Peace, love, Birkenstocks abound at S.F. interfaith rally

At first glance, last Friday's "Interfaith Message for Peace" rally in San Francisco trafficked in the usual iconography: There was a disproportionate amount of Birkenstocks, exhortations to link hands while singing "This Land is Your Land" and stone-faced cops standing sullenly with their arms folded.

There were people hurriedly rushing to work, trying to ignore the war protesters who had gathered outside the federal building on Van Ness Avenue. One observer quipped that "nothing undermines the integrity of a movement quicker than Birkenstocks." Other people involved with the protest were overcome with emotion and latched on to each other for support.

Yet this protest, which featured spiritual leaders from various faiths (although no Muslim clergy were there), also seemed to deviate from the norm. In a unique display of empathy, Jack Kornfeld of the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre asked the 200 people gathered outside the Federal Building to remember "Saddam Hussein was once a beautiful 4- or 5-year-old boy," deserving of compassion.

Rabbi Michael Lerner of San Francisco's Tikkun Community, who appeared wearing a tallit and tefillin, addressed another undercurrent to the war in Iraq.

Lerner was recently caught in a "Not as left as thou" conundrum when he was denied permission to speak at a February anti-war rally sponsored by ANSWER — a group he castigated as anti-Israel. Ironically, some mainstream Jewish leaders have often derided Lerner as being anti-Israel.

Perhaps acknowledging the minor media storm swirling about him, Lerner clarified what he believed were misconceptions about the conflict in Iraq. Lerner said that too many people on the left saw the war in Iraq as a referendum on Zionism aided and abetted by Jews in positions of power.

Saying that some of those viewpoints were tinged with anti-Semitism, Lerner added that the conflict in Iraq could be construed as a "struggle between two paradigms — the one held by people in power, and the other deriving from the religious tradition of Judaism, which is now adopted by most other religions."

According to Lerner, the prevailing paradigm is that security necessitates hegemony — hence the current conflict. But he also had some pointed remarks for the anti-war movement, saying some of its leaders are too concerned with who is in power, rather than focusing on the movement's goals.

Other Jewish leaders who spoke were Rabbi Pam Frydman Baugh of San Francisco's Or Shalom Jewish Community and David Cooper of Berkeley's Kehilla Community Synagogue, who was arrested, as was Allan Solomonow, local leader of the American Friends Service Committee, who is Jewish.

While the grandiloquence of speakers such as Lerner has never been in doubt, some participants were finding their voices for the first time.

Susan Duhan Felix, a 65-year-old Berkeley resident, attended the protest in the hopes of voicing her concerns and meeting up with her husband afterward.

"I had an appointment to do my taxes in the afternoon," said Felix. "Instead, I had to call my husband and tell him that there was a slight change in plans," she recalled with a chuckle. "I told him I'd been arrested."

Felix, who has involved in community-based activism for years, found herself moved by what she called the "spiritual element" at Friday's protest.

What that service did for me was take all of my anger and turn it into compassion and kindness," said Felix. "It was such a beautiful and unexpected example of nonviolence."

Felix, who said she confronted her fears of being arrested by singing "We Shall Overcome" and chanting the Shehechiyanu, said the whole process was an "amazingly uplifting" experience. "I really felt like I made my voice heard, and it helped heal my frustration and sadness," said Felix.

There were a few other benefits for Felix as well. As she left the room where the protestors were detained, one of the police officers asked her to bless him.

"So I did," said Felix. "All of the police officers were so wonderful and sweet, and they treated us so well. They really seemed to be concerned with the protesters' well-being, and the protesters were equally concerned about the well-being of the police officers.

"There couldn't have been any more love in that room."

And Felix still made her afternoon tax appointment.