Baltimore-area advocates paying close attention to Gaza conflict

A Pikesville man rushes to Tel Aviv to join his son, a volunteer in the Israel Defense Forces wounded in a rocket attack.

A Palestinian woman in Columbia takes to Twitter to pass updates from family trapped in Gaza on to her thousands of followers.


On one day this week, supporters of the Palestinians gather at a Baltimore intersection to protest the Israeli incursion into Gaza. On the next, backers of Israel post photographs of themselves wearing blue and white on Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram to show their solidarity with the Jewish state.

The Hamas rockets and Israeli bombs falling around Gaza are reverberating a world away in Maryland, where many have close family ties or personal history with the region.


The current round of fighting follows the abduction and killing of three Israeli teens in the occupied West Bank and the apparently retaliatory abduction and killing of a Palestinian teen near Jerusalem.

Israel blames Hamas, which controls Gaza, for the deaths of its teens, and entered the densely populated strip last week. The death toll stood Friday at nearly 850 Palestinians, most of them civilians, and 38 Israelis, most of them soldiers.

"We have an extremely saddened population," said Arthur C. Abramson, the longtime executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council. "It affects everyone, not just the Jewish community, but all those who have special thoughts about that part of the world, special feelings."

Baltimore's large Jewish community has particularly close ties to Israel. Some 2,000 families travel there each year, according to the Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. Many make Aliyah, relocating permanently. Several of the area's young people have volunteered in the Israel Defense Forces.

When violence flares anew, Abramson said, "the first thing is concern for loved ones who may be there, for friends and for the Israeli people. And the second step is, once there's knowledge about what's going on, there is a rallying around for support."

The Associated has established an Israel Emergency Relief Fund for Israelis affected by the fighting. The Baltimore Jewish Council is encouraging supporters to write to lawmakers to thank them for backing Israel.

Hundreds gathered at the Jewish Community Center in Owings Mills on Monday evening to hear comments from Sen. Ben Cardin, a strong backer of Israel; the mother of an Israel Defense Forces soldier; an official of the Israeli Embassy and others.

The same night, Mark Gunnery was disrupting a similar event in Washington. A video on YouTube captures the Baltimore man pumping a fist and shouting "End the blockade of Gaza now!" at the Christians United For Israel gathering before he is pulled away by a man in a blue blazer.


"We want an end to the violence," Gunnery, a graduate of Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School and a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, said after the event. "Hundreds of Palestinians are being killed, dozens of Israelis, and it should end.

"We also want an end to the underlying issues that are creating such a horrible situation in Gaza, including the denial of Palestinian human rights, the blockade Israel and Egypt has been keeping for years, the political isolation. … It's a full-on assault on Palestinians."

That's the message Laila El-Haddad is trying to spread. The Palestinian woman spent many years in Gaza reporting for Al Jazeera and The Guardian. She now lives in Columbia, but stays in close contact with aunts, uncles and cousins in Gaza, as intermittent electricity there permits.

Relatives include her aunt Mona El-Farra, the physician and activist who heads Gaza projects for the U.S.-based Middle East Children's Alliance. El-Haddad, who blogs as Gaza Mom, has been retweeting updates from El-Farra and others to her more than 17,000 followers.

"We're trying to amplify their voices," El-Haddad said. "Essentially, trying to convey the horror of what's happening right now — whatever small part I can play, whatever I can contribute to provide some balance to the mainstream media coverage."

El-Haddad said the fighting has forced one of her uncles to move his family from a particularly vulnerable neighborhood into her parents' home.


"They're just holed up, completely traumatized," she said. "There's no air raid sirens, there's no bomb shelters."

The Maryland office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said it had collected 1,400 letters urging Cardin and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski to call for an end to the killing in Gaza.

Israeli authorities say they are defending the country from rockets fired by Hamas and its allies.

Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, the spiritual leader of Shaare Torah, a Conservative Jewish congregation in Gaithersburg, was in Jerusalem for a study program when the current fighting erupted.

Still in Israel, he describes frequent alerts warning of incoming rockets. Air raid sirens sound, but many Israelis now have smartphone apps to let them know about attacks directly.

"In Jerusalem, you have 90 seconds to get to shelter," Blumenthal said. "In the south, which is closer to Gaza, you get 15 seconds.


"It's sort of like a tornado," he said. "If you're in a car, you stop your car, you get out of the car, you find a ditch and you put your hands over your head and stay there. When you're in a bus, everybody crouches down below the windows."

Blumenthal, who has traveled with other rabbis to the south to express support for Israelis there, spoke of a feeling of solidarity in the country.

Jill Max, the chairwoman of the Associated's Israel Engagement Center, returned from Tel Aviv this week, after visiting programs funded by the Jewish Agency for Israel.

While there, she said, she saw Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile system intercept an incoming rocket.

"It looks like a white explosion and you hear a boom and you see an end trail," she said. "It's surreal."

At least one rocket pierced the dome this week. It landed near Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, slowing the progress of Jeffrey Low, who was traveling to see his son. The FAA temporarily halted U.S. flights to Tel Aviv.


Jordan Low, 19, of Pikesvillle, a sharpshooter in the Israel Defense Forces, was wounded Sunday in Gaza. The 2013 graduate of Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School was one of 15 soldiers investigating what they believed was a Hamas weapons cache on Sunday when the building was struck by rockets, Jeffrey Low said. He suffered injuries consistent with smoke inhalation.

While summer ordinarily is a time when families and young Jews travel to Israel, the conflict has led the Associated and the Baltimore Jewish Council to postpone some of their travel programs.

These include the Congressman Elijah Cummings Youth Program in Israel, cosponsored by the council, through which non-Jewish 10th graders from the Baltimore Democrat's district visit the country.

The question for Abramson is whether he would send his own child. For now, he said, he would not.