The participants in both the 34th Annual Walk with Israel and the 4th Annual Walk for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine (JPIP) in Oak Park on Sunday were nearly all Jewish. And nearly all of them professed a love of both Judaism and Israel. Beyond that, however, their opinions on how the Jewish state is conducting its affairs diverged drastically.
While the Walk with Israel participants considered their walk and program in Scoville Park a relaxed celebration of Israel's 57 years of existence, those participating in the JPIP walk and related events expressed a strong sense of protest and outrage at what they said is both the Israeli and the United States government's insensitivity to basic human rights.
The local 5.7 kilometer Walk with Israel is part of a Chicago area wide celebration of that country's 57th Independence Day, and local organizers expressed satisfaction Sunday with what they'd accomplished.
"It's gone fabulous," said event chairperson Lauren Levant early Sunday afternoon. Standing by the sound stage, where she served as emcee for the speakers, dancers and musical acts, Levant, who had arrived at the park at 6:30 that morning to help set up looked pleased, if rather tired, with the event. The results, she said, made all the hard work and the long day worth it for her and the other 75 volunteers
"We had 600 people take part in the march," she said. "I stood on the steps and counted.
Despite chilly, overcast weather, just over 200 people were still in Scoville Park shortly after noon. Israeli and American flags dotted the landscape and adorned many people's bodies and hair, as they milled about the park in a relaxed manner, talked and listed to music.
According to the Jewish United Fund, the funds raised through the Walk with Israel will support summer camp programs for Israeli children "living in communities that have been hard hit by the security crisis over the past four years."
That fundraising, though, is secondary to some people.
"The fundraising is important, but overwhelmingly important is everyone being together," said Mark Segal, an event volunteer. "Seeing our community out supporting Israel and supporting each other."
Both events took place under an understated but vigilant police presence. Security concerns had been heightened somewhat by a series of hoax letters received by local Walk with Israel organizers last week. Though police viewed the bogus memos as non-threatening, several members of the Israel Solidarity group felt the letters were successively more mean spirited.
"Each one was more nasty," said Levant, who noted that one letter expressed the hope that "Next year you should all have broken legs."
Police, who had spent the past six weeks crafting security plans, were taking no chances. Six or eight uniformed officers wandered alone and in pairs about Scoville Park, as another officer sat observing in an unmarked squad car across from the park. Other squads rolled by the site in no more than 90 second intervals.
According to Deputy Chief Robert Scianna, who worked a full day Sunday coordinating some two dozen officers, there was only one minor occurrence.
"I had to tell a small group of (ultra-conservative) counter demonstrators at the Temple on Harlem Avenue to take their demonstration across the street," said Scianna, adding that that was just a basic security precaution.
The village's number two cop praised the professionalism and cooperation of his officers, many of whom he said had agreed to switch days off to accommodate the police coverage of not just the two Sunday events, but also the Ethnic Fest and Landmark Preservation Council Gala on Saturday.
For many people like Segal, the letters, tension and even the counter Walk and gathering had no power to disturb the spirit of the day.
"I think the hoax and the march are two different things," he said. This day, said Segal, was about celebrating Israel.
That relaxed attitude, though, was reflective of an underlying difference in purpose between the two groups. While Walk with Israel organizers said their event was more celebratory than political, and in effect celebrated the status quo, JPIP participants decried what one termed "the terrible status quo," and acknowledged that their program was of necessity political. Protest was needed, they said, in the face of what was termed a lack of fairness and even morality on the part of the Israeli government in its treatment of Palestinians.
As two youth baseball teams warmed up on fields to either side around 12:30, just under 200 people stood listening intently to a series of speakers by the south fence of Ridgeland Common. Signs throughout the crowd and on the fence underscored the speaker's main points.
"No justice, no peace. Know justice, know peace," read one.
"We refuse to be enemies," "Justice. Not 'Just us,'" and "Build bridges, not walls," read others.
Several signs expressed Jewish shame at Israel's actions.
"Home demolitions are not my Judaism," protested one. "Not in my name," read another.
"I can no longer bear to witness the killings of thousands of Palestinians," poet Kevin Coval told the assemblage. Saying that he believed his spiritual homeland had lost its way morally, he asked rhetorically, "Who are you, Israel?"
"Refuser" Avner Efendowicz, who served a total of 11 years in the Israeli Army, including two tours in occupied Palestine, was jailed for 19 days by the Israeli military for ultimately refusing to continue to serve in the occupied territories.
Efendowicz recalled the point in his life that he came to the realization, as he put it, that "the truth lay somewhat, but not completely, on our side."
Audience member David Feldman said that he is a Jew who seeks to "support a just peace." That, he insisted, means ending the occupation of Palestine.
"I don't think you support Israel by supporting the oppression of Palestine," he said.
"It's really an apartheid," said Anne Houston, who went on to explain that Palestinian Israelis are denied a litany of civil rights enjoyed by Jewish Israeli citizens. Israel, she said, has reinstituted laws prohibiting Israelis from marrying Palestinians, and Palestinian Israeli's, she said, must display distinctively different license plates on their cars.
"It's the same as the Jim Crow laws," said Houston.
JPIP organizer Martha Reese, winding down the program as the crowd prepared to march, told them that "Peace is not a band aid for injustice."
"The day the occupation ends will be the real Israeli independence," she concluded.
Gathering up placards and banners, the crowd then slowly walked north out of the park and west on Lake Street.
By the time the JPIP marchers reached the intersection of Lake Street and Oak Park Avenue, the last few Walk with Israel participants were leaving Scoville Park. By 1:45 the marchers were back at Pilgrim Congregational Church for more speakers.
By 2:15 it was all over, with both sides having had their day and their say, with nary a glitch and no trouble.
Earlier David Feldman had said of the Israelis and Palestinians, "Eventually they're going to have to figure how to live together in equality and justice." Sunday both sides in Oak Park and River Forest's Israel debate showed they shared common values despite their differences.
"They're doing their thing and expressing their view," said Mark Segal, speaking of the JPIP. Smiling, he added, "That's the beauty of Oak Park."