Jerry Silverman, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America; Rabbi David Saperstein, head of the Reform movement's Religious Action Center; and Rabbi Steve Gutow, head of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. The petition, which they claimed was signed by 35,000 people nationally and 400 in the Greater Philadelphia region, stated that responsibility for the latest conflict “lies in the Israeli government’s commitment to occupation over the well-being of Palestinians or Israelis.”
"Your support for Israel as it destroys so many lives is all the more painful given your positions of leadership in the Jewish community," it said.
They demanded that Adler arrange a meeting to deliver the petition that would include Silverman, Adler and a representative of Jewish Voice for Peace.
“What I will do is listen to what you have to say — I wish you had reached out first," Adler told the group, "as long as there is an agreement that you peacefully leave so that no one’s unsafe and the building can continue with business.”
They responded by saying that “unfortunately, we cannot leave the building until we know” that the group's demand will be met, before proceeding back into the lobby, where they continued to sing.
She called back about a half hour later and said she could not reach Silverman and that they should call his office directly and make an appointment. They demanded she make the appointment instead, and continued to refuse to leave.
Several police officers and security officials were on the scene, and tried to persuade the group to leave peacefully or risk arrest. Sgt. Derek Grant of the Civil Affairs unit of the Philadelphia Police Department said at one point they were searching for “a peaceful solution” to the situation.
The building went on its normal business for the most part, with the Klein Center City Senior Program holding its usual Friday afternoon lunch on the second floor and refugee families wandering in and out to meet with HIAS, the Jewish immigration organization.
At one point, one of the seniors who heard what was going on, came to the lobby, in her wheelchair, to offer an opposing voice to the protesters.
“How many tunnels have you built,” Edith Steele chanted in reference to Hamas. “How many rockets have you flown? How many Israelis have you killed? How many more?”
Marina Furman, head of the Jewish National Fund's local office, which is also housed in the building and whose group's functions are often the target of BDS protesters, tried to engage the group, and played them a recording of the Red Alert siren, which Israelis hear when a missile has been fired. But they tried to drown it out by singing Jewish prayers, until she was asked to move away by a police officer.
The action at the Jewish Community Services Building was planned long before news that the 72-hour cease-fire between Hamas and Israel broke down, the protesters said. The cease-fire ended when Hamas launched a new round of rockets at Israeli cities. The Israeli Defense Forces responded with air strikes in Gaza.
“Our hope is that Jewish leadership will stand with the oppressed and not with the oppressors, will stand on the side of the Gazans who are under siege and being killed,” said Yonah Etshalom, a 31-year-old graduate student at Emory University in Atlanta who grew up in Mount Airy.
When asked about Hamas firing rockets to break the cease-fire, Etshalom, who said she grew up attending Camp Galil in Bucks County and Camp Ramah in California, said: “A cease-fire is important, but it’s not enough and as long as there is a siege on Gaza, there is no true cease-fire.”
Asked why the group's petition did not mention Israelis who had suffered in the war, Nicole Sugarman, who was outside, said, "Yes, of course we are concerned for all lives."
Susan Landau, who is a leader of the local BDS movement against Israel, said: "We wanted to focus on what Jewish leaders are not dealing with. We don't need to draw attention to what is already known" from the Israeli perspective, she said. Asked whether if getting all the rights Palestinians were seeking meant a "one-state solution," meaning the end of the Jewish state, Landau said that might be what's required.
After the protesters were escorted from the building, the group engaged is some self-congratulation and debriefing.
Some of the leaders said that although they hadn't managed to get Adler to arrange a meeting with Silverman, they said they had still accomplished something.
Lev Hirschhorn, a community organizer who sits on the group's national board, said that at least they had gotten Adler to agree to deliver the petition to Silverman.
Adler confirmed that she would follow through and send Silverman the petition. She said, “If they wanted to have a conversation with me," they could have made an appointment and she would have seen them. "They are Jews. We are a building that serves the Jewish community every single day. It’s important for people to feel they are heard.”