DENVER — The Global Conference for Israel convened for its first day at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver on Thursday.
The four-day event, hosted by the Jewish National Fund-USA, happens annually in cities across the country. JNF-USA is a nonprofit dedicated to the Zionist movement. It raises money for land development, water projects and other infrastructure projects in Israel. But this year, organizers said the event held special meaning as a show of solidarity after the October 7th attacks.
While in Denver, the Colorado Palestine Coalition has events scheduled for every day of the conference, meant to serve as both a disruption and demonstration.
Inside the conference
Thursday night, more than 2,500 people packed the Bellco Theater for the Opening Plenary.
Attendees heard from several keynote speakers, including Governor Jared Polis.
"I proudly wear with you the necklace that says, 'Bring them home now,'" Gov. Polis said, referring to the Israeli hostages.
Each person who checked into the event passed by life-sized letters on display, written by mayors in Israeli cities thanking JNF for the work its done to help with the ongoing crisis in the Middle East.
"This is why we're here right now in Denver together— 2,500 of us to say, 'We will get up the next day, and we will be proud to be Jews. We will be proud to support Israel and they cannot scare us to cower in the corner,'" Melissa Wittenberg, National Director of JNF Future, said.
Wittenberg, who works with young philanthropists ages 22 to 40, said triple the amount of young people are attending this year's conference than ever before. She attributed that to the October 7th attacks.
With Hanukkah one week from opening night of the convention, the focus is on bringing light to the world after one of Israel's darkest hours, Vice President of Jewish National Fund-USA Ron Werner said.
"I want to work towards a world where people can live in harmony. It's a big world and a big planet. We say every Friday night 'Shabbat Shalom.' Shabbat peace. We should have more peace," Werner said.
Inside the Colorado Convention Center, there was a large showing of law enforcement from several agencies making sure everyone stayed safe.
The Global Conference for Israel will continue through Sunday.
Outside the conference
More than 200 pro-Palestinian protesters marched through the streets of downtown Denver as the first night of the Global Conference for Israel began, shutting down a portion of Speer Boulevard as they made their way to the Colorado Convention Center. Once at the convention center, protesters pressed their signs up against the glass walls and their chants could be heard from blocks away.
Organizers with the Colorado Palestine Coalition have events scheduled throughout the four-day conference. Those with the coalition said it comprises a number of local organizations working to educate individuals on the past and present of Palestine, while advocating for the liberation of Palestine.
“What we're really asking for is just people to take a look at this conference, take a look at this organization— the Jewish National Fund, and what they actually are, and just stand against it. That's really all we're asking for," Abdullah Elagha, one of the organizers of the Colorado Palestine Coalition, said. “The Jewish National Fund is an organization that has been working for the past 120 years to displace Palestinians, by any means necessary. You know, their name, the Jewish National Fund, could not be more misleading. As one of my friends from the Jewish Voice for Peace said, 'everything they stand for is an absolute antithesis to everything that the Jewish religion stands for.'”
“They engage in ethnic cleansing, land theft, displacement of Palestinians, and they have for 120 years," Elagha continued. "So, that's really who they are. They frame themselves as this environmental organization that lets you plant a tree in Israel. What they don't tell you is that the trees that they're planting are invasive species, and the places that they're planting them is on top of the ruins of ethnically cleansed Palestinian villages.”
Elagha, who is Palestinian, said he does not have an exact number of how many family members have died since October 7. He knows he has lost more than 70 members of his family.
"It's been really hard to cope with that, and it's been really hard to even find time to grieve, because I feel like I owe it to them to do this work, to raise this awareness and tell people about what is actually happening in Palestine and to advocate for them. And really to give them a voice, because they no longer have a voice," Elagha said. “I do have some family members in the north of Gaza. But the majority of my family members who I've lost have been in south Gaza, and all of them were killed by airstrikes while they were sitting in their homes. You know, I don't understand what crime they committed. What exactly made them a target for Israel. I don't understand it.”
Katie Leonard, an organizer for the Party for Socialism and Liberation, said she was appalled that Governor Jared Polis spoke at the Global Conference for Israel.
"It's been clear over the past six weeks, that the people of Colorado are with Palestine," Leonard said. "We've had thousands of people out every single week, protesting this absolutely awful occupation and the genocide that is occurring now, and to have our governor who supposedly supports and represents the people speaking at a conference that is supporting and facilitating ethnic cleansing and genocide is just atrocious.”
Elagha told Denver7 he has been attending protests for Palestine since he was young, and has watched the movement grow throughout his life.
"Palestine used to be this fringe issue that people didn't really talk about, it was very taboo to really even talk about it. But now it's a mainstream issue. People know about Palestine, people know about the truth behind Palestine and Israel, and the ethnic cleansing that Israel has been doing for the past 75 years," said Elagha. “It makes me very hopeful for the future. Unfortunately, for what's immediately ahead of us, I'm not very hopeful. You know, speaking to my family, and as I'm hearing about what they're going through right now, it's an absolute nightmare.”
On Friday, the Colorado Palestine Coalition has plans for a picket from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Denver Public School students also have a Palestine walk out planned at 2 p.m. The day will close with a free Palestine Teach-In on the Auraria Campus starting at 5 p.m.
On Saturday, there is a rally and march planned at the Colorado state capitol beginning at 1 p.m. After that, there will be a movie screening at 7 p.m.
For Sunday, the group has planned a car rally starting at 11 a.m., and at 11:30 a.m. Jews Against Genocide! have an event planned.
Such demonstrations are emblematic of the pride felt by Palestinians, Elagha said.
“In my mind, pride as a Palestinian is having some of the most powerful countries in the world conspiring and working against you with all of their might, and yet still standing tall, still being brave, still speaking out," Elagha said. "I've personally faced a lot of retaliation here in Colorado, just from my outspokenness on the issue, and it's because of not just my pride, but also my responsibility to my people that I continue to speak out.”