Demonstrators reflect deep, divisive Gaza positions

On Sunday, Aug. 3, Pro-Israel demonstrators turned out in downtown Clayton to offer a counterpoint to demonstrators nearby protesting U.S. aid to Israel. Photo: Yana Hotter

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Chants of “Free, Free Palestine” competed with voices raised in “Am Yisrael Chai” on the normally sleepy weekend streets of Clayton on Sunday afternoon as hundreds of people took part in dueling demonstrations reflecting very different perspectives on the situation in the Middle East.

Sunday’s boisterous but peaceful events were kicked off when an alliance of pro-Palestinian groups scheduled a march to protest U.S. aid to Israel, starting at Clayton’s Shaw Park. Quickly, a grassroots group of members of the Jewish community slated a demonstration across town, and placard-waving supporters of Israel took up positions on all four corners at Forsyth Boulevard and Hanley Road, where they cheered at passing motorists who honked car horns in support.

“I wanted to show my children how important Israel is to the Jewish community,” said Mike Minoff, who was bedecked with a Star of David flag.

Minoff said he returned from Israel recently and was there when three teenagers turned up missing. Naftali Frankel, Eyal Yifrach and Gilad Shaar subsequently were discovered to have been kidnapped and killed by militants. 

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“The entire nation came together as one to look for and pray every day for these boys,” Minoff said. “They invited us to pray with them. We really felt as if they were our brothers that were missing.”

The killings would ultimately help set off Israeli military action in Gaza, which has generated controversy around the world due to the mounting number of civilian Palestinian casualties. 

Minoff said he spoke with Israeli Defense Forces soldiers, who said that they make every effort to clear buildings of civilians before an attack through warnings and other measures.

“At the risk of putting themselves in danger sometimes, the pilots will make multiple trips [even though] they are a target,” he said. 

David Kantor of Clayton said the demonstration was a way to thank fellow Americans for their friendship to the Jewish State during this difficult time.

“We appreciate the support of the United States for Israel, and that’s why we came out,” he said. “We wanted to have our side of the story heard.”

Kantor said that Israel wishes only peace but that the Palestinian militant organization Hamas made that goal impossible.

“We’re looking for a peace partner that doesn’t have death tunnels going into Israel, that does not rain down rockets on Israel, that does not force the children of Israel to run for bomb shelters every few minutes,” the B’nai Amoona congregant said. “If Israel had any wish, it would be for Hamas to put down their weapons and we could have peace immediately.”

Rabbi Yosef David of Aish HaTorah called Hamas the instigator of the conflict and cited the difference between Palestinian rockets, which Israel alleges are often intentionally stored in civilian areas, and Israel’s defensive Iron Dome system.

“Hamas protects its missiles with its children and families,” he said. “Israel is protecting its children and families with its missiles.”

David said it is a moral imperative to stand up for those in Israel who are under threat from the terrorist group.

“If Hamas laid down their arms, there would be peace in the Middle East,” he said. “If Israel laid down their arms, there would be no Israel.”

Rabbi Ze’ev Smason of Nusach Hari B’nai Zion said the gathering showed a broad cross section of the Jewish community.

“It is very important at this time to focus on what we as Jews and what we as Americans share in common rather than the things that divide us,” he said. “One of the things we share in common is not only a love for Israel but a recognition of the strategic importance of Israel. Israel is truly an ally for America and vice versa.”

Smason said the demonstration wasn’t intended to target the Palestinians but rather terrorism.

“This is a protest against Hamas,” he said. “We support the Palestinian people … but we’re against Hamas, which is a terrorist organization.”

Meanwhile, down Forsyth Boulevard at a Shaw Park staging area, chants of “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” and “Hey, hey, ho, ho, occupation has got to go” rang out as the pro-Palestinian demonstrators prepared to get their  program underway.

Faizan Syed, executive director of Council on American-Islamic Relations-St. Louis, which helped plan the march, said its purpose was to encourage the U.S. government to stop sending aid to Israel, which would be used in its occupation of the West Bank and military action in Gaza. He said the Jewish State’s restrictive policies against the Palestinians promote violence.

“If Israel lifts the siege on Gaza and allows people to not be imprisoned in that area and move about freely, then these people will not attack Israel,” he said. “Israel, we believe, is the aggressor. They are the ones who started this conflict. They are the ones who continue to perpetuate the conflict.”

His sentiments were shared by many others who decried the Israeli blockade of the densely packed Gaza Strip, where access and egress are tightly controlled.

Michael McPhearson said the situation is a “great injustice.”

“I hope that the general population will see that Palestinians here in the U.S. are just like all of us regular hard-working people, no one to be scared of or afraid of, and it will help people see that we all need to find peace while working together,” he said.

Jews also were among these marchers. Maya Harris is a member of Jewish Voices for Peace, a group opposed to the Gaza occupation. She wore an Arabic-emblazoned T-shirt advocating the right of return for Palestinians, said she wanted people to know that Israel did not speak for her. Terming Gaza “an open-air prison,” she said the incursion is not self-defense but a “massacre” of people already suffering economically because of the blockade.

“They don’t have any shelter,” she said of the Gazans. “They don’t have anywhere to go, and they are being bombarded.”

Harris, who visited Gaza in 2010, said that she does not like Hamas but that Palestinians have a right to resist occupation.

“I feel that a one-state solution is the only solution,” she said. “One state, one government, an equal place for all people. In reality, they all can live together.”

Jacob Ladendz of St. Louis also is a member of Jewish Voices for Peace. He said Israel should have used the recent Palestinian unity government and its own protection by Iron Dome as an opportunity to back away from a military option.

“Recourse to collective punishment and violence only perpetuates these cycles of violence,” he said. “If we want to seek peace and coexistence between all peoples of that land, this is completely counterproductive, and we all need to stand against it.”

Michael Berg said he wouldn’t vote for Hamas but believes that their demand for the release of prisoners is reasonable because many had been rounded up in the wake of the kidnappings and held without charges. 

He said the Israeli government knew the three teens were dead early on but used the search to inflame the public.

“What’s being done in our name as Jewish people in Gaza is grotesque,” he said.

Berg also said Israel is wrong to continue its controversial policy of settlement expansion.

“It is like negotiating over a pizza when one side is eating the pizza,” he said.

Organizers on both sides warned participants to not engage their opponents, but the factions did come within sight of one another during the pro-Palestine group’s march. Waving Palestinian flags, the assemblage paused at Carondelet Avenue and Hanley Road, crowding in front of J. Buck’s restaurant to chant slogans at their counterparts. 

Pro-Israel demonstrators responded by moving halfway down the block to take up positions along the Centene Building,  loudly singing Israeli songs and “God Bless America.” Each contingent appeared to be trying to drown the other out. 

A watchful detachment of Clayton police kept the two sides half a block apart as a few videographers and photographers scurried through the no man’s land in the middle.

The pro-Palestinian group ultimately circled back along Carondelet Avenue after a few minutes, ending the odd exchange.

Organizers of the demonstrations put the turnout for each at 200 to 300 people. Authorities reported no arrests, damage or other problems associated with the demonstrations.