Reporter's notebook

As UN vents on Gaza, Jews and Christians festively argue Israel’s case

Outside UN Human Rights Council debate in Geneva, demonstrators from across Europe commiserate about an irreparably biased organization

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Europeans demonstrate in support of Israel across from the UN building in Geneva, June 29, 2015 [courtesy/Michael Thaidigsmann]
Europeans demonstrate in support of Israel across from the UN building in Geneva, June 29, 2015 [courtesy/Michael Thaidigsmann]

GENEVA, Switzerland — As Jews and Christians from across Europe gathered at Place Des Nations across from the UN Human Rights Council building in Geneva on Monday to protest the latest Gaza report, a familiar Israeli tune played in the background.

Draped in Israeli and European flags and holding aloft signs reading “Israel wants peace, Hamas wants war,” and “We stand for Israel, we stand for democracy,” the crowd listened to the words of David Broza’s 1990 hit “Yihiyeh Tov” (“It Will be Good”).

Children wear wings / and fly to the army / and two years later / they return with no answers / people live in stress / looking for a reason to breathe / and between hatred and murder / talk about peace / … here comes the president of Egypt / how I was happy for his arrival / pyramids in his eyes and peace in his pipe / and we said ‘let’s make up and live like brothers’ / so he said ‘of course, just get out of the territories’

The ironic choice of music was lost on the crowd, however. In the sweltering heat of a Geneva afternoon, good old Israeli cynicism was nowhere to be found.

“It was my duty to come,” said Abramo Eman, who left Milan at 6:30 a.m. aboard one of five Italian buses chartered for the event. “We are one people, one heart, one problem.”

Abramo Eman of Milan said he had little faith in rallies changing common European perceptions on Israel, June 29, 2015 Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel
Abramo Eman of Milan said he had little faith in rallies changing common European perceptions on Israel, June 29, 2015 (Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

“I hope people will admit that the UN is acting unjustly,” he added. “But I don’t really count on that.”

Indeed, the rally felt less like a protest against an irreparably biased international institution than an opportunity for members of small Jewish communities across Europe to come together and commiserate.

The Israeli government has decided to sit this struggle out, yielding the floor to a plethora of nongovernmental organizations to fill the void in Geneva who were championing Israel’s case through solidarity rallies or press events within the UN building.

The UNHRC report placed blame on both parties, but focused more on Israel’s role. It also accepted the Palestinian death count, which claimed that Israel killed 1,462 civilians out of a total of 2,251 Palestinians who died — a 65 percent ratio.

As the Commission of Inquiry presented its findings to a committee in Geneva on Monday afternoon, some 1,000 pro-Israel demonstrators rallied outside. Commission chairwoman Mary McGowan Davis said during the presentation that the fact that Israel had not changed its policies — in light of the information on the number of fatalities and damage in the Gaza Strip — raises concerns about the conduct of top Israeli officials. She repeated that Israel may have committed war crimes during the 50-day war.

Davis also stressed that Hamas is not free of responsibility for the conflict’s deadly outcome, as the group had intentionally fired rockets at Israeli civilian centers and had dug attack tunnels extending into Israeli territory. She noted that missiles were fired at Israel from populated areas in Gaza, thus endangering Palestinian lives.

Tzvi Avisar, founder and CEO of Over the Rainbow, a group dedicated to strengthening Zionist communities worldwide, said his organization decided to organize the rally “in order to create physical visibility” for Israel. In collaboration with the World Jewish Congress and other groups, it brought 650 participants to Geneva, busing nearly half of them from northern Italy.

“There’s a silent majority out there. Many [Jewish] communities prefer to avoid exposure or media coverage,” Avisar told The Times of Israel. “They fear anti-Semitism, or being associated with criticism of Israel. We get the sense that the street is dominated by BDS [boycott, divestment and sanction] organizations and other pro-Palestinian groups.”

Chaggai Ganani, an aerospace engineering student from Rotterdam in the Netherlands, boarded a bus full of Christian and Jewish supporters of Israel at 10 p.m. the previous night and crossed France to take part in the rally. Gathered by the CIDI, a pro-Israel Dutch organization, his group of 35 would be losing another night’s sleep on the return trip.

Chaggai Ganani of Rotterdam, the Netherlands, traveled all night to arrive in Geneva, June 29, 2015 Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel
Chaggai Ganani of Rotterdam, the Netherlands, traveled all night to arrive in Geneva on June 29, 2015 (Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

“At school everyone is like, ‘Israel is the bad guy, it’s shooting at Palestinian children,’ and I’m like ‘Guys, don’t you see? I’ve been to Israel, I have the red alert app. I can see every time a rocket is fired; during class it goes beep beep.’ I’m like, ‘Guys, Israel isn’t firing, Gaza is firing.'”

Last summer, during the war, Ganani was in Tel Aviv visiting his paternal grandparents.

“It was surreal — that’s the only way to describe it,” he said. “Being woken up at six or seven in the morning and being told we gotta go [find shelter from incoming rockets]. It’s just unreal.”

The Christian presence was significant at the rally, with church members from Hungary, Italy and Germany holding up large banners specifying their religious affiliation.

Sister Lebona came to identify with Gods chosen people from the bible Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel
Sister Lebona came to identify with ‘God’s chosen people from the Bible’ (Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

Jeannette Noteboom, a Brussels resident active with the European Coalition for Israel, said it was important for her to show Jews and Israelis that “they’re not alone.”

“We don’t all think like these people in the UN. We aren’t in agreement with anything they’re saying or doing,” she said, adding that European media would likely ignore the event, dubbing participants “crazy Israel supporters.”

Sister Lebona, an American member of the German Order of the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary, said her ministry supports Israel “because they’re God’s chosen people from the Bible.” Nearby, Michael Hube of Stuttgart, Germany, stood draped in a blue and white flag of the Jerusalem municipality.

“They tell lies about Israel and we’re here to protest in solidarity,” said the German national, who visited Israel twice this year and donated 500 euros to needy Israeli soldiers following the Gaza conflict last summer. “God shows us his greatness by making history with the small nation of Israel.”

Yoram Ortona, a Milanese architect whose father fled persecution in Libya in the early 1960s, said he was heartened by the Christian solidarity with the Jews in support of Israel.

Yoram Ortona of Milan, Italy, demonstrates in Geneva, June 29, 2015 Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel
Yoram Ortona of Milan, Italy, demonstrates in Geneva, June 29, 2015 (Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

“I consider anti-Zionism to be the new anti-Semitism, no doubt,” said Ortona, a former member of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities. He noted, however, that as an Italian he feels more comfortable speaking up for Israel than do his coreligionists in France or Sweden.

“When you talk about Israel, you feel some germs of anti-Semitism on your skin,” he admitted. “But I speak about Israel almost every day. I must continue this struggle, because people are ignorant about the Middle East and need to be educated.”

“As Elie Wiesel said, we can’t exist without Israel. I’m convinced of that.”

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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