Jews rally in S.F. to protest Austrian ultranationalism

Surrounded by chilling winds that knifed through a deserted downtown San Francisco, about 50 people huddled together Sunday to protest the emergence of ultranationalism in Austria.

As the American flag fluttered next to the partially unfurled flag of the Austrian Consulate, Rabbi Michael Lerner denounced ultranationalism as a byproduct of loneliness.

The "ethos of materialism and selfishness" contributes to the climate of hatred, said Lerner, placing the protest against Austrian politician Jorge Haider and his Freedom Party in a larger context.

"The city is full of people walking down the street, avoiding each other's eyes," said Lerner, who leads Congregation Beyt Tikkun in San Francisco, and is the editor and publisher of Tikkun magazine. "We live in a world where we feel increasingly alone, we have no sense of connection with each other.

"We wonder," he continued, "if we get sick, who will take care of us, who will help us out in our time of needs?

"This is exactly the type of environment nationalism thrives in," he emphasized. "Along comes a movement, be it German, or Austrian, or American, and it speaks to a lonely, disconnected group of people, saying, 'We will take care of you, come with us…'"

Addressing a group consisting equally of children and adults, some of whom held placards that read "Down with the Freedom Party," and "Freedom for whom?" Lerner emphasized that, although Haider stepped down two weeks ago as head of the xenophobic Freedom Party, he is still believed to wield power in Austria's new coalition government.

Prior to Lerner's talk, as rain began to fall and umbrellas popped open, Kevin Shelley, the majority leader of the State Assembly, made an unannounced appearance.

Shelley, who had recently visited Israel with his wife, Dominique Beaudry Shelley, said the issues of anti-Semitism and nationalism resonated on a personal level with him.

Shelley told the crowd that his wife did not find out she was Jewish until after her 18th birthday, adding that her parents had lived through the atrocities of Nazi Europe and had sought to protect their daughter from that knowledge.

"Fear is rooted in something that's very real," Shelley said, "and events in Austria show it could happen again."

Asking the crowd not to be fooled by Haider's decision to step down, Shelley said that the "disease" that brought Haider to power is still in place, and still affects the hearts and minds of the Austrian populace.

"A tear has appeared in the world's fabric," Shelley said, "and the only way to mend it is through knowledge and vigilance."

As the demonstrators marched in a circle, denouncing hatred and singing Hebrew songs, Charles Wollin, 12, spoke about why he attended the rally.

Wollin, who is a member of the Mitzvah Corps of San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El, said the ultranationalists are "trying to destroy our kind."

"I mean, we're all Jews here," Wollin said. "We have to let them know that they can't bully us around. We have to yell and shout, and do whatever it takes.

"And if they don't get the message," said Wollin, as raindrops streamed down his glasses, "we'll have to get more into this."

By the end of the rally, raindrops weren't the only thing bouncing off the protesters.

Just after the rally concluded, a caravan of "Bill Bradley for President" cable cars came clanking up Sutter Street.

As the protesters shouted "End hate now" and waved their placards, the people in the trolley cars shouted "Vote Bradley now!" and threw candies into the crowd.

One of the candies hit Lerner on his shoulder and bounced off before he could scoop it up.

"Remind me to get some cable cars next time," the rabbi said.