Attack mars peaceful protest outside Oakland AIPAC event

Violence briefly interrupted a noisy but otherwise peaceful protest that placed pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian activists within spitting distance of each other.

The brief scuffle occurred Monday, Dec. 13, in front of the Oakland Marriott where AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, was holding its annual East Bay membership dinner.

Among the organizers of the protest was Tikkun Community, a liberal San Francisco congregation led by Rabbi Michael Lerner. Other Jewish groups participating included Jewish Voice for Peace and Jews for a Free Palestine.

However, the majority of anti-Israel protestors appeared to be unaffiliated, non-Jewish members of strongly anti-Israel groups such as the International Solidarity Movement.

Clutching Palestinian flags and chanting slogans, the anti-Israel protesters far outnumbered the smaller pro-Israel contingent, members of which hoisted Israeli flags and fired back slogans of their own.

Oakland police estimated the crowd at 100.

Rather than keep the two sides apart, Oakland police allowed the two groups to mingle. Jews stood shoulder to shoulder, even those holding diametrically opposite views of the Middle East conflict. At times, the two sides resembled competing high school pep squads, complete with dueling bullhorns and “2-4-6-8” chants.

Thirty minutes into the event, a man in a green jacket sidled up to pro-Palestinian protester Gregory Hom of San Francisco, who was leading his side in a chant. In a flash, the man punched Hom in the face, knocking him and Regina Marie Johnson to the ground. Fellow protesters tackled the assailant, a 36-year-old homeless man named Johnny Joseph Butler, but police quickly hustled him away and arrested him for battery.

In the Oakland police report, an on-scene officer wrote, “As we placed him in the car [Butler] said, ‘I’m doing my duty for the city of Oakland.'”

Dan Kliman of San Francisco Voice for Israel said he had never before seen the attacker, and he approached the pro-Palestinian side to apologize for the incident.

Lerner and his wife showed up at the protest about an hour into it but stayed only briefly, apparently disturbed by the throng of anti-Israel extremists, one of whom held aloft a sign that read: “Smash the Jewish State/Peace is not an option.”

“We didn’t expect this,” he said. “I am pro-Israel.” He then added, “AIPAC is the primary force keeping our government from taking a strong pro-peace perspective in the Middle East.”

Despite the violence, a few individuals from both sides attempted to engage in civil one-on-one dialogue, though by all appearances no minds were changed.

Said Karen Paull of Berkeley, a Jewish member of Tikkun Community, “Many Jews are critical of what Israel is doing in the occupied territories. It’s in everyone’s interest to go back to the negotiating table and work towards a two-state solution.”

Kliman pointed at the pro-Palestinians and said they “want Israel destroyed. Jews have been at the forefront of anti-Semitic movements from biblical times to today.”

Meyrl Goldman of San Francisco, a member of Jews for a Free Palestine, said, “I don’t like that my tax dollars go to support the military in Israel. There needs to be a Jewish homeland but I support a one-state solution. I do this out of a strong sense of Jewish identity.”

Though attendees of the AIPAC function heard and saw nothing of the protest outside, many were aware of it. Said AIPAC press secretary Joshua Block, “AIPAC and its members work tirelessly to help Israel take the necessary risks to achieve its lifelong dream of peace. While there may be a diversity of opinion in the Jewish community, some of those protesting often associate with elements whose anti-Israel rhetoric borders on anti-Semitic.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.