As Philadelphia-area Jews grappled with an uncertain and fluid situation in southern Israel and braced for the possibility of a protracted conflict, pro-Israel activists echoed a common theme: Israel must be allowed to defend herself.
Noah Feit, president of Penn Friends of Israel, said his group was “preparing for the worst on campus,” as the conflict between Israel and Hamas escalated this week. He said he expected the conflict to give renewed voice to anti-Israel forces on campus.
Barely a day into the escalating crisis, students at Penn were mobilizing to write op-ed articles and hold one-on-one discussions with their peers. On Wednesday, as the situation escalated, a “Red Alert” Facebook post went viral among Penn’s pro-Israel students. That evening, dozens of students showed up at Penn Hillel wearing red as a way to show solidarity with Israel.
Across the Delaware Valley, Jewish organizations, day schools and synagogues were each taking steps to show their support for the Jewish state.
Approximately 400 rockets and missiles have been fired at Israel since Saturday, when Gazan forces fired an anti-tank weapon on an Israeli military vehicle along the border, wounding four soldiers. The Israel Defense Forces said its air assaults Wednesday destroyed many of Hamas’ long-range Fajr missiles in addition to assassinating Hamas military chief Ahmed Jabari.
On Thursday, at least three Israelis were killed when a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip hit their apartment in southern Israeli town Kiryat Malachi.
The violence was the heaviest in Gaza since Operation Cast Lead, the last major Israeli ground invasion in Gaza, which lasted three weeks from December 2008 to January 2009.
The situation has even pierced the psychological bubble of Tel Aviv, Israel’s cultural and financial capital that often seems far removed from trouble in the North or South.
A rocket fell on Holon on the southern outskirts of Tel Aviv, according to reports, after warning sirens sounded in Tel Aviv and Bnei Brak on Thursday evening. It was the first time since the Gulf War in 1990 that a warning siren was sounded in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area.
In Philadelphia, the Zionist Organization of America, which stages a pro-Israel rally outside the Israeli consulate every Friday, issued a call for Jews from across the ideological spectrum to attend this week’s gathering in a show of communal support.
David Cohen, senior associate for Israel and Middle East Affairs at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, said his organization isn’t planning a mass demonstration yet, but is focusing on using email and other digital tools to make sure Israel’s story is being told.
“We are trying to make sure that everyone has the best possible information, we are trying to make sure that everyone understands what Israelis in the South have been living with,” he said.
Local politicians have issued statements of support for Israel. U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) both co-sponsored a Senate resolution affirming Israel’s right to self-defense. On Nov. 14, Casey also met with Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States.
“Israel is our greatest friend in the region and one of our strongest allies in the world,” Toomey said. “In the face of unrelenting attacks from a terrorist organization bent on destroying the Jewish state, Israel has every right to defend its borders and its citizens. I’m glad President Obama has voiced his support for Israel during this trying time, and I urge our allies around the world to do the same.”
U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, a Republican from Bucks County, also released a pro-Israel statement.
Elad Strohmayer, Israel’s deputy consul general in the region, said statements from members of Congress really do add to the international pressure on Hamas to cease its rocket attacks.
He urged Israel’s supporters to “continue to issue these statements of support that call for cease-fire immediately.”
“We call on the international community for strong statements against Hamas’s aggressive attacks,” he said. “We are very encouraged from the positive reaction we have seen here so far.”
Several area Jewish day school administrators described the latest conflagration as another teachable moment for students.
During morning services at the Saligman Middle School in Melrose Park, Rabbi Kevin Bernstein spoke about the situation and then led a prayer for the state of Israel. He also offered “hopes that the violence would stop, and that a minimum of people would be harmed.”
At the Abrahms Hebrew Academy in Yardley, Rabbi Ira Budow led the students in a recitation of Psalms. Later in the day, he also led a discussion about the situation for eighth graders, who are scheduled to go as a group to Israel in April.
“It is very important, we have to speak to our kids and educate them,” said Budow.
At the Kohelet Yeshiva High School in Merion Station, students also wore red to school as an expression of solidarity for Israelis who are forced to respond to “red alert” air raid sirens and seek shelter quickly.
At Penn, pro-Israel students have already learned that Penn for Palestine was planning a Friday afternoon demonstration calling for an end to Israeli aggression. Feit, the student leader, said that students didn’t plan to show up and offer a counter protest.
“We are going to be level-headed and not be confrontational,” he said. “We are going to tell our side of the story.”
Feit noted that he has family in and around Tel Aviv, areas that are now well within Hamas rocket range.
“I have a lot of personal connections,” he said “but that is not what is motivating me.”
(JTA contributed to this report.)