Anti-Gaza war protester led in handcuffs by police officers in New York City, July 28, 2014.
Anti-Gaza war protester led in handcuffs by police officers in New York City, July 28, 2014. Photo by Debra Nussbaum Cohen
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Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Anti-Gaza war protest in New York City, July 28, 2014. Photo by Debra Nussbaum Cohen

NEW YORK – A few blocks from where a giant rally in support of Israel would soon gather outside the United Nations, several dozen protesters, most of them young adults dressed in black, stood outside the midtown Manhattan office building that houses the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, chanting the mourners’ Kaddish and reading aloud the names of the hundreds of Palestinians, and the Israeli soldiers, who have died since July 24th during the Gaza operation.

The effort was organized by “If Not Now, When?,” an ad hoc group of anti-occupation Jewish protesters.

Their demonstration was dwarfed by the “New York Stands With Israel” community-wide rally held outside the UN two hours later. That gathering, co-sponsored by UJA-Federation of New York, the Jewish Community Relations Council and Conference of Presidents, along with the Reform, Conservative and mainstream Orthodox movements, was attended by 10,000 people, said Shira Dicker, who has a public relations firm but was speaking as a rally participant. Being at the rally is “exhilarating,” she said.

The anti-Gaza war rally, tiny in comparison, was held because “we think this war is unjust, the occupation is unjust, and the cycle of violence is not good for the Jewish people,” said Yonah Lieberman, one of the rally’s facilitators, who is 22 and works as a tenant organizer. “We are protesting the implicit support American Jewish leaders gave to the Israeli offensive in Gaza.”

Simone Zimmerman, 23, who said she has cousins currently serving in the Israeli army and a sister volunteering in bomb shelters, said that she doesn’t think that the current crisis began with the rockets Hamas has been firing into Israel. “We think it’s important to understand the context of occupation,” she told Haaretz. “It is terrifying to me that I don’t see [Israeli] leaders presenting a clear strategy besides violence,” she said. “We feel a shared sense of urgency that members of the Jewish community need to publicly oppose the operation in Gaza. “

Passers-by were not impressed. One middle-aged woman, who was walking toward the UN with a man wearing a black kippah said, when asked what she thought of the anti-war protesters, “they make me nauseous. I want to vomit on them.”

After lighting yartzeit candles and placing stones in the center of their semi-circle, nine of the protestors entered the office building and sat down in the lobby in an effort, organizers said, to get Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice-chairman of the Presidents’ Conference, to come speak with them, though he was likely not even in the building at the time. Within a few minutes, about a dozen police officers arrested the protesters, putting them in plastic zip-tie handcuffs and leading them into waiting police vans.

Rabbi Joel and Rochelle Oseran passed by as the anti-war demonstration wound down, on their way to a meeting at the Union for Reform Judaism, which is housed in the same office building. The couple, who live in Jerusalem and have three sons serving in the intelligence section of the Israeli Defense Forces, began asking Zimmerman what their rally was about.

“We’re protesting the actions of the Israeli army,” said Zimmerman, who works as a community organizer in New York City.

“You’re not against Hamas?” said Rochelle Oseran, who is a Lamaze teacher trainer in Jerusalem. “We feel awful for the Gazans. But Hamas is to blame.”

“You can criticize Israel but you can’t stop there,” said her husband. They were in New York to officiate at a wedding. “Otherwise we never would have left now,” said Joel, vice president for development of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. After sharing with them that she has close relatives and friends in Israel, Zimmerman walked away. “I felt like that having that heated disagreement with them wouldn’t be productive,” she said later, “so I shared my feelings and I left.”

Joel Oseran, who greeted another of the anti-war rally participants, the son of one of his rabbinical colleagues, said that their demonstration against Israel’s Gaza operation “is just so naïve. They have good intentions but are really off base.”

Meanwhile, on East 42nd Street, people were streaming toward the UN and the larger crowds that had begun to amass there. One man walking east wore a t-shirt bearing the logo of the IDF.