Its important to speak out as Jews, say anti-war demonstrators in S.F.

On a day when the reigning fashion accessory was a kaffiyeh, Jonathan Neril wore a yarmulke.

The Stanford graduate student is a leader of Shalom on the Street: Stanford Jews for Peace. And during last week's anti-war protests in San Francisco, dozens of members waved signs, marched and blocked traffic, and at least one student was arrested.

"I feel it's important to speak out against the war as Jews," said Neril, who is Orthodox and grew up in Lafayette. "We oppose the unjust taking of human life by our government. In terms of Israel's security, I'm more concerned about the anger generated in the Arab world by a war in Iraq than the weapons of mass destruction Saddam [Hussein] has."

The group blocked the intersection of Third and Folsom streets March 20, angering some morning commuters, but earning expressions of support from others.

"We recognize we were inconveniencing people, and we don't glorify that. But it was important to start discussion and raise voices for democracy. I asked people if the democracy in this country was working for them, and a lot of people said it wasn't," said Noah Barish, a Stanford junior.

"This is Judaism in a public space. It's a direct statement to the world. A lot of times we'll be socially active or religiously observant, but this is the only time I've ever been involved as a Jew in a political context."

Moments after Barish, Neril and others shared their thoughts, a large pod of war protesters ambled by, and the Stanford Jews disappeared into the crowd.

At every intersection, protesters veiled in hoods, bandanas or kaffiyehs crossed a black "X" across the front of the news racks before proceeding to kick them over and drag them into the middle of the street. Police, following in cars at a walking pace, were forced to clear the debris out of the road before moving on.

Vandals also tipped heavy stone trashcans or planters and slid them into the intersections. At one point, a masked protester glanced to his left and shouted, "Hey, look!" Immediately seven or eight marchers ran from the streets into a parking lot and dislodged the object of the man's attention, a pair of large dumpsters on wheels.

Members of A Jewish Voice for Peace, at least a dozen of whom were sprawled prone across the intersection of Market and Montgomery streets, decried the use of violence in protesting the war. "I don't believe there is a violent way to peace unless you've already been attacked and are fighting back," said Lincoln Shlensky.

A number of protesters in the crowds held signs blaming Israel for the U.S. entry into Iraq. Some signs equated the Magen David with a swastika.

"Sure, there are signs that are blatantly anti-Israel and claim this war is the desire of Israel and the Jews," said JVP member Arnon, a combat veteran of the Yom Kippur War, who would only give "E" as his first name. "I wouldn't agree. George W. Bush is not going to war for Israel. He's going to war for George W. Bush."

When asked about anti-Israel sentiment, Shanna Mitz, a member of the Stanford Jewish contingent replied, "That's the trouble with rallies, all the three-word slogans.

"I don't feel alienated in the midst of people who don't want a war in Iraq. But when I see a sign that says 'Out of Iraq, Out of Palestine," then I feel alienated by that."

Nineteen JVP members and two supportive bystanders were arrested March 20 at the intersection of Market and Montgomery streets. They were charged with "disobeying a lawful order" for refusing police instructions to leave the street.

A number of JVP demonstrators were also arrested Monday outside the Federal Building.

The JVP's blockade at Market and Montgomery was quickly joined by several hundred fellow protesters, who blanketed the wide intersection.

Taxi driver Phil Sterlin was trapped by the blockade for hours, cutting off his source of income. But he took it in stride.

Pointing to the JVP banner and the ordinary-looking people behind it, Sterlin noted, "The media tries to portray only radicals as being out here. But it's everybody."

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.