When Raquel Minka heard about a rally taking place in downtown Baltimore protesting Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, she had to do something.
“They’ve been having so many,” she said of the pro-Palestinian protest. “We also need a chance to speak up.”
Minka took to Facebook to organize her own demonstration — one in support of Israel and its military offensive — and on Wednesday, hundreds of Baltimoreans turned out to stand with her, waving flags, singing and dancing outside Penn Station.
The rally was a response to another rally organized by Hopkins Students for Justice in Palestine which was scheduled to take place at the same time in the same spot. The Hopkins group held another protest the previous week, but the addition of the counter protest made Wednesday’s event far larger than any other Gaza-related rally in Baltimore to date, even drawing a police presence complete with metal barriers and helicopters.
Malika, a Baltimore native dressed in a headscarf and long sleeves, attended the rally with her husband and young daughter. Even though she stood on the Palestinian side of the makeshift police barriers, she found herself unable to fully commit to one side or the other, standing to the furthest edge of the crowd.
“I just realized I’m not really a protest person,” Malika, who would not give her last name, said. “There should be a neutral [group].”
She came to the rally with the intention of supporting Palestinians and other oppressed populations around the world, but didn’t want to bring a sign and open herself and her daughter up to heckling from other protestors. As she watched the scene unfolding in front of her — crowds beginning to form around the barriers while each side shouted slogans at the other — her resolution wavered slightly.
“I’m so moved right now I want to cry,” she said as she watched rally attendees shout back and forth across the no-man’s land occupied primarily by reporters or photographers; a brief stand-off in a largely tame event. “I just wish it was about humans” instead of one group pitted against the other, she said.
For Kfir, who had stationed himself comfortably on the pro-Israel side of the block, the issue is less murky. He moved to the U.S. from Israel six years ago, but updates from his friends and family living overseas keep the situation in Israel in the back of his mind at all times.
“It’s pretty tough, but you learn to live with it,” Kfir, who also would not give his last name, said of growing up amid constant Israeli-Palestinian tension. Now a U.S. resident, he has found himself spending a lot of time lately defending Israel to coworkers and friends.
When people hear about the disproportionate casualty counts in the most recent military offensives, he said, he struggles to try to justify the actions of the Israel Defense Forces.
“At the end of the day, numbers talk,” said Kfir, who added that the force used by the IDF is justified by the history of the situation. “It’s very hard to convince somebody.”
Within two hours, the Baltimore Zionist District-funded buses had reloaded their passengers and the pro-Palestinian crowd had reconvened at Red Emma’s, a few blocks down the road. There, a likeminded group packed into the café to listen to political scholar and author Norman Finkelstein blame Israel for the situation in Gaza.
Finkelstein, who has raised the hackles of national Jewish groups for embracing the Palestinian narrative of events in the Middle East, told the crowd, which poured out of the door and into North Avenue, about a set of three “gifts” that fell into the lap of Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu in order to allow for the current situation to fall into place.
First, Finkelstein said, was the June kidnapping and subsequent murder of the three Israeli teens. The fallout from the search and discovery of the bodies of the teens allowed for Netanyahu to rally hostility toward Hamas, which was blamed for the kidnappings.
“Now Netanyahu had a pretext,” said Finklestein. “He saw an opportunity.”
The second gift, he said, was the Tony Blair-backed, Egyptian-proposed cease fire. According to Finkelstein, the conditions would have handed Hamas a total loss and the group had no choice but to reject the proposal.
Thirdly, he said, was the downing of the Malaysian airliner. The uproar surrounding that event, he said provided the perfect distraction for Israel to begin its offensive in Gaza.
Finkelstein ended his talk, which was followed up by questions from the audience about political law and Middle Eastern politics, with an anecdote.
Imagine Dan is suffocating James, he told the crowd. James struggles and reaches his hand up and scratches Dan and Dan retaliates by walloping James, claiming he is justified because he was defending himself.
“If he doesn’t want James to scratch him, all he has to do is stop suffocating him,” he concluded.
Eric Rozenman, Washington director of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), called Finkelstein’s analysis an attempt to make unconnected circumstances fit a pre-existing belief.
“The idea that any of these are gifts is a little obscene by itself,” Rozenman said. “Finkelstein’s whole approach is to blow the micro, or the minor, into the major.”
He added that Finkelstein lacks a big-picture view, noting that around 10,000 rockets have been fired at Israel since it withdrew from Gaza in 2005.
“This is not about reaching some accommodation between Israel and Hamas like it’s a labor management dispute,” Rozenman said. “One side wants to destroy the other. A compromise that gives them something they demand gives them strength to fight another day.”
Staff reporter Marc Shapiro contributed to this report.