Local rallies draw hundreds, voicing opposing Mideast views

Israel's woes emanate from Yasser Arafat's being too cowardly to call off his guns and say yes to peace.

No, Israel's woes emanate from 34 years of illegal occupation and brutality in Gaza and the West Bank.

No, it's both.

Those represent just a small sampling of the viewpoints that overlapped, mostly peacefully, last Friday in San Francisco as a rally hastily organized by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council assembled just yards away from a gathering of Women in Black, a group that advocates an autonomous Palestinian state.

"Israel helped arm the Palestinian police, and federations like ours invested lots of time and money. And what did we get in return?" asked Mark Schickman, president of the Holocaust Center of Northern California, and chair of the S.F.-based Israel Center.

He was surrounded by 200 to 300 demonstrators at the JCRC's rally at Market and Montgomery streets. Many carried Israeli flags and most wore white T-shirts bearing the message "Israel Wants Peace."

"Arafat has released the most violent terrorists from prison. He disseminates books that deny Israel's right to exist; children are being taught to hate and terrorists who kill Israeli citizens are harbored."

Amid memorial candles and photographs of the roughly 100 Israeli victims killed during the past eight months of violence, the crowd recited the Mourner's Kaddish and sang Hebrew peace songs.

"I'm here to support Israel in a positive way. I think Women in Black represent a very one-sided, condemnatory stance toward Israel," said Berkeley resident Moishe Belcher at the San Francisco rally. "Israel is doing everything it can to go on with life. They'd rather live in peace. They have more to gain that way."

The San Francisco JCRC rally was held at 4 p.m., an hour before the official commencement of the Women in Black vigil, one of hundreds held around the world on the same day to protest the Israeli government's role in the current intifada.

Addressing the Women in Black rally, former Knesset member and Berkeley resident Marcia Freedman gave the crowd of 300-plus — outfitted in black to symbolize the death of Palestinian livelihood –a decidedly different speech than those delivered at the JCRC event.

"Earlier, there was a demonstration by what is called the 'organized Jewish community.' Well, we are the disorganized Jewish community," she said to a great cheer from the audience, which included members of A Jewish Voice for Peace, the Middle East Children's Alliance and the American Friends Service Committee, to name a few.

"Two generations of Palestinians have no experience other than the sight of Jews with rifles and in tanks surrounding them. The settlers are fanatical nationalists who believe the West Bank is theirs by God-given right, and the prime minister agrees with them. The problem is the settlers, the fanaticism of the settlers."

The JCRC had also organized a rally in Palo Alto to correspond to a Women in Black vigil there. Unlike the scene on the Peninsula, which reportedly involved a number of emotional, close-range shouting matches between attendees of the JCRC and Women in Black gatherings, discourse between attendees of the two San Francisco rallies was largely civil, if not agreeable. Separated by police barricades, and with the constant presence of at least 10 police officers, confrontations were largely avoided.

Freedman called for an end to the occupation, the halting of U.S. arms shipments to Israel and international protection for the Palestinian people.

The former Knesset member's views on settlers were shared by most of the crowd. One man drew spectators with a bright yellow sign reading "An IDF Vet Against the Occupation — I did not fight in '67 for the settlers."

"The settlers are an openly fascist movement now," said Amichai Kronfeld of Berkeley, an infantryman in the Sinai under the command of Ariel Sharon. "Discipline in the IDF seems to be down. Soldiers are shooting children under the age of 14 just for throwing stones."

Ross Meltzer, a member of Berkeley's Congregation Beth Israel attending the JCRC rally, took issue with those at the Women in Black rally. "If you go beyond the last couple of weeks' news, they don't know what's going on. If I want to talk to them about it, they tell me to shut up. They're naive and ignorant, and it's frustrating."

Participants at the Women in Black rally disagreed, saying that they were indeed well informed and had rationally and thoughtfully formed their opinions.

"Morally and ethically, as a Jew, I can no longer stay silent about the human rights abuses enacted not only on a daily basis but for three decades," said Michael Ross, an Alameda resident and member of A Jewish Voice for Peace. "I think both sides have become experts at manipulating and creating facts on the ground. I don't stand here in support of Arafat. I support all of those who want to see a just and true effort for the peace process."

Some demonstrators found themselves nodding their heads in agreement with speakers at both rallies.

"I oppose the occupation and want Israel to stop building and expanding the settlements; they're an incredible obstacle to peace," said David Cooper, the spiritual leader at Berkeley's Kehilla Community Synagogue, who was outfitted in black.

"When I heard the JCRC was calling for a demonstration to support Israel and oppose terrorism, I thought I'd come to that one as well because I love Israel and oppose terrorism. I'm here for both."

Speakers and attendees of both rallies decried the recent suicide bombing that left 20 young Israelis dead. Observing the JCRC rally's memorial candles, Freedman said, "We are here for the 100 Israelis, 500 Palestinians, 12,000 Palestinians injured and 1,000 permanently disfigured."

Penny Rosenwasser of the Middle East Children's Alliance denounced any violence directed toward civilians but noted, "Think how desperate you have to be to blow yourself up in order to blow up other people."

While Rosenwasser stressed that those in opposition to the occupation don't have to agree on every detail, some San Francisco demonstrators were seriously disturbed by Arab feminist Eman Desouky's speech, which called the legitimacy of the state of Israel into question.

"On behalf of the Arab community, I am deeply concerned that a vigil such as this can concentrate only on the 1967 territories. To begin this narrative at 1967 silences and excludes the violent expulsion of 1948," she said. "Bombings, home destruction and land confiscation all continue the legacy of 1948. The true solution is the inalienable right of all Palestinians to go home."

Some in the audience were rankled that the validity of their beliefs would be questioned and that Israel's right to exist was discussed at all.

"I was distraught by the Palestinian speaker. That's not why I'm here and that's not why I brought members of my congregation here," said Rabbi Michael Lerner, founder and editor of Tikkun magazine and spiritual leader at San Francisco's Congregation Beyt Tikkun.

"I believe Israel has partial responsibility for the Palestinian refugees, but not total. What happened in 1948 was not just because of things Jews did, but because of things Palestinians did too. But [that speech] is not what this movement is about. That was a critique of this movement."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.