BOSTON – The meeting in New York Wednesday of the largest umbrella group of American Jewry was called to work out a strategy to deal with the upcoming Palestinian bid for enhanced status at the United Nations. But news of a massive Israeli aerial assault on Gaza and the ensuing rocket barrage on Israeli towns and cities quickly became the new focus of concern.
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The voice that emerged from the meeting was one of solid support for Israel’s military action, from across the political spectrum, reported Malcom Hoenlein, the executive vice-chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which hosted the meeting.
“The reaction was uniform and strong, that what Israel is doing is what it needs to do,” he said noting that some 750 rockets have been fired into southern Israel from Gaza in the last year. “I have yet to hear one word of criticism or any one breaking away.”
That wall of establishment support for the Israeli operation began with the assassination of Ahmad Jabari, the head of Hamas’ military wing and was further bolstered Thursday when missiles from Gaza struck in the Tel Aviv area, sending local residents into bomb shelters for the first time since the 1991 Gulf War.
Jeremy Burton, the executive director for Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston spoke of the frustration of watching the situation escalate from afar.
“It’s incredibly difficult to be an American Jew and be sitting here and seeing this play out. We are very worried for our brothers and sisters in Israel,” he said. “But there is absolutely no question that our community stands with Israel. It’s an intolerable situation and no country should have to put up with what Israel has put up with for the last several days and years from Gaza.”
“As American Jews we are passionate about Israel’s rights and needs. We are doing everything we can to get the word out of the legitimacy, and frankly the restraint, Israel has shown."
Meanwhile the American Jewish Committee called for an international rallying of support for what it said was “Israel’s right to defend and protect its citizens against Hamas.”
“Israel deserves deep empathy as one million of its citizens have been forced to stand by within 15 seconds of the nearest bomb shelter, not knowing when the next Hamas attack will arrive. Schools have been closed and daily life disrupted,” AJC Executive Director David Harris said in a statement.
“Coddling Hamas, recognized by the U.S. and European Union as a terrorist organization, does not advance the cause of peace,” said Harris who cited the dangers of more sophisticated weaponry with longer range of the type seen in the attack on the Tel Aviv area.
“Those truly concerned for Israel’s security and the cause of peace must stand up and speak with unambiguous moral clarity. The rapidly escalating situation demands no less,” Harris said.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the dovish J-Street also issued a statement of support for Israel and its right to defend itself while also urging President Barack Obama to quickly mobilize an international effort to broker a cease-fire deal.
“It is critical now to prevent escalation of the violence, which could increase casualties on both sides and further strain already fraught tensions in the region,” Ben-Ami said.
Ben-Ami’s statement spoke of concern for the impact of this latest round of fighting on both Israeli and Palestinians. He called Hamas to cease its rocket attacks for the Israeli army to “exercise judicious restraint in limiting its response to military targets in an effort to prevent civilian casualties” in Gaza.
At least 16 Palestinians have been killed since the fighting intensified Thursday, including two young children. Three Israelis were killed in the southern town of Kiryat Malakhi, and there have been injuries on both sides.
“Innocent Israeli and Palestinian civilians too often bear the high costs of this ongoing conflict,” said Ben Ami. “All of those Israelis and Palestinians who are suffering are in our thoughts and prayers,” he said.
In Boston, David Trimble, an American Jewish psychologist, said he was frustrated that the human cost of such an escalation was being lost along with what he views as a cynical political move by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“They killed the person who had the greatest capacity to control rockets coming from Gaza,” said Trimble, referring to the Jabari assassination. “It seems clear Israel is escalating the war so that Netanyahu can win the election and who cares how many women and children are killed.”
Trimble said he was “disheartened” but not surprised that there are so few critical voices in the leadership of the American Jewish community in response to such Israeli actions.
“I think that a vigorous Jewish conversation about what is going on is likeliest to bring sanity to Israel and it seems that this conversation is continually being suppressed,” he said.