600 rally in Palo Alto for U.S. solidarity with Israel

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators were conspicuously absent Sunday afternoon as about 600 Israel supporters filled the square in front of Palo Alto's City Hall to hear Rep. Tom Lantos and other members of the Jewish community at a rally billed as demonstrating "U.S. solidarity with Israel."

Amid gloomy skies that threatened rain, the 3 p.m. event began on another dark note: Earlier Sunday, another suicide bombing occurred in Netanya. Lantos (D-San Mateo) asked the crowd to join him in a moment of silence, both for the Israelis killed in the Netanya market and a U.S. soldier killed in Afghanistan that day.

"When I was on the plane [from Washington], I found out that there was yet another outrageous terrorist attack on Israel, and at the same time one of our own fighting men was killed fighting the terrorists," Lantos said afterward. "I think it's very important that those of us in public office stand up and support the democratic state of Israel."

Lantos, whose district includes parts of San Francisco and San Mateo County, recently co-authored a resolution with House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) in support of Israel and its military actions.

Sandwiched among the singing of the "Star-Spangled Banner," Israeli songs of peace and "Hatikvah," speeches by Lantos and others had a common theme: By backing Israel, the United States is supporting democracy and the war against terrorism.

"This is no time to remain quiet…to hide behind ambiguities," Lantos said. "A small and democratic country is fighting for its life, and the United States, the world's most powerful democracy, proudly stands with her in this struggle which we shall win jointly."

Along with rain jackets and umbrellas, people brought their children in strollers and backpacks, carrying such signs as "Israel Wants Peace/Arafat Wants Israel" and "The Body in America/The Heart in Israel." Many said they were impressed with the turnout, including Yitzhak Santis, director of Middle East affairs for the Jewish Community Relations Council.

Santis said he had been hoping for 1,000 people, but that given the weather, he was "very pleased" with the turnout. The JCRC, along with the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, were primarily responsible for producing the event.

"My main motivation for coming was to stand and be counted," said Brad Friedman, 37, who came by from Mountain View. "I'm proud that the community is standing up."

Interestingly, representatives offering the Palestinian viewpoint — who have disrupted other pro-Israel rallies in the Bay Area — were virtually nonexistent here. About the only flash of dissent occurred when a student from San Francisco State University, Isaac Goldstein, spoke of an angry pro-Palestinian counterdemonstration on campus May 7, reporting that the pro-Palestinians had uttered such phrases as "Hitler didn't finish the job." At that, somebody called out: "Liar!" But the dissenter was indistinguishable among the crowd.

The rally doubled as a fundraiser. David Steirman, JCF executive committee member and JCRC president, solicited contributions for a $5 million Israel Emergency Campaign. Separate from the JCF's normal fund-raising effort, the fund is for people in Israel who have "suffered from acts of terror and economic disaster," said Steirman.

Some attendees said the rally should have provided more than flag-waving and speechifying.

"It's good that there are quite a few people here," said Judith Friedman, of Palo Alto, who was accompanied by her husband and year-old daughter. "But the speakers don't make it clear what people can do to change things. They say platitudes and raise money, but what about political ways for people to express their outrage at what is going on?" Friedman said she thought that the pro-Palestinian rallies had a clear agenda and a level of organization unmatched by any of the pro-Israel rallies she had attended.

Later in the event, Zack Bodner, Northern California director of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, suggested some "action items," prefacing them with a succinct description of the conflict: "The violence in the Middle East is not about occupation, settlements or Ariel Sharon. It's about one thing and one thing only — Palestinian terrorism."

He urged asking congressional representatives to co-sponsor the "Arafat Accountability Act," a proposed piece of legislation that places various sanctions on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. He also called on attendees to complain to editors of newspapers that may have an anti-Israel bias and to write college administrators in support of Jewish students. When he said that people could help bolster Israel's economy by taking a trip there, the crowd cheered.

"The main thing is to get politically involved," Bodner said afterward. "Through work in politics, we can have a tangible effect on Israel's safety and security."