News: Middle East in the Midwest

Supporters and critics of Israel clash in Blue Ash

Jul 26, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Matt Borgerding

Signs with competing views intersected at a pro-Israel rally and anti-Israel counter-protest. Among participants were(L-R) Homa Yavar; Barry Silver, not seen but holding "Israel must defend herself"; and Zeyad Schwen.

Three armed forces now occupy a portion of Lebanon: the Lebanese military, Hezbollah and the Israeli Defense Forces. More than 7000 miles away, three other forces also occupied one small area, and no one seemed too happy there, either.

But at the Blue Ash Town Center on July 23, only one group was armed: the police. While an unprecedented law enforcement presence loomed large — in command vehicles, armored SWAT units, on rooftops, in the crowds and in off-site quarters nearby — they were powerless to disarm the emotions on either side.

Organized by the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati, a Stop the Terrorism Rally was put together as a pro-American, pro-Israeli event designed to solidify the Cincinnati community's will to fight terrorism everywhere it occurs. As always, the federation voiced support for Israel's right to exist without terrorism.

The International Socialist Organization (ISO) called for an "emergency counter-protest" at the same time and the same place.

Emotions on both sides were high, and the rally was an example of how deep this conflict runs — even here, half a world away.

Tense exchanges
The Jewish Federation had a permit for its rally, but the Blue Ash Police Department was unaware of plans for a counter-demonstration as late as July 21, according to Capt. Jim Schaffer. Informed of ISO's plan, Schaffer upgraded security to the highest level.

This included a grassy, gated area to one side of the square, where about 150 counter-protesters gathered, most carrying homemade signs.

Gary Heiman, a Cincinnati businessman and former Israeli soldier, addressed the pro-Israel rally.

"Our commitment was that an Israeli soldier never be left behind on the battlefield," he said. "Hezbollah should have known that."

After this, there was little chance to hear the remaining speeches in full. The chants from the grassy knoll began in earnest: "Human rights for everyone!"

Among keynote speakers for the pro-Israel rally were U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Westwood) and Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Loveland).

"It is Hezbollah's aggression against Israel and the unprovoked killings and kidnappings by Hamas and Hezbollah which were clearly an act of war," Chabot said. "Every sovereign nation has the right — no, the responsibility — to defend itself."

The counter-protesters responded with choruses of "Stop killing the children!"

Schmidt's words fell the same way: soft and true to the supporters, sharp and callous to the counter-protesters.

"Hezbollah must be eliminated if there is to be lasting peace," she said. "You cannot stop halfway. It's all or nothing."

From the grassy knoll came the chant "We want peace!" over and over, louder and louder.

"Evil ignored is evil assisted," Schmidt continued. "Wherever it rears its ugly head, it must be destroyed."

Amid all the heated speech onstage and the heated exchanges between parties in the crowd, there was an abundance of children playing. Even with a dozen or more rifle-toting officers and two K-9s moving in between the two crowds and the counter-demonstrators having moved out of the gated area and meeting face-to-face with the Jewish Federation's supporters, children played carefree in the grass behind their families or lingered innocently at their sides.

Lisa Sainato, who came to the rally with her boyfriend, Mike Vogt, said they're not Jewish.

"We just came to support Israel," she said. "We like Israel."

After the rally concluded and some were leaving, others milling around, Sainato and Vogt ran into a friend, who introduced them to a friend of his. While Sainato and Vogt shook hands with Malik, who asked that his last name not be used, Vogt looked at Malik's sign and Malik looked at Vogt's T-shirt, which pictured a fighter jet with the caption, "Don't Worry, America. Israel is Behind You." Malik's sign showed a Palestinian medic holding the body of a young, charred girl, captioned, "Your Tax Dollars."

Friends through a friend. Not so easy for everyone.

One arrest
While a group of Israeli youth performed onstage, a young man wearing a red T-shirt with a large swastika tied an Israeli flag to his shoe and then proceeded to goose-step across the front of the stage. Officers escorted him behind the building, where he was arrested without incident.

After the rally Arna Fisher, president of the Jewish Community Relations Council, said she thinks things went very well.

"Exactly like we expected," she said. "We don't want fighting and ugly signs. The guy with the flag on his foot, the swastika — that kind of hatred really hurts us."

Jason Haap and Justin Jeffre, neither Jewish nor Arab, carried a large sign that said, "Thou shalt not kill."

"We support peace and no killing, diplomacy and peace, not bombs," Haap said.

"Not funding war and war profiteering," Jeffre said.

Mohamed Atwan, a counter-protester, brought his brother, wife and two young sons with him.

"I just want the United States to help both sides and for the president to stop the war," Atwan said.

He blames much of the current Middle East conflict on American strong-arming in the region. During the rally Robert Ryan, a local leader with Amnesty International, invited Atwan to be a guest on the organization's new radio program.

Although at times it appeared a melee was imminent, the only thing unavoidable was democracy. No one was injured or killed — much different from what the Israelis, Lebanese and Palestinians are experiencing. ©