Community briefing on Israel informs, has tense moments

Andrew Rehfeld, President and CEO of Jewish Federation, addresses the audience attending a community briefing Monday night at the Federation’s Kopolow Building on recent events in Gaza. Read Rehfeld’s remarks in this week’s Opinions section. Photos: Kristi Foster 

By Seth Eisenkramer & Robert A. Cohn, Jewish Light Staff & Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

An evening billed as a community briefing about the situation in Israel and Gaza provided background from the organized Jewish community, first-hand perspectives and, for a portion of the evening, a significant amount of tension.

More than 160 people packed the boardroom at the Jewish Federation of St. Louis’ Kopolow Building Monday night to hear analysis and first-hand accounts about the ongoing conflict and Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, ask questions and learn about ways to help and provide assistance.

 At the start of the evening, Andrew Rehfeld, Federation CEO and President, explained that the goal of the night was to bring people of different backgrounds together to help the community understand what is going on in Israel, and to raise money to support those suffering there. 

Rehfeld, who returned from Israel last week after traveling with a local Federation contingent, emphasized that Operation Protective Edge — the Israeli Defense Forces’ offensive in the Gaza Strip — is an act of self-defense against Hamas, which fires missiles into Israel and protects itself with human shields.

He also noted that while the Federation’s event was to educate the St. Louis Jewish community and raise funds for the Jewish citizens suffering during this conflict, the suffering of individuals on both sides of the conflict should be acknowledged.

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The program also offered perspective on the current crisis in the context of historical events.  Robert P. Barnidge, Jr., lecturer and coordinator of International Relations in the Department of History, Politics and International Relations at Webster University, offered a brief overview of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the United Nations Partition Plan of 1947 through the major diplomatic events and wars that have taken place since then.

Several members of the Jewish community who recently traveled to, or are currently in, Israel, also offered their perspective. Among them were Rabbi Jim Bennett of Congregation Shaare Emeth via video message; Cheryl Maayan, head of school of the Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School; and several Federation staffers.

Jewish Community Relations Council Executive Director Batya Abramson-Goldstein presented about ways to keep informed and support legislative efforts to fund Israel’s defense, including the Iron Dome anti-rocket system.

It was the offerings from the audience during what was intended as a question and answer period, however, that caused the temperature of the room to rise. In addition to speakers in support of Israel and the Protective Edge operation, one opponent of the nation’s conduct drew a substantial reaction.

At one point, security guards were summoned after comments from Michael Berg, who expressed strong criticism of the Israeli military actions in Gaza and large number of Palestinian casualties.

Heated remarks ensued in response to Berg’s comments. Among the responses were “get out of here” and “join Hamas if you like them so much.”

Security moved to apparently lead Berg from the room, but Rehfeld asked security to let go of Berg and criticized the conduct of those who were responding to his comments.  

Other areas of comment and question, primarily in support of Israel and its operations, were less volatile. Comments issued, for instance, about perceived bias in the mainstream media against Israel. 

Another area of discussion involved the potential for a resolution of the conflict through different means. Barnidge was asked if he thought there would be any merit in Israel immediately recognizing the Palestinian Authority as an independent state.

 “If a Palestinian state is going to be formed,” he said, “it needs to be formed as the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) has agreed to, which is by negotiations.” Resolution of many issues, Barnidge said, “could result only after permanent status negotiations.  These include security, borders, Jerusalem, refugees and others.  So I think it would be premature to do anything other than a package deal.”

Some within the audience voiced objections that there was no official Jewish community response to reports of a banner equating the Israeli Shield of David with the Nazi swastika at a pro-Palestinian rally in the Delmar Loop the day before the Federation event. The rally was attended by an estimated 300 people. Rehfeld said that he would look into the events of the rally and would respond to them.

Other speakers at the Federation event who  recently had visited Israel provided a more intimate approach to the issues on the ground. Speakers described having to seek shelter several times a day when the warning sirens would go off as Hamas rockets continued to be fired into Israel throughout their most recent stay. 

Some of their messages, however, were more positive and hopeful.

Maayan explained that at the end of her trip to Israel last week, she joined her son and niece there as a chaperone on their trip with the Galilee Circus. The youngsters were part of a St. Louis contingent performing with the group, which features both Muslim and Jewish youth ages 6 to 19. 

Like many of the St. Louis performers, Maayan stayed with a Muslim host family rather than the Jewish one she was expecting. 

In the middle of a village known to experience riots, she said she found a “pocket of peace.” She bonded with her Muslim family in the same way her niece did with the Muslim children in the interfaith circus, even celebrating Shabbat with them. “People are saying there is ‘no hope,’ but these kids are doing things that are building hope,” she said.

Rabbi Bennett, in his video talk, reiterated that idea. “I find it encouraging and hopeful that even in spite of [this violence], there are people here in Israel that continue to cling to a dream of a life that is normal, a life that is aspiring, a life of aspiration to rise above the difficulties of this life that confronts us day to day and to achieve something that is a better dream,” he said. 

Notwithstanding the heated exchanges, several people gave the session high marks. 

Lou Albert,  executive  director of the Jewish Family & Children’s Service, said he felt it was a helpful discussion. “I think people had a chance to express feelings, and share information. It was a beginning,” he said.

Barbara Sandmel, another attendee, said, “I thought it was very informative and I liked finding out ways we can access information, so that we can spread accurate information to other people.”

Ira Kodner, a local physician, who closely follows international affairs, said, “I thought it was an interesting evening because it brings out the passion of people who really want peace and how strongly we feel when people are being killed on  either side.”

After the Monday night event, Ethan Bennett, son of Rabbi James Bennett, said his recent, yearlong experience in Israel was much less heated compared to the heckling of those in attendance at the Kopolow building. 

“In Israel I saw people of diversities come together for peace and learning, not people getting fired up like tonight,” said Bennett, 22. “What is happening in Israel features a more unified people than those who are here tonight. We need to come together and use the energy that fuels this passion in order to create a dialogue, which will be more successful than just harassing each other.”