The Israeli diplomat who handles the country's business in the Midwest brought a message of gratitude to St. Louis Tuesday night for the support the local Jewish community has shown to Israel during its three-week military campaign in Gaza.
"I am a conduit between you and Jerusalem," Roey Gilad, the Consul General of Israel to the Midwest, told a standing-room-only crowd at the Jewish Community Center. "The message that I am going to take from here and deliver to Jerusalem is sound and clear. St. Louis stands with Israel, and the right of Israel to self-defense."
He told the crowd not to believe media reports of strain in the relationship between the United States and Israel.
"We may disagree sometimes over tactics," Gilad said. "But we are united on strategy. Both Israel and the United States understand that Israel has the right to defend itself and that we have to put an end to this challenge once and for all."
He pledged that Israel would continue fighting until it had destroyed most of the tunnel network created by the terrorist group Hamas, but said the country is not interested in re-occupying Gaza at the moment.
Divide Over Israel
Gilad's speech was the latest in a series of near-weekly briefings the Jewish Federation of St. Louis has held since three Israeli teenagers were abducted and killed in Gaza, the flash point that sparked the latest war. The Federation's president and CEO, Andrew Rehfeld, said the seeds for community briefings had been planted months before, but the ongoing war sped up the timetable.
"Our community is not united in many ways about what's happening in Israel," Rehfeld said. "We see a need to develop engagement around the topic, even though we recognize that there is and there will be divisions about the state of politics over in Israel."
Rehfeld made it clear from the start that Tuesday's event was not the place to air those differences. That didn't stop protestors with the group St. Louis Jewish Voice for Peace from interrupting Gilad's speech four times. The group was peacefully escorted out by security.
Criticism Of Israel Rising
Local opponents of Israel's military campaign in Gaza say they're seeing more and more people willing to speak out against the military tactics.
The conflict is the second to be waged in the social media era. The executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in St. Louis, Faizan Syed, said tools like Twitter are helping change minds.
Take the hashtag Gaza Under Attack, Syed said. A search generates million of tweets, many with graphic pictures of the aftermath of Israeli shelling in Gaza.
"And you see many citizens who are actually educating their friends and family members about what's going on in that part of the world," he said. "Through that education, we're making allies with people who we really would not have thought of." For example, Syed said, members of the LGBT community showed up at a rally in the Delmar Loop a week ago.
Sandra Tamari of the St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee agreed that social media has helped broaden the criticism of Israel. But she said her group was also boosted by the requests from Palestinian activists for boycotts against U.S. companies like Boeing that benefit from military action in Gaza. The company's defense arm is based in St. Louis.
"These kinds of campaigns against the companies that are making money off of this kind of destruction have really giving people an outlet," Tamari said. "Rather than just talking about ending conflict and praying for peace, which are all great things, people now can actually do something about it."
Tamari said she was not willing to sit down with mainstream Jewish groups like the Federation as long as they continued to support Israel's right to conduct what she called a campaign of terror against civilians in Gaza. Rehfeld said he hoped the Federation's community briefings would help people understand that they could engage with Israel culturally and religiously while disagreeing with the policies of the government.
Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann