BOSTON – Opposite the New England Holocaust Memorial’s six imposing glass towers, up to 3,000 Israel supporters demonstrated support for the Jewish state in Boston Thursday.
Convened by more than 100 area synagogues and Jewish organizations, the event was the region’s largest pro-Israel gathering since the start of Operation Protective Edge on July 8. Free shuttle buses helped suburban families dodge the logistics of Boston traffic and large-scale construction at the rally site.
In addition to the expected line-up of communal leaders and diplomats, a reserve officer who fought in Gaza and the mother of a local lone soldier drew warm responses from a crowd waving hundreds of American and Israeli flags. Several hundred Boston-based Israelis – many convened by rally co-sponsor the Israeli American Council – helped enliven the crowd of all ages.
“Israel has the right to defend itself, just as America has this right,” said former US senator William “Mo” Cowan early in the program.
“In the battle against terrorism, we stand united as one,” said Cowan, who visited Israel twice since 2012 and manages the consulting firm ML Strategies.
The former senator denounced the tactics of Hamas, noting that “rockets are falling in places we visited peacefully and productively” during his visits.
Labor leader Brian Richardson also spoke about Israel from first-hand experience — in his case, a 2009 tour organized by Israel’s Histadrut labor federation.
Richardson, director of organization for New England’s carpenters union, asked rally attendees to envision a scenario where Massachusetts was subject to ongoing rocket attacks, suicide bombings and kidnappings perpetrated by neighboring states.
“As Ronald Reagan said, we will not negotiate with terrorists,” Richardson said to applause.
Also critical of Hamas was Canada’s consul general in Boston, Patrick Binns, who said “it is high time that the [Palestinian] people are put ahead of the rulers’ blind ambition.” Binns also praised Egypt for “its tireless and honorable efforts in advancing the ceasefire.”
Fresh from the perils of Gaza, IDF reserve officer Ohad Elhelo spoke about serving in his third Gaza operation in six years.
“No army would have done as moral a job in Gaza as we did,” said Elhelo, a Brandeis University student who said two of his friends – fellow reservists – were killed on the battlefield.
Calling Protective Edge a “test of morality,” the 24-year old Elhelo spoke about Hamas terrorists taking cover in ambulances and among civilians, “forcing 18-year-old Israeli soldiers to make the hardest decisions possible,” he said.
According to Elhelo, the IDF’s commitment to morality “is not out of fear of the international community, but because we were told at home and in school that every life is precious.” He urged listeners to “to build new infrastructure of hope” for Israeli-Palestinian relations.
Also serving in Gaza this summer was 20-year-old Jacob Frisch, a Boston native who decided to join the IDF following “a promise to God” made during a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau two years ago, according to his mother.
Speaking about her son’s experience as a lone soldier, Iris Frisch acknowledged the pride and pain of watching the oldest of her four children trade college for a tour of duty in Gaza, where his unit searched for Hamas terror tunnels.
Frisch urged Israel supporters to push back on attempts at dismantling Israel “off the battlefield,” particularly “the anti-Semitic poison that masquerades as BDS on campuses,” she said.
According to rally volunteer Karen Nahary, a campus programmer for Hillel Council of New England, hundreds of local students have responded to calls for action sent by herself and colleagues in recent days. Local projects include creating spring break service trips on Israeli army bases and raising funds for IDF protective gear, said Nahary.
Despite the centrality of social media, old-fashioned public gatherings still shape Americans’ perception of the Jewish state, according to Perry Newman, senior director of Israel advocacy at Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies.
“A rally like this strengthens the support of those who feel like they may be in the minority defending Israel,” said Newman.
“Gathering in person, en masse, enables a community to feel a sense of solidarity and to push back against the isolation and sense of siege created by adverse media coverage,” he said.
Encircling part of city hall plaza were about 80 anti-Israel protesters holding signs in silence. Police officers enforced a conspicuously large zone of separation between protesters and the rally, possibly due to recent assaults on pro-Israel students at anti-Israel demonstrations in Boston.
Shortly before the rally closed with the resounding blows of a shofar horn, a double rainbow appeared directly behind the Holocaust Memorial’s six glass towers – “a sign from above,” as one observer posted on Facebook.