Hundreds rally in Palo Alto to support Israel, peace

With singer Achi Ben-Shalom leading "Shir L'Shalom," the "Song of Peace" Yitzhak Rabin sang at the fatal 1995 peace rally, hundreds gathered Oct. 18 in Palo Alto, calling for an end to hostilities in the Mideast.

The candlelight vigil, organized by a coalition of Jewish organizations and synagogues in the South Bay and San Francisco, was the second event last week to voice solidarity with the people and the state of Israel. While Palo Alto Police Department officials estimated the crowd at between 500 and 600, representatives of the Jewish Community Relations Council believed there were around 1,000.

An earlier rally, held Oct. 16 at Justin Herman Plaza in San Francisco, drew about 1,500.

Ehud Olmert, mayor of Jerusalem, sent his support via a giant video projection in front of the Town Hall, where the rally was held, and people of all ages gathered in the plaza, where seniors sat on benches and young parents pushed strollers. A contingent of high school students with AZA and B'nai B'rith Girls came from throughout the Peninsula, and there were many Hebrew speakers in the crowd.

Alisa and Harold Goldberg and their three children came from San Jose "to show our support to the American government, that they should continue in the peace process, and to show our support to Israel — that they have a partner in the peace process."

And Francine Geller of Menlo Park drove to the rally from Big Sur with 3-month-old daughter Tamar. "It's her first rally."

John Goldman, president of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, made opening remarks, along with Howard May, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater San Jose.

Decrying the "desecration of Joseph's Tomb" and holy sites in Jericho, Goldman said, "We could raise our voices in outrage, in anger, in confrontation.

"But we do not and we cannot. We are here for two reasons: first, to be one with the people and the state of Israel, and second, to speak on behalf of peace. We must look to the future — to a time of peace and coexistence."

While a couple of speakers and, certainly, some sign carriers, placed the blame for the hostilities squarely on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, the sentiment most frequently voiced favored ending the fighting, getting back to the bargaining table and praying that Israelis and Palestinians can live in harmony.

"Let me say that I don't embrace the concept of blind solidarity in my words," said Rabbi Ari Cartun, spiritual leader of Congregation Etz Chayim in Palo Alto and a former director of Stanford Hillel. "Although I love Israel and I defend it, I do not wish to defend every act of every Israeli. But I do give Israel the benefit of the doubt. And I will continue to give peace the benefit of the doubt. Even as the hate-mongers and the drum beaters in Israel and in Palestinian areas scream that war is inevitable…"

On a note of peace and solidarity, Cartun joined singer-guitarist Ben-Shalom in "Am Yisrael Chai" ("The People of Israel Live"), one of many Hebrew songs sung at the rally.

Emphasizing that the American Jewish community will continue to support Israel's right to exist, Janice Naymark, an activist with the Jewish Federation of Greater San Jose, also proclaimed, "No more violence."

"Tonight I ask us to pray for the right to exist of the young people drawn into this conflict, whether they are labeled American sailor, Israeli soldier or Palestinian demonstrator. They are our children."

Her words resonated with Susan and Michael Hahn of Palo Alto. "Because of all the horrors on both sides, the woman who spoke made the most impact," Susan Hahn said. The violence "has to stop."

Her husband agreed. "I think Madeleine Albright had it right. These two societies must learn to live with each other…The rest is commentary."

Rabbi Daniel Pressman, spiritual leader of Conservative Congregation Beth David in Saratoga, recalled the ancient prayer recited by pilgrims to Jerusalem, "May there be peace within your ramparts." Drawing on the words of the Bible, he called upon Jews to place peace "above our greatest joy for all people of Jerusalem…May our prophets' and psalmists' visions for peace and tranquility in the land be fulfilled speedily."

Others emphasized that the cause of the hostilities lay with the Palestinians, and denounced anti-Israeli propaganda.

Vera Lev, a Jewish activist at USF, said, "We have been vilified by professors, targeted and labeled as racists."

However, only one spectator at the rally lambasted Israel's role in the hostilities. While Elliot Brandt, regional director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee spoke, a man in the back of the crowd shouted, holding a sign that said, "Arrest Ariel Sharon" and "Sharon is a criminal."

Amid cries of anger, followed by other pleas for calm, he was escorted by crowd members to police who were ringing the square, and then released. No other incidents followed.

Brandt continued, asking spectators to call or write to their U.S. senators in support of the Brownback-Feinstein-Schumer bill, calling on the United States to refrain from supporting a unilaterally declared Palestinian state. He also asked for calls to representatives to support House Concurrent Resolution 426, expressing solidarity with Israel and asking Arafat to renounce violence and return to the bargaining table.

In the words of Ecclesiastes, he said, "There is a time for silence and a time to speak out. The time to speak out is now. Pick up the phone. Write a letter. Send an e-mail."

Gil Lainer, the new vice consul at the Israel Consulate General of San Francisco, said he was heartened by the support of the American Jewish community.

"This is a hard time for every Israeli," he said before the rally. "Nothing is harder than to see what happened in Israel when you're away from home, but seeing the response, it makes us feel much better."

Jon Friedenberg, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater East Bay, estimated that between 200 and 300 people from his region came to the rally.

"People are extremely frustrated and upset. Upset, of course, because of the terrible events, and frustrated for two reasons: because Israel is being blamed and second, it seems to so many of us that we came so close to achieving peace. Even the most ardent peace supporters in the community have had their enthusiasm for peace shaken."

In addition to the S.F.-based and San Jose-based federations, the vigil was sponsored by AIPAC, the S.F.-based and San Jose-based Jewish Community Relations Councils, the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League, the S.F.-based Israel Center, the Board of Rabbis of Northern California, and South Bay Jewish community centers, Hillels and synagogues.

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].