JCRC, Pro-Palestinians face off on Palo Alto corner

University Avenue in downtown Palo Alto seems a precariously narrow divide separating protesters arguing different sides in the Israeli-Palestinian debate.

Last Friday night, demonstrators holding signs reading "Israel out of Palestine" faced off against others proclaiming "Israel fights terror." Both sides held different views on proposed borders and the treatment of Palestinians. But apart from their rivaling opinions, many demonstrators on both sides shared a common bond — Judaism.

The sounds of Hebrew mingled with English on a street corner replete with Israeli flags. But on the opposite corner marked by a Palestinian flag, Jan Feldman bore a sign reading "Another Jew against occupation."

Feldman was one of about three dozen people participating in the Peninsula Peace and Justice Center's demonstration against Israel's handling of the Palestinian crisis and U.S. financial support of Israel.

On the other side, an equal number of counterprotesters took offense at the tactics of the PPJC and the language and tone used in its publications.

"The extremism of their language and their past history of support for the Palestinian cause" are what prompted a counterpoint from the Jewish community, said Yitzhak Santis, director of Middle East affairs for the Jewish Community Relations Council.

That language included the statements that Israel's presence in the territories "is veering towards a Final Solution," and that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is a "war criminal…intent upon genocide."

"They call themselves a peace organization, but they hijacked the word 'peace,'" said Santis. "We want to let the [PPJC] organizers know that there is a vibrant Jewish community."

With that in mind, the JCRC asked members of local synagogues and Jewish organizations to show up with signs in support of Israel.

Ari Strod sees a "double standard" in attitudes toward Israel. "The U.S. invades Afghanistan, a foreign country, and nobody complains, but Israel protects itself and people complain."

Regarding the pro-Palestinians' use of the terms "occupied territories" and "Israeli occupation," Strod said, "The word 'occupied' is a misnomer. They [the Palestinians] were offered a state, but they chose not to negotiate."

Victor Konrad, another pro-Israel supporter, was confronted by PPJC protesters who took issue with inflammatory statements made by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

"I'm not here to justify everything Sharon says," he responded.

Stirred to action by the recent movement of the Israeli military into Palestinian areas of the West Bank and Gaza, PPJC members like Feldman envision a return to Israel's borders before the 1967 Six Day War and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state as important steps toward achieving a lasting peace in the Middle East.

"I'm out here to teach people that it's possible for both sides to live side by side," Feldman said.

The JCRC demonstrators also want peace, but they said it should come from continued support of Israel and the United States, and combating Palestinian terrorism.

"We want people to know that American Jews support Israel," said Lisa Cohen, who shouldered a sign denouncing acts of terrorism. "I think Israel is a big part of being Jewish…for me, it's part of my Jewish identity."

Before long, the segregated groups intermingled and the heat from vigorous debates rose as evening temperatures began to plummet. Some were disconcerted to find so many Jews supporting the Palestinian cause.

"Isn't it a crime?" one woman asked. "It's just terrible."

By contrast, PPJC protester Yael Ronen, who grew up on a kibbutz in Israel and is more comfortable speaking Hebrew than English, said she cannot silently accept all of her country's actions. The daughter of a Holocaust survivor, Ronen believes that if the people of Germany and Poland spoke up and took action while the Shoah was happening around them, far fewer of her family members would have perished.

Both Feldman and Ronen admitted to receiving condemnation in the past for espousing political viewpoints that depart from those of the mainstream Jewish community, but neither felt particularly troubled by this. Luckily we live in a democracy, said Ronen, where differing opinions can be expressed without fear of oppression or violence.

Trying to craft a unified Jewish perspective is a difficult task, since Jews frequently hold deep-seated and incongruous opinions, contends Sheree Roth, who handed out leaflets depicting opposing positions on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.

"Look," Roth said, "if you put 100 Jews in a synagogue, you get 100 different ideas of Judaism."

Why then should half as many Jews on a street corner be any different?