Baltimore Leadership Asleep at the Wheel

Over the past month, two major events were organized in Baltimore response to the war waged by Hamas against Israel. On July 17, Baltimore’s Vaad HaRabbonim convened a “Communal Gathering for Unity and Prayer” at a local synagogue, and on July 21, The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore organized a gathering of solidarity at the performing arts center of the Jewish Community Center. The organizers deserve credit for convening these events, which were both well attended.

However, when Israel is under attack from a vicious foe dedicated to its destruction, and groups are publicly assembling in Baltimore to defame Israel and support its enemies, more is needed than understated, indoor gatherings in the safe and familiar confines of Park Heights Avenue and Owings Mills (the local Jewish neighborhoods). Such times demand a massive, public demonstration which reaches beyond Jewish zip codes; challenges the slanderers and defamers; educates the apathetic and uninformed; and provides an emotional outlet for a Jewish community bursting with love for Israel and eager for a means to express it.

On July 30, 2014, the public rally so overdue in Baltimore was finally held, and what an incredible event it was. That same day, anti-Israel groups planned a demonstration at Penn Station, and a march from the train station to a nearby bookstore which was hosting a speech by the notorious anti-Zionist, Norman Finkelstein. Rather than allowing Israel and the IDF to be defamed without challenge, a thousand Baltimoreans thronged the plaza in front of the train station to declare their unwavering commitment to the government, people and armed forces of Israel, and their opposition to the lies and distortions spread by the anti-Israel demonstrators.

Besides the unprecedented (for Baltimore) size of the pro-Israel rally, the rally was noteworthy for its amazing electric atmosphere. Contrary to the popular view that support for Israel has declined among younger Jews, students and young adults were at the vanguard of the rally, injecting it with tremendous energy and passion. Led by the youth, the crowd stood in front of Penn Station waving flags, chanting slogans and singing songs; marched down Charles Street to rally at the corner of Charles and North Avenue; and then marched back to Penn Station for a final demonstration of singing and flag waving.

The fact that so many Baltimore Jews confidently and enthusiastically assembled in the heart of Baltimore City to loudly express their pride in the State of Israel reflects a Zionist commitment in Baltimore which cuts across demographic and denominational lines. However, the rally also represented a massive failure of local communal leadership.

It is bad enough that the Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore and its political arm, the Baltimore Jewish Council (“BJC”), lacked the vision to organize a public, pro-Israel rally like the one held at Penn Station on July 30. This short-sightedness can be attributed to a “galut mentality” of timidity and over-cautiousness which (as evident from the loud and public pro-Israel demonstrations staged in recent weeks by community leaders in Washington, New York, Boston and many other cities) most federations abandoned decades ago, but which sadly still persists in Baltimore.

Much worse are the multiple reports that in the days leading up to the July 30 rally, Associated and BJC officials discouraged people from attending the rally, and told people that the rally was “inappropriate.” The idea that Baltimore’s leaders are roused to action not against Israel haters who slander Israel in front of Penn Station, but instead in opposition to Baltimoreans who assembled to peacefully but proudly confront the haters and slanderers, is deeply troubling, and raises serious questions regarding the judgment of local leadership.

The pro-Israel rally leaves no question that Baltimoreans young and old have the self-confidence and self-pride to loudly, publicly and unashamedly proclaim their love for Israel and the IDF, and to challenge anyone who believes otherwise.  When will Baltimore’s so-called leaders exhibit these same qualities?

About the Author
Jay Bernstein is a graduate of Yeshiva University, Baltimore Hebrew University and NYU School of Law. He is the founder and host of Baltimore's weekly Jewish-affairs radio program, Shalom USA and vice president of Baltimore Zionist District.