Stand Strong — and They Did!


As many as 2,000 people gathered under the midday sun in Center City's Love Park on Monday to demonstrate their support for the State of Israel, as the nearly two-week-old conflict between the Jewish state and Hezbollah raged on, and diplomatic efforts to quell the fighting appeared to intensify.

The rally came as roughly 1 million Israelis were sitting in bomb shelters, and much of the Jewish state's north had literally been transformed into a war zone.

At the same time, international criticism of Israel's air campaign continued to mount, with the vast majority of the more than 400 people killed so far in the fighting coming from the Lebanese side. That total included a large number of civilians.

Participants at the rally carried signs that read "Israel Must Defend Herself" and "Israel Is on the Map to Stay"; others wore Israeli Defense Force T-shirts; and a few even draped the Israeli blue-and-white over their shoulders like a tallis.

Throughout the program, speaker after speaker espoused Israel's right to negate the threat posed by the Shi'ite militia group.

"All you hear about is disproportion," said Gary Erlbaum, co-chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's Center for Israel and Overseas, the prime organizer of the rally. "I'll tell you what's disproportionate; it's the criticism leveled daily against a democratic country fighting for its very existence. All of Israel is on the border right now."

David Brog, a former staffer for U.S. Sen. Arlen Spector (R-Pa.) who is now executive director of Christians United for Israel, told the crowd that Israel is dropping leaflets warning Lebanese civilians that they are going to bomb a certain area.

This, of course, by extension allows Hezbollah fighters time to escape as well.

"Israel does everything it can to save civilian life," said Brog, who is Jewish. "Hezbollah craves death. All death serves their purpose of destabilizing and radicalizing the Middle East."

U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon (R-District 7) delivered what was perhaps the afternoon's most fiery speech, blaming the current conflagration on the Iranian government, which backs Hezbollah.

Weldon argued that Hezbollah's July 12 cross-border raid, which resulted in the death of three Israeli soldiers and the abduction of two others, was orchestrated by Tehran in order to divert international attention from Iranian nuclear ambitions.

"If we don't stand with Israel today, we won't be able to stand as a nation tomorrow," said Weldon, who is facing a stiff challenge for his seat from Democrat Joe Sestak, a retired naval officer.

"Israel's security is not the priority of one party or another; it's a priority for all Americans," he declared.

Ilana Krop Wilensik, executive director of the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Jewish Committee, just returned from a five-day mission to Israel. As she waited for the rally to start, Wilensik described the fear she felt as the group was meeting with Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav, and was forced to take shelter as the air-raid sirens sounded.

"Haifa is a ghost town. It's a total ghost town," she said. "Israel is fighting this war for us."

Mike Scolnik, 17, of Wynnewood, attended the rally with his mother, and his younger sister and brother. Scolnik recalled visiting Israel last summer as part of Hadassah's Young Judaea program, and couldn't fathom that many of the places he'd come to know were now under siege.

"Nahariya is one of the most beautiful places I've seen in my life," he stated of the coastal town that's been hard-hit by Hezbollah shelling.

Still, not everyone in attendance offered unqualified support for Israel or the message of the rally.

Roughly 20 people representing the organization Brit Tzedek v'Shalom were interspersed throughout the crowd, carrying banners that read "Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace" and "Cease-Fire for All Sides."

They called for a stepped-up American effort to end the fighting — something Israel has until this point resisted, saying that it needs time to weaken Hezbollah.

On that same day, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited both Beirut and Jerusalem, though no cease-fire agreements were struck.

"American neglect has created a dangerous situation," said Steven David Masters, national chair for advocacy and public policy for Brit Tzedek v'Shalom. However, he did stop short of criticizing Israel's response to Hezbollah's actions.

Joseph Berman, a 24-year-old rabbinical student at Boston Hebrew College, had no such qualms.

"We are not here in solidarity with war," said Berman, who joined a group of roughly 20 counterdemonstrators who stood at the edge of the park on 15th street. Berman said they did not represent a particular group.

"Israeli attacks on Beirut are unjust," he said, adding that Hezbollah's attack was unprovoked, but that "doesn't mean that Israel has the right to invade another country."

Sharp words were exchanged between several demonstrators and counterdemonstrators; no violence ensued.

Other Shows of Support
The July 24 rally was one of several pro-Israel events staged throughout the area. On July 17, Congregation Sons of Israel held a public prayer session that was picked up by local television news. On July 20, more than 500 people turned out for a similar event at the Katz JCC in Cherry Hill, N.J.

That same evening, more than 700 people gathered at the Congregations of Shaare Shamayim in Northeast Philadelphia for a rally sponsored by the host synagogue, and organized in conjunction with a broad coalition of other congregations and Jewish groups.

The standing-room-only crowd filled the synagogue sanctuary and overflowed into the lobby. Many waved signs denouncing Hezbollah.

Speakers included Philadelphia City Controller Alan Butkovitz, though the event was dominated by the 30-minute-plus address of Zionist Organization of America national president Morton Klein, who had appeared a day earlier on CNN. His speech resulted in a standing ovation.

A strident critic of the Oslo peace accords, Klein noted that "Israel has finally awakened."

Chiding those who saw Palestinians as "nice," he said that "after 13 years of concessions, enough is enough."

The ZOA leader added that criticism of Israeli actions should be dismissed because events have proved that "the entire world is wrong and the Jews were right."

As such, he demanded that the world "give Israel the time it needs to completely finish the job."  


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