'Free Gilad' rallies held in NY and DC

Protesters blast Syrian President Bashar Assad outside of the Syrian embassies.

free gilad rally in LA  (photo credit: AP)
free gilad rally in LA
(photo credit: AP)
A letter hand-delivered to the Syrian embassy in London by 12 Jewish, Christian and parliamentary leaders on Monday was just part of the activities occurring worldwide in an effort to pressure the Syrian government into aiding in the release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit. Rallies and communal meetings were held in such widespread cities as New York; Washington, DC; Paris; Johannesburg; Santiago, Chile; and Buenos Aires. A campaign effort has also begun in Sydney to help aid in Shalit's release.
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More than 300 people gathered in front of the Syrian embassy in Washington, yelling chants such as "Tell Assad - free Gilad" and "Two, four, six, eight, Syria is a terror state." "The rally was a very big success," said Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. "We really focused attention on Syria's role in the capture of Gilad and I think we drew a direct line between Hamas and Syria." Among the hundreds were a large group of teenagers who came by bus from Tel Yehudah, a Young Judaea overnight camp located in Barryville, NY. The campers held dozens of signs with Shalit's picture and led the group in chants and songs, including the US and Israeli national anthems. "Many of us in America aren't used to the idea of serving in the army as teenagers, so it's surreal to hear of someone so young being captured," said 16-year-old Tel Yehudah camper Shira Sacks. "Holding Shalit's picture made it easier to connect with him. It was truly an inspiring experience." "I think it's important that American Jews show that they are concerned for the Israeli soldiers and the people of Israel," said Nicole Vahlkamp, 22, a DC-based intern who came to the rally during her lunch break. "It was especially meaningful that teenagers from an American camp who are close in age to many Israeli soldiers came to show their support despite the heat and humidity." Speakers during the rally included Halber, several community rabbis and Laura Kam, an Israeli mother of three and senior communications adviser for The Israel Project. "Palestinian children, with full Syrian support, are unfortunately being taught to hate and to aspire to death," said Kam, 47, whose children are currently at summer camp in Ashkelon, where Kassam rockets have fallen in recent weeks. "I hope for the day when Palestinian children will be taught to aspire to be doctors, lawyers, and teachers." "We feel very deeply about Gilad's safety and well-being and we will not let it fall off the radar screen," Halber said. "There will be an ongoing campaign as long as is necessary in order to bring about the safe return of Shalit." In New York, about 500 protesters gathered under the scorching midday sun on Manhattan's 2nd Avenue, across from the Syrian mission to the UN. Speaker after speaker - from Reverend Michael Faulkner representing the African-American community to Mort Zuckerman, outspoken editor of US News and World Report - hurled invective at the building housing the mission. The protesters, most in sunglasses and baseball caps, responded in kind. They booed at the mention of Syrian President Bashar Assad, shook their fists in the air and repeated the line "Free Gilad Now" again and again. The Syrians were accused by the crowd of having orchestrated the kidnapping and being still capable of securing Shalit's release. But many in the crowd, which contained a large number of young people on summer vacation from high school, expressed sadness at the turn of events. Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, rabbi at the prominent Congregation Kehillath Jeshurun, said he felt he had a responsibility to Israel and to himself as an American Jew to voice his protest. "How can we look at ourselves in the mirror if we carry on our lives as if it's business as usual? It is not business as usual and we are not going to pretend it is." The rally lasted for about an hour before people began to trickle away. Before it was over a singer took the stage to perform a rendition of Naomi Shemer's Al Kol Eileh, saying, "This is a song about the honey and the sting. We are going through the sting now. Let's hope we make it." The letter delivered in London called upon the Syrian government to take a direct hand in furthering the release of Shalit. "We call upon Syria to move away from this bloodstained policy of supporting murder and terror," it read. "We call upon the Syrian leadership to ensure kidnapped Israeli soldier Cpl. Gilad Shalit is returned safely to his family. And we call upon the Syrian leadership to join the international community in supporting a peaceful solution to the conflict." The delegation, which included MP Louise Ellman, Zionist Federation chairman Estelle Gilston and Christian Friends of Israel chairman Roy Thurley, was unexpectedly greeted by the Syrian ambassador, who invited Ellman and Gilston to sit with him and discuss the letter. According to a press release issued by the Zionist Federation, the ambassador told them that they were "welcome" as Jews but not as Zionists, and agreed to forward the letter to Damascus. The Paris solidarity meeting was expected to draw 1,000 people, according to David Roche, Jewish Agency Regional Manager for France and Belgium. "The French community is very attached to Israel and a very warm community," said Roche. "They want to express their solidarity and help in any way they can. I don't know how practical or useful it will be, but morally it's important."