Ehud Olmert endures deluge of hecklers in S.F. talk

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

When Ehud Olmert strolled into a back entrance at the Westin St. Francis Hotel last week, having already been heckled during appearances in Chicago and New Orleans, the former Israeli prime minister must have known what was coming.

After all, he was in San Francisco, and if there hadn’t been any anti-Olmert/anti-Israel shoutdowns in San Francisco, well, that would have been a major story.

As it was, 22 people interrupted Olmert’s Oct. 22 appearance, yelling various things such as, “You deserve to be in a prison, not a hotel,” “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” and “Let him speak on the street but not here.”

Each was hauled away by security officials — some five dozen State Department and San Francisco Police Department officials blanketed the 480-seat hall — cited for disturbing a public meeting and released.

Many in the crowd of about 360 appeared upset at the hecklers, especially during the first 20 minutes of the event, when verbal assaults at roughly the rate of one per minute were preventing both the interviewer and Olmert from focusing on issues in any type of coherent fashion.

A cable car rolls between demonstrators on opposite sides of Powell Street. photo/andy altman-ohr

However, the 64-year-old politician apparently took it in stride, saying “heckling is part of the political game.”

“I saw him off to Los Angeles [Friday] morning and I think he felt pretty good about the way things went,” said Akiva Tor, the consul general of Israel for the Pacific Northwest. “For the people who were able to bear through it, after the first half hour, it became quite an interesting and revealing event.”

The heckling began at the precise moment Olmert sat down in his chair on the stage. Immediately, a woman stood and yelled, “I have here a warrant for the arrest of Ehud Olmert.” A few seconds later, a man stood and screamed “murderer” and “war criminal” at the former prime minister, who was in charge during both the 2006 Lebanon War and last winter’s military action in Gaza.

“So much for my warning,” interviewer Janes Wales uttered defeatedly. The president and CEO of the World Affairs Council of Northern California had introduced the event by saying no interruptions would be tolerated.

Olmert’s U.S. speaking tour was met by activists and hecklers at nearly every stop. In an Oct. 15 speech at the University of Chicago, outbursts led to 25 people being escorted out of the hall by security, the Chicago Tribune reported. At Tulane University in New Orleans on Oct. 20, there was yelling from the audience. His tour also included stops in Kentucky, New York, Kansas and Arkansas, where it ended Oct. 27.

In San Francisco, aside from a few shushes and hisses, most people in the audience remained quiet as the verbal outbursts continued one after another; it was such an onslaught that after one outburst Olmert just laughed quietly and shook his head.

But after a barrage of six hecklers in five minutes, Roberta Zucker of Tiburon had had enough. After someone yelled, “The blood of the children is on your hands,” Zucker shouted back, “What about the Israeli children?”

After the event, Zucker called the incessant interruptions “unfortunate and horrible,” but said she has come to expect such attacks from the anti-Israel forces in the Bay Area, especially at an event that wasn’t a private donor function or a fundraiser; anyone could attend at a cost of $20 for World Affairs Council members and $35 for others.

“I think they’re much more proactive than the Jewish community and the pro-Israel community,” said Zucker, a member of Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. “They’ve run a great PR campaign since the second intifada, and we ought to learn from them. Frankly, we’ve been sitting on our thumbs, and it’s sad.”

Dr. Michael Harris, one of the founders of the newly renamed StandWithUs/S.F. Voice for Israel, would beg to differ. To combat a rally by anti-Israel forces before the event, Harris helped organize a sizeable group of anti-protesters — about 100, according to Lt. Jim Garrity of the SFPD.

“For our side, that’s a very good number,” said Harris.

On the other side of the street, there were some 250 anti-Israel protesters, according to Garrity. Carrying signs that

read “Let Gaza Live,” “Stop U.S. Aid to Israel” and “Wanted: Ehud Olmert, War Criminal,” they stood on the Union Square side of Powell Street, with the pro- Israel forces directly in front of the hotel.

It was quite a scene, with cable cars running up and down the tracks between the two sides and bemused tourists snapping photos.

“We had some discussions with tourists — we were very happy to explain why we were there,” Harris said. “Also, there were a number of people who were on their way into the event that stopped and thanked us for being out there.”

Other than marshalling a few potential rabble-rousers off the pro-Israel side of the street, the police officers lining each side of the block had a relatively easy night of it.

“Very peaceful. Good group,” Garrity said of the demonstrations, which lasted from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. The Olmert event began at 6:30 p.m.

Although Harris said the anti-Israeli forces weren’t really there to protest Olmert — “To them, his appearance is essentially just a pretext. What they really want is the elimination of the Jewish state,” he said — some on the anti-Israel side didn’t feel that way.

Cindy Shamban, a Jewish Voice for Peace member from Berkeley, said she was protesting against “Olmert’s being here, his role in the war in Gaza and the invasion of Lebanon in 2006, his unwillingness when he was prime minister to be engaged in the peace process and how he has done nothing to stop the settlements.”

“To me,” said Mo Schooer of San Francisco, who carried a “One more Jew outraged by Israel” sign, “it’s like inviting [former Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld or [former Vice President Dick] Cheney, who are the architects of the Iraq War, to speak in San Francisco. Olmert is the same type of criminal they are … I don’t like interrupting people from talking, but I wish he hadn’t been invited.”

Inside the hotel ballroom, others had no qualms about interrupting, and the question-and-answer format stalled repeatedly in the first 30 minutes.

Olmert said at one point, “I hope the people who came here are tolerant people who have time, because I am free until after midnight. Eventually, those that want to remain will be the only people left — and we’ll have a very enjoyable evening.”

Sure enough, after the 30-minute mark, only two more outbursts occurred. Olmert didn’t stay until midnight, but he did stretch the scheduled 75-minute appearance to 90 minutes, addressing issues such as Middle East peace, Iran, the Lebanon War in 2006 and last winter’s Gaza offensive, which occurred toward the end of his stint as prime minister.

“He showed that it was possible to have a very meaningful and very revealing discussion about a former prime minister’s career,” Tor said. “It was a world-class discussion.”

Israel’s former leader addresses Mideast peace, Iran, Goldstone report

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.