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Israel-Palestine fight draws conflicted lines in Seattle

Early last Monday, a group of nine protesters locked themselves together outside of Boeing’s entrance in Tukwila. They joined with 40 other protesters to lie on the asphalt and concrete, blocking the entrance for three hours as temperatures reached 88 degrees. A woman spoke into a megaphone and read off names of the Palestinian civilians who have died since the fighting began on July 8. As the protestors staged their “die-in” in front of Boeing they chanted, “We stand with Palestine, killing civilians is a crime.”

The activists were part of a trend that has become more visible in Seattle and the rest of the country as the Israeli-Palestinian fight has raged: Jewish Americans are joining in what some see as growing protests of Israel's actions.

At Boeing last week, Jewish Voice for Peace, a Jewish organization advocating for peace and justice in the Middle East, protested what they say is Boeing Defense, Space and Security's supplying of weapons to the Israeli Defense Force that end up being used on Palestinian civilian targets. One of the protesters, Mariel Boyarksy, stood holding a bright blue painted sign that read, “Jewish Voice for Peace says not in my name.”

Boyarksy said she was brought up in a very Jewish family and can understand the Israeli narrative, but doesn’t support Israel's 47-year occupation of Palestine. “I would say I am a Jewish person who is in solidarity with Palestine. You know, saying pro-Israel, pro-Palestine sets it up as a dichotomy. I believe in Jewish people’s right also to live in that place, but I don’t believe in the ongoing occupation of that place,” Boyarsky said in an interview. "And I don’t believe in the systematic oppression of Palestinians."

The JVP rally for Palestine was one of a number of pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Seattle. Amin Odeh of Voices of Palestine and Ed Mast of Palestine Solidarity Committee—Seattle say they have noticed increased support from the wider community for their cause.

It's not at all clear that there is any widespread turn toward the Palestinian cause here or across America, which has consistently been Israel's strongest ally.

While more Jews are joining Jewish Voice for Peace, Rob Jacobs, regional director of StandWithUs Northwest, a non-profit pro-Israel advocacy organization, considers the Jewish Voice for Peace's members “outliers.” Jacobs said the group only represents about 50 people of the Seattle Jewish community, which consists of 45,000.

“I think the vast majority of the Jewish community has rallied in support for Israel during this time,” Jacobs said. “Within the Jewish community, this has probably pulled the community together more than it has been in years. For us it’s so frustrating that Israel does not have a party on the other side that is seriously willing to sit down and negotiate. The whole reason for Hamas’ existence, according to Hamas in the Hamas charter, is to get rid of Israel. It says specifically "no negotiations, no peace discussions.' " He quotes a passage from the Hamas charter about killing Jews. “It’s not only anti-Israel, it’s anti-Jewish,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs noted that the Jewish community in Seattle has had several rallies in recent weeks in support for Israel. One held in Occidental Park drew 650 people. And nearly 300 people, mostly Israelis in the Seattle area, showed up for a flashmob rally on Bellevue Way in downtown Bellevue just this past Thursday.

Jewish Voice for Peace conducts a die-in outside Boeing offices in Tukwila Jessica Buxbaum

Yet Stefanie Fox, director of organizing at Jewist Voice for Peace, observed that the recent crisis between Israel and Hamas-controlled Gaza has brought in a new flood of people from the Jewish community nationally who are saying, “We won’t abide this and we will stand with you.” Fox called this trend “profoundly moving.”

“I think that it’s directly in response to Israel’s appalling actions not just in this current massacre of Palestinians in Gaza, but the underlying conditions that have led to this kind of an escalation every two years, and I think that’s been boiling under the surface for many people for years now,” Fox said. "This current assault has led people to finally leave the privacy of their living rooms and take it to the streets."

Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle President and CEO Keith Dvorchik said the Jewish community is experiencing a lot of sadness and anger because of the crisis.

“Nobody wants to see any of the innocents die. Everybody really wishes that Hamas would stop the bombing,” Dvorchik said. “With the Israeli government just like with the American government, the views are all over the place, but the real constant is the support for the country, the support for the soldiers and the desire for peace.”

There aren't any recent local polls showing which side Seattle leans toward, but nationally the U.S. is still at an historic high in support for Israel. Voices of Palestine's Odeh is skeptical about these polls and where the funding for the research is coming from. He also understands, though, why Americans would side with Israel.

“They’ve been exposed to one narrative for the last 60 or 70 years, it’s Israel as a victim,” Odeh said. Polling has shown a generational split, with older Americans, who grew up seeing Israel as an ally against the Soviet Union, more supportive of Israel in the current conflict than people in their 20s and 30s.

Despite the dominant pro-Israel narrative Odeh sees as prevailing in the U.S. mainstream media, he says there has been an immense response in support for Palestine in Seattle and in mass demonstrations across the world.

“In our town of Seattle, the level of knowledge that we have here compared to other places in the country is much higher, and that’s why we saw this reaction by communities of different backgrounds, different faiths, different ethnicities outraged at the atrocities and genocide in Gaza, and we see it almost every day. I get emails, calls, people who are asking what to do, whether they want to send money donations, come to our protests. It’s been overwhelming,” Odeh said.

The response received from much of Seattle is not matched, however, by the Seattle Palestinian community. Odeh sighed and struggled to find words as he mentioned how it’s been a tough month for them.

“It is sad to say this but we are actually getting more reaction and more calls from outside of the community,” Odeh said. He said two factors are muting the support of Palestinians and Middle Easterners in Seattle and in the U.S. — trauma and fear.

“Not just Palestinian, but Middle Eastern communities have been dealing with this [conflict] for a long time so they’ve been traumatized by this, so that’s one [part] of it, but the other factor is fear. After 9/11, we went through so many phases of our communities being attacked and harassed by governments, so there’s that fear factor of our communities not wanting to react, not wanting to get in trouble,” Odeh said.

The Jewish Federation's Dvorchik has not noticed any shift of support from Seattle for one side over the other from those who are not “already in the mix.”

But what he has noticed is what he considers as misinformation from pro-Palestinian advocates. He believe that these advocates are blaming the wrong people.

“There’s a lot of misinformation and inaccuracies that they are believing," Dvorchik said. "So when they say 'free Palestine,' they should be saying 'free Palestine from Hamas.' They are the ones keeping people in Palestine hostage.”

Rallies for both sides continue here as the conflict overseas keeps going. A pro-Palestine rally is being held every Saturday at noon in Westlake Center, where imagery graphically reflecting anti-Semitism was reported on July 12. A sign depicted a Jew eating a baby off a plate beside a cup of blood, a medieval slander known as the “blood libel,” in which Jews murder and eat gentile children, using the blood as an ingredient in their matzah.

Ed Mast of the Palestine Solidarity Committee said he was at that rally and was told he was standing near the sign in a picture, but he did not see the sign. If he had seen it, he would’ve taken action to get rid of it and, he said, the Palestinian organizers he works with are vigilant about making sure there is no anti-Semitism at their protests.

Odeh condemns the anti-Semitism, but understands why it is happening. “I’m not justifying these individuals’ actions but, unfortunately, what Israel is doing in Gaza increases anti-Semitism in my opinion,” Odeh said. “I hope Israel sees that it’s causing this to itself.”

Jewish Voice for Peace's Fox is appalled at these anti-Semitic actions and JVP condemns them. But she complained, “All the Israeli government does to try to justify its war crimes by claiming that it’s in the name of all Jews is a conflation of Judaism with Israeli state policy that actually does not make Jews anywhere in the world safer.”

Dvorchik wants Seattle to dig deeper than sound bites to receive all of the accurate information and realize that, in his view, Israel is not the problem. He drew attention to the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s outrage at militant groups placing weapons in a U.N.-administered school in an incident early in the fighting. “The more educated and informed non-Jewish people in the community are, the more supportive they are,” Dvorchik said. (In a new incident Sunday, rockets struck near a U.N. school in Gaza, killing 10 and bringing a denunciation of the attack from Ban.)

Mast, for his part, believes information is becoming more accessible and people are beginning to discover the truth.

“The mainstream doesn’t control all of the information anymore,” Mast said. “More of the facts are breaking through. I’m simply meeting more individuals who are saying, ‘I’m really angry, what can I do?’ Or say, ‘I’m really puzzled by this. I’ve always thought that it was one way, but that doesn’t make any sense anymore.’ ”

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