In the past few days, two very different groups held farewell parties in Washington, DC. One event was held in honor of 65 olim leaving for Israel. The other was for American peace activists on their way to Athens, to sail from there to Gaza, as part of another flotilla trying to break the blockade. Thirty-six Americans intend to join the flotilla on board the ship they call The Audacity of Hope, which just happens to be the title of a book by President Barack Obama.
According to information provided by organizers of the U.S. boat, a quarter of the passengers are American Jews. Ann Wright, a retired colonel from the U.S. Army reserves and one of the boat's organizers, says the goal of the voyage is "to confront the illegal Israeli blockade of Gaza, and U.S. government protection of Israeli criminal acts."
"As a former U.S. diplomat and retired military colonel," she says, "I strongly believe it is the responsibility of citizens to act when our governments fail to protect the human rights and dignity of any people - in this case, the Palestinians."
Ray McGovern, a retired CIA analyst who used to prepare morning intelligence briefings for several U.S. presidents, said the group will spend several days in Athens, "doing some training on nonviolence," and then the boat will sail from Greece to Gaza.
Are you sure that, with an open Egyptian border and current events in Syria and Libya, Gaza is the most urgent place to sail to?
"All the crossings except for Rafah are still controlled by Israel. Pedestrians are being let through Rafah - it's on and off - but the substance is that they need a decent system, and the need continues to be great. There is wreckage of facilities in Gaza that need to be rebuilt. You can't know about it and do nothing. The fact that more Syrians and Libyans are being killed now than Gazans - it's not an argument. There are 1.5 million hostages in Gaza suffering unnecessarily, and it needs to be called attention to.
"If the Syrian situation continues to be as explosive, we might sail to Syria. But there are major differences: Israel is an "ally" of the US, and I use quotes because to be an ally you need a mutual defense treaty - and for that Israel requires internationally-recognized borders.
"We give $3 billion to Israel, we don't give it to Syria. As friends, we need to tell Israelis that the situation in the Middle East has changed and, for their own sake, they need to reach a solution with the Palestinians. To start they can lift the blockade on Gaza. I don't want difficulties for Jewish people but we want to call attention to Gaza; it's not just and it's not sustainable."
What kind of reactions did you get in the U.S. to your plans?
"The sad part of all this is you can live in America, watch the news every day, and not hear about the situation in Gaza. Americans are mostly unaware of this. When I tell them about the flotilla, they ask: 'What's going on in Gaza?'"
So what do you hope to achieve? Israel has already said it won't let the flotilla through.
"We are worried about our safety, but we have no arms on our ship, we have letters of support to Gazans. We are trying to do what justice people do - challenge these illegal measures. We are not martyrs. None of us is going with this attitude. I would tell the Israeli Government: 'Welcome on board, be assured there are no weapons ... read some letters and let us through to the people of Gaza.'"
Did you talk to U.S. officials about your plans?
"One of our organizers, a former high level State Department official, visited their offices, and they tried to convince her not to go. As American citizens, we got no assurances that we'll get protection. In fact, I was informed informally that they won't be sorry if something happens to us. It's shocking."
Barack Obama has said Israel can't be expected to talk to Hamas before it rejects violence. Are you sure they expect you there? Last time, there were reports that supplies were left uncollected at the checkpoint.
"We carry statements of support, and not supplies. Our organizers are in close touch with the people of Gaza. It is great for them to realize someone out there cares for them. The name of the boat - Audacity of Hope - is inspired. No one can survive without hope. It was a way of saying to President Obama: 'You inspired us three years ago, and in this spirit we are trying to personify hopes that have been largely dashed.'"
Are you aware of the lawsuit filed against the flotilla in a New York court by Dr. Alan Bauer, the victim of a 2002 Jerusalem bombing?
"I am aware of it. I am not a lawyer, but it seems quite a stretch - one of those 'frivolous lawsuits.' People are really stretching to find any legal way to prevent us from going."
Should Gilad Shalit be released?
"I think that's very regrettable, but we seek balance on these things. My heart goes out to the family, but also to the families of the Palestinians. My human inclination is to say, sure they should release him, but Israel should also release many Palestinians held in Israeli jails."
Naturally, the U.S. Jews planning to make aliyah to Israel in the next few weeks, and who attended an event at the Israeli Embassy, had their own concerns. Among them were a dozen or so young people who will join the IDF. Miriam Duffy, 18, from Silver Spring, Maryland, said two of her brothers previously served in the IDF.
"I've been to Israel and I know it's not only 'Jerusalem of gold.'" she says. "But I feel we are so lucky to have a strong and independent Jewish state that is there for us. And I want to be there for them. I'm lucky that my parents have been so supportive - they just told me to do what feels right for me. The September vote at the UN scares me - there are certainly dangers Israel is facing, but it has amazing soldiers and it's ready to protect itself if anything happens. I want to stay in Israel. The best part there certainly is the people." And the worst? "The worst part is the bureaucracy."
Duffy was not the only one complaining about the bureaucracy. Rabbi Joel Tessler, whose daughter is also making aliyah, said he had to write four letters to prove she is Jewish. "Paperwork is required by everyone, including for a Rabbi's daughter," he laughs.
The numbers of olim from North America can be considered modest in comparison to the number of Jews in North America, although almost 4,000 made Aliyah last year, the most since 1973; a similar number is expected this year.
The IDF military attache, Maj. Gen. Gadi Shamni, also bade the group farewell. "I want to express deep respect for your brave decision," he said. "It's a powerful message, when Jews decide to leave their comfortable life here to become part of the Zionist enterprise." After welcoming the olim about to become soldiers, Shamni concluded: "There are many who want to damage Israel. But they all know there will be a decisive answer given by the IDF."
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