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Area Jews Rally Around Israel

Local Matters


Published July 25, 2006 at 8:03 p.m.

BURLINGTON -- Amid the chaos and collateral damage wrought in the confrontation now raging between the Israeli military and Hezbollah, the Israeli objectives seem clear: Push Hezbollah back from the northern border with Lebanon -- and then maybe we'll talk. That sense of resoluteness also pervaded a rally at Burlington's Ohavi Zedek Synagogue on July 19. Jointly sponsored by Ohavi Zedek, Temple Sinai, Chabad of Vermont and the Israel Center of Vermont, the event drew roughly 80 people.

Among them was octogenarian Martin Levitt, who rode his Vespa from Essex Junction to show support for Israel. A veteran of Israel's 1948 war, Levitt voiced a sentiment shared by many at the rally in defense of Israel's military response: "They have to hit back and hit back hard," he said. "Unfortunately, this is what the Arabs understand best."

For Yoram Samets, Ohavi Zedek president and vice president of the Israel Center, a nonprofit organization recently founded to promote a more informed public understanding of that country, charges of Israeli military heavy-handedness are misplaced. "I think the response is a restrained response," he said. "I think the Israelis are holding back." Born in Haifa, Israel, Samets suggested that to call Israeli military actions hawkish is to fail to see the bigger geopolitical picture. "This is Iran, primarily, and secondarily Syria telling the U.S. to go fuck itself," he said. "The muscles are being flexed by both sides here. Hamas and Hezbollah are surrogates, as Israel is, in many ways, the surrogate of the U.S."

But support of Israel at the rally didn't equate with support of President Bush's Middle East policies. "By and large, Bush has been focused on one very specific area," Samets said in reference to Iraq, and "almost neglecting what's been going on" in and around Israel. "It's outrageous that we're standing here in 2006 [with] portions of the Arab community continuing to be at war with Israel . . . I think Mr. Bush's policies have exploded all over Mr. Bush."

Whether or not rally attendees shared Samets' global vision, a sense of urgency was palpable throughout the 90-minute program, which combined speeches and prayers. Louise Stoll of the ICV spoke first, entreating people to support three organizations with ties to Israeli security: American Friends of Magen David Adom, an Israeli emergency services provider similar to the Red Cross; Friends of the Israel Defense Force; and the Israel in Crisis Fund.

Rabbi James Glazier of Temple Sinai in South Burlington shared verbal portraits of Israeli soldiers Ehud ben Malka Goldwasser and Eldad ben Tovah Regev, who were captured in Lebanon, and Gilad ben Aviva Shalit, who was captured near Gaza.

Rabbi Yitzchok Raskin, of Chabad of Vermont, urged people to be strong, and railed against Islamic aggression: "As Maimonides has told us, there cannot be a religion to speak in the name of God if they spill blood," he said.

Rabbi Joshua Chasan of Ohavi Zedek, who recently authored the book Judaism Inside Out: Reclaiming the Promise of Israel, offered perhaps the boldest interpretation of the conflict in his remark, "Those now who seek to destroy Israel -- and make no mistake about it, it is the existence of the State of Israel which is now at stake -- those who seek to destroy Israel are playing with the fate, not only of Jews, but of humanity as a whole as well. The survival of Jews in the land of Israel is a matter of justice for humanity as a whole."

Some members of the multigenerational crowd carried signs with such messages as "Stop the Terror" and "Thank you Bill O'Reilly and Fox News for telling the truth." Three children stood on the sidewalk bearing "Free Ehud" placards barely smaller than their young bodies. The rally saw only two moments of mild protest: first, when a woman shouted "No!" at Chasan's reference to Israeli government plans to dismantle Jewish settlements in the West Bank; and second, when a minivan drove past the synagogue and honked its horn as a passenger waved a Palestinian flag out the window.

For Ohavi Zedek congregant and State Senator Hinda Miller, who was narrowly defeated by Bob Kiss in last March's Burlington mayoral contest, the current wave of Middle East violence inspired questions of cause and effect. "We're all sympathetic to the Palestinian cause," she said. "You begin to wonder what happened to community, family and things that we treasure. You have desperate people who find it much easier to kill than to do the hard work of building a nation."

Lois Unger Freifeld, a Tel Aviv resident visiting her daughter who lives in Hinesburg, voiced a similar, if more strident, view: "It is my belief that the Arabs don't want peace," she said. "It's more important for them to destroy Israel than to build something for themselves."

If Arab political will for peace was an open question at the rally, the justness of the Israeli military effort was not. As Chasan noted in his remarks, quoting early 20th-century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, "'I cannot help withstanding evil when I see that it is about to destroy the good.'" That position, more than any other, seemed to unify the rally.

"Who likes to hear that Lebanese children are being killed?" Miller asked. "It brings sadness. But what do you do with a group that intends to destroy your country?"