Local Jewish leaders stress firm support of Israel and Operation Pillar of Defense

Repps Hudson, Special to the Jewish Light

Reactions by mainstream local Jewish leaders to the conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip are uniformly in support of the actions of the Netanyahu government.

Those actions include the killing of a Hamas military commander, Ahmed al-Jabari, days of Israeli air strikes and the mobilization of Israeli Defense Force reservists along the northern Gaza border. (As of press time, a cease-fire had not been decided.)

“The precipitating factor was the rocket attacks on Israel,” said Batya Abramson-Goldstein, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council. “A country has an obligation to protect its citizens.”

She and others noted that the Obama administration has clearly supported Israel’s right to strike back against Hamas in an effort to halt the rocket attacks.

“The starting point is that any nation has a right to defend itself,” said Rabbi James Bennett of Congregation Shaare Emeth. “I don’t think most people in the United States have any idea how small Israel is. It’s like from Wentzville to downtown [about 50 miles], from Gaza to Jerusalem.”

At the same time, those leaders are quite concerned and wary about how Hamas’ actions are being received by Arab leaders, particularly those from the Arab Spring democracies of Egypt and Tunisia, and by the wider Muslim world, especially Turkey, whose diplomatic ties to Israel go back 63 years, to1949.

“We have to ask, ‘What is Hamas’ strategy?’ What are they trying to achieve,” said Andrew Rehfeld, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, which has a goal of raising about $75,000 as part of a campaign of the National Jewish Federations of North America to raise $5 million in aid for Israel in the near future.

Since the crisis began last week, about 112 Palestinians and three Israelis have died. The conflict escalated after Israel killed al-Jabari, the Hamas leader Israeli officials believe was the mastermind behind hundreds of rocket attacks into Israeli in recent weeks.

In an escalation of Hamas’ long-standing conflict with Israel, Al-Jabari is believed to have been responsible for arranging the transshipment of longer-range Fajr-5 missiles from Iran to Sudan, then across the Egyptian-controlled Sinai Peninsula to underground tunnels in Gaza. The rockets have a range of 45 miles and have been launched from northern Gaza at Israeli population centers like Tel Aviv and even Jerusalem.

The newly deployed, U.S.-financed and Israeli-developed Iron Dome missile defense system has been successful in most cases in stopping Hamas’ rockets from striking Israeli cities and towns.

What troubles many here is the possible shift in diplomatic relations between Israel and Egypt, led by the popularly elected president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, in a way that will isolate Israel from the largest Arab state. Israel and Egypt have had formal diplomatic ties since the Camp David Accords of 1979.

“The Muslim Brotherhood has a long-standing — many decades — position of espousing the elimination of Israel,” said Rabbi Seth Gordon of Traditional Congregation. “But when one becomes the leader of a country, some ideological choices usually become moderated.”

Morsi’s Egyptian government has made a public show of standing with Hamas, while Israel and such key countries as the United States are pressuring Cairo to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. Under most circumstances, that could be the expected turn of events, a duly elected government choosing a path that furthers stability and peace in the region.

But this time may be different, and many observers believe the moment poses a great test for the American-educated Morsi and his government.

What is unknown is the point to which Gordon alluded: Where will the Egyptian government come down?

As a deal maker and perhaps a regional guarantor of a cease-fire, even an eventual facilitator of peace between Hamas and Israel? Or as a government that allows Hamas to smuggle in weapons by land or by sea that can be used to attack Israeli in the future? If Egypt comes out of this crisis as a peace broker, it can renew its relationship with Israel. If it chooses to follow the rhetoric of its Muslim Brotherhood roots, the likelihood for conflict may be greater.

“This is an open question regarding Egypt,” Gordon said, adding that the Arab world is now going through “a period of self-discovery.”

What remains fundamental for local commentators, however, is Israel’s right to defend itself when rockets are raining down on its territory.

Galit Lev-Harir, who lived in Israel for nine years and holds dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship, said she was frustrated that many news reports did not cover the Hamas rocket attacks over the last several weeks.

“Now it’s in the news,” she said. “Now that Israel has retaliated [by killing al-Jabari and launched air strikes on targets in Gaza], it’s all over the news.”

When asked if the Israeli response was too heavy-handed or disproportionate, she replied: “Not at all.”

She added: “There’s no such thing as a surprise attack by Israel. They have dropped leaflets warning civilians of the next air attacks. No other country in the world does that. They call peoples’ cell phones. Israel provides the cellular infrastructure, so it can call ahead.”

Another question is whether the Obama administration, in its first real test of diplomatic support for Israel in a crisis, is doing enough through its diplomacy to mediate the situation.

“Diplomacy is diplomacy because much of it is behind the scenes,” said Abramson-Goldstein. “The United States is taking a vigorous role in trying to organize those nations in the Middle East that can exert an influence on Hamas and on Egypt.”

Bennett added: “Obama has an opportunity to be a real leader. I am hopeful that the United States will play a leadership role to make peace.”