Conflict raises safety concerns in Jewish community

What’s happening in the Middle East might not seem more than 6,000 miles away to area Jews who are feeling the heat of pro-Palestinian sentiment.

A day after pro-Palestinian supporters marched through downtown Chicago — and a day before a counter-march was planned — the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and the CEO and general director of Jewish Community Centers throughout the city and suburbs called Monday for increased security and vigilance against potential violence in their communities and facilities.

In fact, Chicago Police are investigating as a possible hate crime a spate of leaflets left on some Pulaski Park vehicles over the weekend, allegedly threatening violence against area Jews if Israel does not pull out of Gaza.

The reported death toll had grown to more than 550 in the military clash between Hamas and the Israeli military Monday. With the vast majority of the dead being Palestinians (an estimated 27 Israelis were being reported dead as of Monday), and reports of schools and hospitals being shelled as Israeli troops stepped up their ground campaign, anti-Israeli sentiment stirs.

Jay Tcath, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Chicago, said messages have been shared urging community centers, synagogues, even homes for the elderly, to step up their level of alertness. And Alan Sataloff, CEO and general director of the JCC of Chicago, issued a security update affecting the 21 JCC camps, early childhood centers and preschools in Northbrook, Flossmoor, Chicago, Lake Zurich, Glencoe and Skokie.

“With the escalating events in Gaza and Israel, our hearts go out to the many families and friends experiencing the conflict firsthand, and to those fighting in defense of Israel,” it said in part. “For precautionary and added safety measures, extra security personnel are being provided. We appreciate your patience at this time during the drop-off and pick-up of children attending our programs.”

Sataloff could not be reached for comment, and Tcath would not comment on any stepped-up security specifics, although he did lament their necessity.

Tcath said that he applauds the American tradition of peaceful protest. But he believes that those siding with Palestine are unaware of Hamas’ penchant for hiding weapons caches in places designed to exact a civilian toll on their own populace.

“It’s frustrating that we’re living a déjà vu-like experience,” he said. “This is now the third significant Israel-Hamas-Gaza confrontation. Each time Israel discovers a greater lethality of weapons … since 2005, Gaza has been totally under the control of Palestinians. Instead of peace, Israel now sees 9,000 rockets.

“To chip away at that supply and the deadly attack tunnels requires, unfortunately, ground forces, and we now see the deadly toll that is taking.” “

Tcath said that if Israel targets a hospital, it is because “intelligence has indicated that Hamas is exploiting that hospital, as it has exploited schools and mosques, for safe zones.”

Film footage and photography of rubble-strewn medical facilities is a highly effective means of skewing public perception, he said. Meanwhile, even when Israel sends advance warning of an imminent incursion to prevent civilian casualties, Hamas urges Palestinians to martyr themselves, he said.

Pro-Palestinians, meanwhile, point to a 7-years-long border blockade of Gaza that they say has financially crippled the area to the tipping point. Israel supporters counter that the blockade has been in place only to halt the flow of items that Hamas employs for military purposes.

With no imminent end to the fighting in Gaza in sight, Chicago’s sizable Jewish population prays that violence will not spill over here.

“We’ve been down this path before all too often,” Tcath said. “When violence erupts between Israel and her neighbors, that inevitably sparks negative reactions … in many of the past incidences, there has been criminal activity directed against Jewish institutions and individuals.”

Tcath added that a number of young American Jews, including several from the Chicago area, are in rocket-plagued Israel today as part of the Birthright program, in which each youth is provided free passage to visit Israel once between the ages of 18 and 26.

“There’s been talk, but no decision” regarding temporarily halting the trips, Tcath said. “As of now, all the trips are continuing. They adjust their itinerary to steer clear of the most at-risk venues.”

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