NEW YORK — When pro-Palestinian demonstrators took to the street in New York’s Diamond District on July 25, Kerri Lavine furiously ran outside the store where she works. She just couldn’t take it anymore.
Lavine wasn’t the only one to rush outside. Scores of people joined the spontaneous pro-Israel counterdemonstration, seeking to drown out chants of “Free Palestine” and “Free Gaza” with chants of “IDF.” Because the Diamond District, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, is home to many Jewish owned and operated stores, the pro-Palestinian march was seen as a march against them as much as against Israel.
“I am just so enraged about everything that’s going on. My heart is over there and I can’t stop watching the news,” Lavine said in a subsequent interview, speaking from behind a glass display case of twinkling diamond eternity bands and earrings. Fearing business repercussions, the 52-year-old asked the store not be named.
Across the city, from the Diamond District to the Upper West Side, from Murray Hill to the Lower East Side, New York Jews were quick to share their views on Israel, Operation Protective Edge and the Obama Administration’s handling of the crisis.
And although there are as many opinions as Zabar’s has rugelach, two themes stood out: a disappointment with President Barack Obama’s handling of the situation, and a fear of the anti-Semitism being directed at Israel and Jews world-wide.
“I’m a woman and I’m gay and you’d think I’d be an all-the-way Democrat. Well, I’m not. I’m a Republican. The Obama Administration sucks, and you can quote me on that. He’s afraid to do what needs to be done in Israel,” Lavine said.
In Lavine’s opinion, the Obama administration should be more forceful in its defense of Israel. It should also do more to eradicate Hamas, she said, adding that the terror will spread if it doesn’t.
According to a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, public approval for Obama’s handling of foreign policy is at an all-time low. Of those surveyed, 17 percent approve of his handling of Israel’s conflict with Hamas, while 45% disapprove.
The survey also found that support for Israel changed depending on party affiliation. While 73% of Republicans sympathized more with Israel than the Palestinians, that number dropped to 44% of Democrats and 45% of Independents.
On the streets of the Big Apple opinions don’t fit into neat demographic boxes
But on the streets of the Big Apple, opinions don’t fit into neat demographic boxes.
Reuven “Ben” Yossef falls into that 45 percent of Americans who disapprove. The Ashdod-born owner of the food truck “The Sandwich Factory” vented his anger between bites of a fresh falafel sandwich. “Everything we were afraid of about Obama is coming true,” said Yossef. “Obama is basically the worst president there ever has been for Israel.”
Mark Seidenfeld, of New Rochelle, NY, shared a dim view of Obama’s handling of the crisis.
Commuting daily to Manhattan gives Seidenfeld plenty of time to watch and think about the news. He supported Obama in the past, but is now “incredibly frustrated that the US has not come out more strongly against Hamas. I understand the political realities of having to deal with all the players in the Middle East, but there doesn’t seem to be a clear vision.”
He worries that the US won’t put enough pressure on countries such as Turkey and Qatar to get Hamas to disarm.
Aside from frustration with the Obama Administration, the increased anti-Semitism worldwide weighs heavily on many New Yorkers.
Since Operation Protective Edge began there have been calls for New York’s Jewish Institutions to increase security. There have also been a few of anti-Semitic incidents in the city. On August 11 a mourner attending the funeral of murdered Rabbi Joseph Raksin in Brooklyn found someone had put a swastika on his car during the service.
In addition, there have been several pro-Palestinian protests in the city in recent weeks. Expat Israeli Yossef said he has no use for those who say they are simply protesting Israel’s policies. He said these protests are about anti-Semitism.
‘They hate Jews. The world likes to hate us’
“They hate Jews. The world likes to hate us,” Yossef said. “Why aren’t they protesting the killing in Iraq? Why aren’t they out there yelling about Syria?”
Another New Yorker keeping close tabs on the situation is Gabriel Kohanim. The young businessman moved here from Italy a few years ago.
“Europe for the moment is quite a bit mess for Jews,” Kohanim said while walking to work in the Flatiron. “There is a huge difference here. New York Jews are lucky, they don’t have to be so neutral.”
They may not have to be neutral, but they are unsettled.
The Diamond District’s Lavine said she already feared traveling to Italy after the first pro-Palestinian protests took place in Europe. She read about the violent protests in France and the raising of the Palestinian flag in Glasgow, Scotland. Then, left-wing and right-wing groups called for a boycott of Jewish stores in Rome. That was her tipping point.
“I cancelled my trip. I’m too scared,” she said.
And while most New Yorkers weren’t shy about expressing themselves, there were a few who simply wanted to tend to the business at hand.
Inside the West Side Judaica and Bookstore on 88th Street and Broadway the air conditioning offered a respite from humid afternoon. It was quiet as a library and its employees seemed to prefer it that way.
“We’re not taking any sides. We don’t do politics,” said two employees in white shirts, black slacks and yarmulkes.