Noontime crowd hungers for peace, solidarity with Israel

The color photograph that became infamous in an instant loomed over Justin Herman Plaza in San Francisco's Embarcadero on Monday. "Is this a peacemaker?" the sign asked of the Palestinian man holding up his red hands, covered with the blood of a murdered Israeli soldier.

The faces of Omer Suaed, Adi Avitan and Avraham Binyamin, the three Israeli soldiers kidnapped recently by Hezbollah, also were scattered on signs throughout the crowd. Above each picture were the words "Bring him home!"

Bay Area Jews turned out en masse Monday at noon to show their support and their solidarity with Israel, after two straight weeks of violence in the Jewish state. Organizers estimated the San Francisco crowd at around 1,500.

A second rally was set for Wednesday night in front of Palo Alto's Town Hall.

Some San Francisco demonstrators wore small Israeli flags pinned to their lapels, while others draped large ones over their bodies and waved them around, making it nearly impossible to move through the crowd without walking into a billowing flag.

Signs bore everything from "Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace" to "Put down the rocks, pick up the peace" and "Napa Valley Jews support Israel and peace; Vineyards not violence."

Ex-Soviet emigres and Israelis made up a large part of the crowd.

Ariane Rosenberg, 12, of Oakland said, "It's important to show the American people how many people support Israel."

She echoed the sentiment of many in the throng and on the speakers' platform.

After opening remarks by Dan Grossman, president of the Jewish Community Relations Council, Marsha Attie led the crowd in "Od Yavo," a song about peace by the Israeli and Arab group Sheva.

As the rally fell on the third day of Sukkot, a sukkah was erected on stage, and speakers referred to the sukkah repeatedly, as one after another stressed the need for peace. For the most part, those at the dais refrained from assigning blame.

But a few signs clearly pointed to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat for fueling the current crisis, and some speakers called upon him to stop the violence.

"The Jewish tradition is to invite visitors into the sukkah," said Yossi Amrani, the new consul general of Israel. "As we meet here today, we invite our Palestinian neighbors into it, to restore trust and confidence."

Rabbi Sydney Mintz of San Francisco Congregation Emanu-El offered a prayer and said, "We who are surrounded by Mexico and Canada cannot know how they feel," and "we will only be mighty when we turn our enemy into our friend."

Kevin Shelley, the majority leader of the California state Assembly, told movingly of his wife's discovery at age 18 that she was a Jew. Her parents, who had survived the Holocaust, had decided to raise her Catholic so if another Holocaust were to occur, she could prove she wasn't Jewish.

When Shelley and his wife visited Israel for the first time last year, he said, "My wife knew she was Jewish, but didn't know what that meant." Only in the Jewish state was she able to "find her faith and what was missing inside her for so many years."

Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo) brought the message that "Washington has never been more united on Israel than it is today."

Lantos recalled when he and his wife visited Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat's headquarters in Gaza, telling him, "We had hope then and we still do that you will be a worthy peace partner."

Addressing the crowd through a translator, Borris Rivkin, president of the Russian Society of Friends for Israel, spoke of the necessity of a homeland for emigres from the former Soviet Union.

Bera Lev, a student at the University of San Francisco, said some Jewish students feel under siege. "We're labeled as racists and murderers," she said. "We are tired of this anti-Israel propaganda."

The Rev. Bruce Bramlett, rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in San Rafael, called for both Israelis and Palestinians to distance themselves from "Mr. Sharon and his counterparts on the other side." The Palestinians blame Ariel Sharon, the leader of Israel's Likud Party, for provoking the violence, when he and an entourage of armed policemen visited the Temple Mount in Jerusalem on Sept. 28.

Quoting Gandhi, Bramlett said, "An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind."

Elliot Brandt, regional director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in San Francisco, urged the crowd to make their voices heard by writing, calling or e-mailing their representatives and senators to let them know Israel enjoys their support.

"If we're not raising our voices, someone else will, or no one else will," he said.

Brandt opened his remarks by telling of a conversation he had recently with a friend who lives in Israel. She had asked him how the violence looked on the other side of the world: "Is Israel alone in this?"

The crowd yelled out its response, "No!"

The rally concluded with the singing of "Hatikvah." White doves were then released into the air.

Yochanan Plesner, an Israeli who "lives both here and there," said it was as difficult to be away from Israel as it was to be here attending the rally.

Saying that peace was the only option, Plesner said he hoped the Palestinians would control their own police force, capture Hamas terrorists and work to implement the peace agreement.

"If none of this happens," he added, "I hope the U.S. will support Israel in whatever measures it takes to protect its people, whether they be militarily or diplomatically."

Abby Michaelson-Porth, coordinator of intergroup relations and special projects at the JCRC, called the turnout phenomenal. "We're so pleased with the demonstration of community support."

While the mood of the rally was largely somber, there were some lighter moments. Several Lubavitch rabbis, including Yosef Langer, director of Chabad of S.F., and Gedalia Potash of Chabad of Noe Valley, used the gathering of so many Jews as an opportunity to push a little lulav and etrog action. They circled the crowd, asking people to say the blessings.

And street person Anthony John Ladimore, otherwise known by his nickname, Bonehead, demanded, "What are so many white people doing in my living room?"

Carrying a cardboard sign reading, "," Ladimore sized up the crowd and quickly changed his approach. "Anyone want to help a nice, young Jewish boy get to college?"

It seemed to work. He almost fell over in shock when someone gave him a dollar bill.

The rally was sponsored by the JCRC, S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay, S.F. Israel Center, Board of Rabbis of Northern California, American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, Anti-Defamation League, AIPAC, Union of American Hebrew Congregations and other organizations.

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Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."