Some call for unity amid protests at a pro-Israel conference in Denver
The Global Conference for Israel - one of the largest gatherings of Jewish people in the nation, according to organizers - drew both attendees and protesters to downtown Denver over the weekend amid the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas.
The national conference is held every year and is organized by the Jewish National Fund USA, which organizers said coordinates humanitarian and development projects in Israel. The organization collaborates with, but is separate from, an Israel-based organization with the same name. This year’s four-day event was planned at the Denver Convention Center well before the current conflict in Gaza began on October 7. Organizers say about 2,500 people attended last week. Gov. Jared Polis gave an opening night speech on Thursday to kick off the conference.
Usually, the conference is centered around humanitarian work and community service projects in Israel. This year, organizers said it also included an increased focus on fighting antisemitism and providing support for people impacted by the Gaza conflict. Reporters were not given access to the conference floor itself.
“This conference this year is more important than ever because we have real large amounts of outward antisemitism here in the United States, and specifically here in Denver,” Yaron Marcus, regional vice president of the Jewish National Fund, said. “I never thought, in my lifetime, I would see hatred to the Jews here in the United States.”
There has been an increase in both antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents in the U.S. since the conflict began on October 7, according to both the Anti-Defamation League and the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
The weekend’s conference also became a focal point for those who oppose Israel’s military actions. A crowd of about 100 pro-Palestinian protesters picketed and chanted outside the convention center each day of the conference, but were kept from disrupting the conference events by heavily-armed police and fences.
Noura, a Palestinian-American member of the Colorado Palestine Coalition, helped organize the protest. KUNC only used her first name to protect her identity. Noura and many of her fellow activists oppose government support for Israel, including the city and state resources used to host the conference in Denver, which they see as helping Israel’s military actions in Gaza.
“Our main goal is the liberation of Palestine,” Noura said. “We want our home. We want our lives back. We want our land back.”
The demonstrations drew people from many backgrounds, including those like Noura with Palestinian roots and some Jewish people who also oppose Israel’s actions. Allie Cannington, with the organization Jewish Voice for Peace, was one of them. Cannington and her colleagues led a Jewish prayer during the demonstration, while others led Muslim prayers.
“It, like, tears me up that supporting Palestine is equated to being anti semitic,” Cannington told KUNC. “We have to create pathways where Jews, Israelis, Arabs and Palestinians are all safe. The path of standing with Israel uncritically will never get us there.”
The demonstrations were largely peaceful, although some protesters shouted directly at conference-goers through the barricades. At times, dozens of them banged loudly and repeatedly on the conference windows. Several protesters were arrested for destruction of property and criminal mischief. Several more were arrested Sunday for blocking an intersection near the convention center.
Some conference-goers, including Yaron Marcus of the Jewish National Fund, said they feared for their safety at times, but Marcus also said he supports the right to protest, as long as the demonstrations remain peaceful.
“That's what part of being an American is,” Marcus said. “The same way the protesters outside have their rights, we have our right to gather peacefully and talk about the issues that are important to us - Jewish solidarity, and the humanitarian and philanthropic work that we do in Israel, furthering our message of peace and unity. I hope that everybody continues to remain calm and peaceful in their protest, or in their gatherings, and that we don't see any kind of escalation on either side.”
Other conference-goers also expressed their support for the right to peacefully protest, even if it criticizes Israel.
“We have to all be comfortable to talk to each other, to be able to listen to people who disagree with us, show empathy for their understanding. Not go into a conversation to try to prove someone else wrong or educate them,” conference attendee Mara Kleiman said. “We are trying to understand each other, and if we can get to that I believe that we will make strides in ways we haven't quite figured out yet.”
Some protesters also urged respectful dialogue, but said they have little hope it will happen because of the level of polarization around the conflict.
“If you come and speak to us as equals, we will have dialogue with you,” Noura, with the Colorado Palestine Coalition, said. “Come to our rallies. Listen to us speak. Speak to us directly, and learn what we actually want.”
The conflict in Gaza has become increasingly present in Colorado, despite being thousands of miles away—and not just during the conference.
Protests—mostly in support of Palestine—have become a regular occurrence in recent months across Denver, including at the State Capitol. Protesters disrupted proceedings in the state's House of Representatives during the special legislative session last month, leading to a heated exchange between lawmakers.
The current hostilities began on October 7 when Hamas, a Gaza-based Palestinian militant group classified by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization, launched an attack on Israel . According to the United Nations, Israeli authorities report the attack killed 1,200 people who were mostly civilians . The Israeli military responded with a massive aerial bombardment and ground assault of the territory. Since then, health authorities in Gaza say more than 15,000 people have been killed, more than half of whom are women and children.
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