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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog urged American Jews to make their voices heard in support of Israel Monday, even as he acknowledged the growing threats the Diaspora community faces in the wake of Israel's military action in Gaza.
"We are all together in this," Herzog said, noting the heightened alerts that have put American Jews on guard while residents in Israel face ongoing rocket attacks.
Still, he said, the voices of Israel's supporters need to be heard when the country is facing international criticism and thousands of pro-Palestinian protesters around the world are taking to the street.
"Don't be shy," he instructed more than 500 American and Canadian Jewish leaders on a conference call organized the United Jewish Communities and the Jewish Council on Public Affairs Monday. He told them to post blog entries, call radio shows, participate in Internet chat rooms and otherwise make Israel's case to the media. "It's important that people see the Israeli viewpoint."
US groups, including the UJC and JCPA, are planning dozens of events in the coming week, including rallies and prayer services and candlelight vigils, in cities ranging from Boston to Atlanta to St. Louis.
While several groups held impromptu events in reaction to pro-Palestinian demonstrations organized last week, the Jewish community is seeking to take the initiative with the events being planned.
At last week's events, masses of protesters displayed anti-Israel posters and slogans as they criticized Israel's actions in Gaza, in some cases intimidating the Jewish supporters who had come to back Israel.
Some who have defended Israel are also facing threats, while an increase in vandalism and attacks on Jewish institutions in North America has been reported.
A member of The Israel Project advocacy group received a threatening phone call after appearing in the media in defense of Israel, which several Jewish facilities have suffered graffiti and in one case a firebomb.
Jewish community sources estimated the number of incidents as a "handful" since Israel began its actions in Gaza, a rate similar to those which occurred during the war in Lebanon in 2006.
"When things heat up in the region, our attentiveness to security matters also increases," said William Daroff, director of the UJC's Washington office. "We're keeping a close eye and closely coordinating with federal and local law enforcement."
Daroff said he would be participating at a Washington rally to be held Wednesday, which would be followed by daily candlelight vigils at the Israeli embassy each noon until the conflict ends.
JCPA Executive Director Rabbi Steve Gutow said that the Jewish community had held off on holding many events until now because earlier on major gatherings could have been seen as the community "shouting in triumph when there's a lot of tragedy in the triumph."
He said now, as pro-Palestinian voices have grown louder on the international stage, the events should have a message that Israel wants peace.
He noted that a national day of action for Jewish communities around the country to coordinate events was being planned for later in the week.
An earlier effort to bring JCPA leaders to Washington to lobby on the issue has been put on hold, but Washington continues to be a focus for advocates on both sides as US President-elect Barack Obama moves to town and the new session of Congress begins.
"American is returning to business after the holiday season, and Congress begins work on Tuesday morning," a senior Israeli official told The Jerusalem Post. "We don't know what the situation will be on the ground in Gaza in two weeks," he said, "so we have to work now to create the foundation for American understanding and support for what Israel has to do."
Many American Jewish leaders say the new Congress and White House are expected to continue the support for Israel's position against Hamas, but that it's important for constituents to make their views known and to try to enlist political support.
"Nobody anticipates a major shift in policy," according to Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, another sponsor of the conference call with Herzog. The call was supposed to have been with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, but she canceled because of meetings with visiting European officials.
American political leaders generally see the operation as "a legitimate part of the war on terrorism that shouldn't be subject to partisan bickering," Hoenlein said.
Michael Kotzin, executive vice president of the Jewish federation in Obama's hometown of Chicago, also said he expects continued support for Israel when the new administration takes over: "We haven't seen any reason to think things will be different, or that there will be any kind of radical shift in policy."