700 turn out to show support of Israel

Missouri State Representative (third from left, in blue jacket) Jill Schupp and State Rep. Stacey Newman (in white jacket), join the community in singing the Hatikvah, Israel’s National Anthem. Photo: Yana Hotter

By Repps Hudson, Special to the Jewish Light

Israel wants “to put an end to the terror once and for all,” Roey Gilad, counsel general of Israel for the Midwest, told a crowd of about 700 when he spoke at a Solidarity Gathering in support of Israel at the Jewish Community Center Tuesday night (July 29).

Gilad laid out the Israeli government’s reasons for its actions against Hamas-directed operations in Gaza, where about 1.8 million people, mostly Palestinians, live. He also added that his country is seeking the demilitarization of Gaza and the displacement of Hamas.

The Solidarity Gathering was organized and sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, as well as co-sponsored by about 30 local and regional organizations and congregations, including the Jewish Light.

At the outset of the event, Andrew Rehfeld, Federation President and CEO, explained the ground rules for what he and the co-sponsors thought might have contentious moments: no questions from the audience, no demonstrations or shouting, and if either happened, the offending persons could expect to be escorted from the building.

The visible presence of about a dozen St. Louis County police officers in uniform in and around the building underscored Rehfeld’s opening remarks. Four hecklers wound up being escorted out before the gathering was over.

Rehfeld also noted that the Solidarity Gathering was the third time in as many weeks that the St. Louis Jewish community had come together to discuss and learn about the situation that began with the kidnapping and murder of three Jewish teen-age boys near Hebron in the West Bank.

In addition to Gilad, the evening featured speeches, prayers and songs. Those who could not find seats lined the walls of the JCC’s performing arts auditorium while others listened and watched on monitors in overflow rooms.

More than one person, interviewed in the halls of the building, said he or she was very conflicted and deeply troubled by the fighting and the images on TV, the Internet and in newspapers and magazines. Many said they sought the comfort of being with their fellow Jews.

“People are looking for an opportunity to come out, to contribute,” said Rabbi Hershey Novack of Chabad House on the Washington University Campus.

He noted that in many cities on the East and West Coasts, Jews demonstrating publicly their support of Israel during this conflict chose to do so very visibly, in the streets and the so-called public square.

“This is almost staid,” Novack said. “But St. Louis knows how to come out in times of crisis.”

In his remarks, Rehfeld noted that as of the day of the gathering, the local community had raised $375,000 to help Israel. Hershel Raskas, co-chair of the Rapid Response Team of Jewish Federations of America, told the audience that across the North America, more than $12 million had been raised. Each day, he said, he and other officials discuss how to allocate the money to help during the conflict.

He added that some of the money is sent to help 20 kibbutzim near Gaza that have borne the brunt of Hamas militants’ attacks as they emerge from tunnels to threaten Israelis. Many kibbutzim may not have the necessary equipment, such as gas masks, in their time of need.

After the gathering broke up, in a brief press conference with local reporters, Gilad expanded on his remarks.

He said Hamas’ charter calls for the extinction of Israel as an independent state and the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in the region in which Jews and Christians may be allowed to live, but they could never have a state of their own.

On the other hand, Gilad noted a major development that has been confirmed by reports in such publications as the New York Times: The Arab states, with the exception of Qatar, the home base of Al Jazeera, have essentially turned their backs on Hamas and are ignoring its pleas for aid.

Why is that, Gilad was asked, since that position is an 180-degree change from the Arab states’ adamant refusal after the Six-Day War in 1967 to recognize, negotiate with or grant peace with Israel?

The difference is the way the Arab Spring has played out, he said.

The coup by the Egyptian military, on the heels of election of Muslim Brotherhood candidates and then extreme measures by former President Mohammed Morsi, has mitigated against Hamas, an offshoot of the Brotherhood that was supported by Morsi’s government.

“There is a fundamental understanding among the Arab states about the need to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood from Gaza,” Gilad said. And that is the big, new change of attitude among Arab governments, he added.

He said more than once, during his speech and to reporters afterward, that the tunnel complex under Gaza and reaching into Israel in several places, turned out to be quite a surprise.

Asked if this would be considered an intelligence failure on the part of Israel, Gilad said it is too early to tell.

In conflicts, something always catches the Israelis by surprise, he said.

In this case, the tunnels – the Israelis have discovered about 35, reinforced with concrete and served by electricity – were the major surprise on the battlefield.

He said garnering international support to demilitarize Gaza was the preferred way to go forward over the next few weeks.

“We cannot demilitarize Gaza without occupying it,” he said.

He added that Israel’s blockade of Gaza could be lifted in stages to allow in life necessities, as well as building supplies, once Hamas has been neutralized. A workable government that does not threaten Israel and is acceptable to the Arab states and the international community would need to be in place, he added.

“We are not sure Gaza can become the Singapore or Hong Kong of the Middle East,” he said.

But with patience and resilience, under the control of the Palestinian Authority, which governs part of the West Bank under the 1993 Oslo agreement, Gaza can become a very different place than it is today, Gilad said.