175 attend candlelight vigil for victims of Gaza violence

BY MATT AARONSON AND AMY MUNSLOW
Daily Staff Reporters
Published January 8, 2009

About 175 people joined in a candlelight vigil last night to protest the recent outbreak of violence in Gaza.

The vigil, which took place at the corner of Liberty Street and Main Street, was organized by local activist groups Michigan Peaceworks and Interfaith Council for Peace & Justice, among others. The event was also sponsored by local Jewish and Muslim groups seeking a cession of violence in the region.

As of last night, The Associated Press reported about 750 Palestinians and 13 Israelis have died since the beginning of Israel’s military assault on Dec. 27. A quarter of the Palestinian deaths were civilians.

The event was peaceful, with demonstrators of all ages and backgrounds lining both sides of the street holding candles and signs, talking softly with one another in the snow.

“We want to see a ceasefire and we want to see humanitarian aid allowed into Gaza,” said Chuck Warpehoski, director of ICPJ.

News of a U.N. Security Council cease-fire resolution broke shortly after the vigil ended.

Laura Russello, Michigan Peaceworks’ executive director, said the vigil was meant to promote peace not a particular political stance. She said she was proud of the willingness of a wide range of groups to stand together against violence.

“In order to promote peace, we have to demonstrate peace in our community,” she said. “Our message is to bring together local Jewish and Muslim communities and show that these groups can work together toward a peaceful solution.”

The event was planned in three days and publicized primarily through word of mouth, e-mail and posters, Russello said.

Warpehoski said organizers weren’t sure that they would be able to get many people to attend the event on such short notice, but that “the response has been tremendous.”

Demonstrator Matt Bussey, a graduate student at the University’s Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies, said he was impressed by the large turnout for the vigil.

“It’s heartening to see all these people come out. A lot of people don’t know what is going on,” said Bussey, who lived in Jerusalem for six years and has family currently living in Israel.

Lauren Ramanathan, a Swarthmore College sophomore from Ann Arbor, said she joined Michigan Peaceworks at the vigil because she thinks the current U.S. position in the conflict is the wrong one “regardless of whether or not you view Israel as an oppressor.”

“At this point, I’m just out here supporting a middle ground,” she said.

LSA sophomore John Oltean said he attended the event because he was appalled by the “catastrophic violence” in Gaza.

“We need to take a stand against it,” Oltean said. “As a privileged student of the U.S., it is my duty to come here and represent these people.”

About 10 to 15 people demonstrated in opposition to the event. Ann Arbor resident Henry Herskovitz said the candlelight vigil was not the right message to send.

"My purpose for coming here is to tell the people holding candles that this is not an appropriate response to an ongoing genocide,” Herskovitz said. “An appropriate response is to say, ‘stop Israeli aggression against an indigenous population that's basically unarmed.’"

Another person demonstrating against the vigil, Ann Arbor resident Michelle Kinnucan, said she was protesting the United States’ financial, military and diplomatic backing of Israel.

“It’s important to take a stand against the massacre that’s occurring with the full backing of the United States government,” Kinnucan said, while standing on an Israeli flag and waving a flag associated with Hamas.

Overall, the vigil attendees didn’t seem bothered by the presence of the other protestors.

One attendee, Amanda Bowman, a sophomore at Eastern Michigan University, said she wasn’t surprised that other demonstrators showed up.

“I kind of expected it. I don’t really feel threatened,” she said.

Groups sponsoring the event included the Muslim Student Association of Washtenaw Community College, Jewish Voice for Peace, American Jews for a Just Peace and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.