Global Jewish youth take Israel advocacy to the street

Bnei Akiva spokesperson: Our emissaries are organizing rallies against anti-Semitism and trying to show the humanitarian aspect of the IDF.

pro-israel 248.88 (photo credit: Jonny Paul)
pro-israel 248.88
(photo credit: Jonny Paul)
As anti-Israel rallies swell around the world and draw massive crowds, Zionist movements have begun mobilizing their supporters for counter-rallies, which although much smaller in size are also gaining momentum. On Sunday, Berlin and Stockholm played host to such demonstrations, with crowds of roughly 500 supporters gathering to speak out for Israel. Both demonstrations were organized by the local branch of Bnei Akiva, which operates outside of Israel under the auspices of the World Zionist Organization (WZO). Speaking by phone from the site of the Stockholm rally, Bnei Akiva official Yoram Silverman expressed his excitement at the turnout. "My idea was just to get a rally of the Jewish community," he said, "But once other organizations like the Society of Israel and Sweden became involved, the number of participants quickly swelled." Silverman is hoping to use the momentum to initiate a letter-writing campaign in the near future. Zvika Klein, spokesman for Bnei Akiva, thought that the rallies might be able to reach the hearts and minds of the anti-Israel crowds. "We hope to show the other side of this conflict," he said. "Our emissaries around the world are organizing rallies against anti-Semitism and trying to show the humanitarian aspect of the IDF." The Bnei Akiva rallies are a response to the considerable anti-Israel demonstrations that have taken place around Europe recently. Over the weekend in Berlin, nearly 8,500 protesters marched through the streets, decrying Israel's assault on Hamas. In Stockholm on the same day, an anti-Israel rally took a frightening and violent turn when demonstrators attempted to break into the Israeli embassy. Klein said he was worried about what he felt was anti-Semitism at the root of many of the worldwide protests. He cited an incident in Norway in which two Bnei Akiva members were spat at, threatened and cat-called with crude anti-Semitic slurs. "Our rallies have no violence," Klein said. "People come to sing songs, or to say the 'Hatikva,' or to say a prayer for the soldiers and the country. We hope it will be an example." Not all Israeli observers are persuaded that anti-Semitism is truly at the heart of the anti-Israel protesting. David Newman, a professor at Ben Gurion University, and the founder of its Department of Politics and and Government, spent last year in England fighting an academic boycott that the professors' union there was attempting to impose on Israel. Though he admitted that there were some anti-Semites involved, he was convinced that most of the anti-Israel feeling went no further. "I don't buy into the collective anti-Semitism argument," Newman said. "It's too simplistic. The real problem is that the [union] has been taken over by left-of-center radicals, who aren't serious researchers and who get involved in politics, instead." At the Bnei Akiva rally in Berlin, shaliach Elyos Paz took a break from singing "Am Yisrael Chai" in the street, alongside 30 others marchers, to talk about the demonstration. He praised the efforts of his young volunteers. "It has been mainly young people driving the organization," Paz said, adding that this demonstration was no exception. "The most effective way to bring Israel supporters together is through the Internet, and our young volunteers have taken the lead. They've done most of the organizing through Facebook," the popular social networking Web site. As more and more young Jews gravitate to the Internet as their medium of choice, Bnei Akiva is not the only organization that has had to adapt. The Jewish Agency, seeking alternatives to staging a standard rally of its own, has developed a "virtual demonstration," which took place entirely on Facebook. The coordinator of the Facebook rally was Marty Davis, the director of the WZO's Department of Zionist Activities, and a native of Ashkelon. Davis, however, refused to take sole credit for the initiative. "It was actually my son who started the concept," he said, admitting that he only got involved at a later stage. "He was the one who started posting stories and pictures to the site." It was at that point that Davis realized the potential for a virtual rally. "a virtual rally means you don't have to actually be there - and that means that anyone can come, no matter what," he said. Although Davis has had to keep a close eye on the Facebook page, deleting comments he deemed anti-Semitic or anti-Arab, he was so pleased with the successful event that he extended it for an extra two days. So far, over 5,000 Facebook members have attended, with another 6,000 yet to reply to their invitations. Davis planned to use the final response list to create a new database of motivated young people. "We're trying to think big, to find new ways of reaching out to the community," he said. "I don't have the addresses of all the people who attended the virtual rally. But I do have their address - it's Facebook."