Crowd of 3,000 stands with Israel at S.F. rally

Bob Linville said it had been 40 years since he participated in anything like the huge pro-Israel, pro-peace rally held Aug. 3 in San Francisco.

“I haven’t seen anything like this since the ’60s,” the Vallejo veterinarian said after marching from Civic Center Plaza to Justin Herman Plaza. Anti-Israel sentiment has “gotten so bad,” he added, that such a rally was desperately needed.

Many people around the Bay Area apparently felt the same way.

The Bay Stands with Israel rally drew a crowd of 3,000, according to police, making it the Bay Area’s largest pro-Israel rally in decades, and perhaps ever, said Dr. Mike Harris of San Rafael, a longtime organizer of local pro-Israel gatherings.

On an overcast day with intermittent winds, dozens of large Israeli flags and hundreds of smaller ones fluttered in the breeze, and the spirit was one of peace and solidarity. Six counterdemonstrators, one holding a large Palestinian flag, stood on the sidewalk about 30 yards away from the edge of the rally, but only once did they get vocal, at which point some of the 40 police officers on hand lined up between them and the rally, and they quieted down quickly.

“It’s truly inspiring seeing so many of you here today,” Gil Shotan, one of the organizers, told the sea of attendees dressed in blue and white, many holding signs and banners. “When we started planning this event [less than a week earlier], we had no idea that so many organizations, so many congregations and so many schools would come together on such short notice to make this rally happen.”

Thousands gather in San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza on Aug. 3 for one of the largest pro-Israel rallies in Bay Area history.  photo/andy altman-ohr

Thirty-eight organizations signed on as co-sponsors, from all regions of the Bay Area, and the attendance dwarfed organizers’ initial expectations of 500 to 1,000 people. “What a show of force!” Shotan bellowed.

The rally was emceed by veteran Jewish activist John Rothmann, who introduced a lineup of speakers that included state Assemblyman Marc Levine (D-North Bay); Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council; Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley; and Anita Friedman, executive director of S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services.

“I am moved and proud to see so many of you here,” said another one of the speakers, Andy David, Israel’s consul general for the Pacific Northwest.

Added Levine: “This community should be proud in its support of Israel and of standing for Israel and demanding that Hamas choose peace.”

The rally gave people a rare opportunity not only to support Israel and peace, but also to come together in heart, mind and spirit.

Isaac Winer of Palo Alto said he was there “to stand with Israel; to support her right to defend herself and to demonstrate that Israel and the U.S. share some basic values of peace, democracy, and the right and obligation to defend themselves from the forces of evil.”

Yael Kidron of Sunnyvale said, “I’m here to promote people’s awareness, because we believe Israel is fighting two enemies: Hamas and world ignorance.”

Daniel Schrader, also from Sunnyvale, said he spent his Sunday afternoon rallying and marching “to show that Americans believe Hamas is a terrorist organization and to encourage others to support Israel.”

Kahn launched his remarks by reading a statement from Sen. Barbara Boxer that began, “No country in the world could sit back in the face of the great threats that Israel is facing every single hour of every single day. No country in the world could sit back and fail to respond to hundreds of rockets screaming over her border toward her people.”

During his own speech, Kahn spoke with conviction and emotion.

“Israel has been vilified in parts of the Bay Area,” he intoned, “where professional Israel haters try to find ways to demonize our one, our only Jewish state. For what? For defending its citizens from incessant rocket attacks? For caring enough about its citizens, Jewish and Arabs, to build an elaborate defense system? For insisting that a network of tunnels designed to kidnap and kill its citizens by a terror organization sworn to Israel’s destruction be destroyed? For risking its own soldiers’ lives to minimize casualties among innocent civilians used by Hamas to hide behind?

Rally attendees listen to a speech  photo/sue barnett

“Enough of the hypocrisy by Israel’s detractors! We must dedicate ourselves more than ever to share the real Israel that we know and love.”

Kahn also said that besides Israel, “no nation has shown more restraint in the face of repeated threats, and more resilience in the face of murderous attacks” and that “no nation is more maligned unfairly by a world that ignores horrific human rights violations” in every corner of the globe.

After the rally, which included not only the impassioned speeches but also a few musical interludes and longtime Bay Area Rabbi Sheldon Lewis leading the crowd in “Hatikvah,” many of the attendees marched 1.7 miles down Market Street to Justin Herman Plaza. According to a police estimate, there were 1,200 marchers, although it seemed as if at least 75 percent of rally attendees participated in the march.

They carried flags that read: “Israel has the right to defend its children,” “Hamas, change your charter,” “Israel is the only country in the Middle East where they don’t burn American flags” and “More hummus, less Hamas.”

Chanting “Hamas wants war; Israel wants peace!” and “No mas Hamas!” and singing songs, the pro-Israel crowd worked its way toward the waterfront, walking mostly in the bus lanes under police escort. Police blocked traffic from crossing Market Street as the throng passed through intersections, and passing motorists honked their horns in support.

With signs all around, attendees listen to one of the speeches. photo/andy altman-ohr

A few people hurled barbs at the marchers, such as shouting “Stop killing babies.”

While acknowledging the terrible cost in lives on both sides, and the Israeli and Jewish desire for peace, the common thread among rally participants seemed to be that the Jewish/Israeli community and its supporters mean it when they say “Never again.”

“We have witnessed in Europe and around the world chants that we thought we would never hear again,” Rothmann told the crowd at the rally. “ ‘Death to the Jews.’ ‘To the ovens with the Jews.’ ‘Kill the Jews.’ We have heard these chants coming — and we stand united to say ‘Never again!’ ”

Harris, the founder of S.F. Voice for Israel, said it might have been the largest pro-Israel gathering in Bay Area history. “The only thing comparable was the 2002 rally in Justin Herman Plaza” during the second intifada, he said. A few weeks ago, a solidarity gathering at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco drew between 800 and 900 people.

Word of the Aug. 3 rally was spread mostly through social media. Many of the involved Jewish organizations also sent out notices, and J. ran an article in last week’s newspaper and on

The event drew Harvey Rappaport of El Cerrito, who said he’s “not brave enough” to wear his Israel T-shirt in Berkeley and knows of people who are afraid to speak Hebrew in that city. “It’s a really scary thing,” he said, which was part of the reason he attended the rally.

photo/rachel raskin-zrihen

San Francisco resident Peggy Sugar said her aim was to “make sure the Israelis know there are Americans standing with them as they fight this fight.”

Alexander Gofen of San Francisco said he was at the rally “to support Israel and justice.” He was “disappointed the U.S. is not as supportive as it should be of Israel as a bulwark against Islamic terrorism.”

Virginia and Bill Yanowsky of San Jose said they brought their daughter Emma, 8, to the rally to show her that Israel has more support than she might realize.

Moshe Arzt of Berkeley wanted to “show my basic support for what Israel is about and how it handles its affairs in the world.”

Yovav Ofri of Sunnyvale was among a convoy of motorcycle-riding Bay Area Israelis who circled the rally several times, blue and white flags flying, before parking nearby to join the event.

“We’re here to support Israel,” he said. “We understand what’s going on over there and we have families there, and this is our way of supporting them.”

Not everyone at the event was there to wave flags and hold up signs, however.

Mendel Rice of San Rafael, whose father is Rabbi Yisrael Rice of Chabad of Marin, spent most of the event asking Jewish men if he could wrap tefillin on them.

“This is where the Jews are today,” he explained. “My job is to make the world a better place and to do acts of goodness and kindness. But this is pretty cool. It’s not so often you have a big crowd of Jews in one place in the Bay Area.”

Four young Israelis made rally happen

Naomi Kosman-Wiener

A surge of anti-Israel demonstrations around the Bay Area in recent weeks inspired four young Israelis in the Palo Alto area to form their own group — one that promotes and supports Israel.

The group’s crowning achievement was organizing the pro-Israel rally at Civic Center Plaza in San Francisco on Aug. 3 that drew an estimated 3,000 people.

Two of the group leaders, Ben Limonchik, 25, and Guy Amdur, 25, are undergraduates at Stanford University, while the other two are recent graduates: Gil Shotan, 29, from Stanford, and Hilla Wahnishe-Jacobs, 29, from U.C. Berkeley.

Rally organizers (from left) Gil Shotan, Guy Amdur, Ben Limonchik and Hilla Wahnishe-Jacobs photo/facebook

“What really sparked our formation was a spontaneous Facebook conversation in which a friend posted a video of an anti-Israeli demonstration in San Francisco,” Wahnishe-Jacobs said. “What was disturbing was the amount of hatred that the demonstrators had; one of them even threatened the pro-Israel demonstrators. It really bothered us that there was not strong Israeli support [in the Bay Area]. That event alone caused us to talk to various organizations.”

According to Amdur, the four students felt personally obligated to help garner support for Israel.

“We all just got out of the [Israeli] army, and we felt like we weren’t doing enough,” he said. “As ex-soldiers, you feel bad when your friends are fighting [in Israel and Gaza] and you’re in California and can’t contribute. That’s what pushed us to organize this [the Aug. 3 rally].”

“It’s important for the soldiers to see they have support,” added Limonchik, who was in the Israeli army from 2010-12 and participated in a military operation, though he was reluctant to say if it was 2012’s Pillar of Defense, an eight-day operation in Gaza. “For current soldiers, rallies like this are huge for their morale.”

The first event the students organized was a pro-Israel march down California Street on July 20 that drew more than 200 supporters. It started at the JCC of San Francisco and wound up seven blocks away at Congregation Emanu-El, where 800 to 900 were gathering for an emotional and powerful community solidarity rally inside the sanctuary.

Four days later, the group called for a counterprotest at an anti-Israel rally in Palo Alto. Despite having less than 24 hours to organize, they got more than 100 pro-Israel supporters to show up — with many expressing their desire for something even bigger in the Bay Area.

“We saw the other side organizing one rally after another,” Shotan told J., “and we feared that somebody who didn’t know anything about the situation would get a skewed image of the conflict. We also wanted to emphasize that people on our side should feel empowered to go and stand up for Israel. It’s something they should feel proud to stand up for and not shy away from.”

Last week, the organizers and their volunteer crew spent countless hours preparing for the Aug. 3 event in San Francisco after receiving word five days earlier that their permit application was approved by city officials.

“The past five days were crazy for everyone who worked on this,” Limonchik said shortly after the rally. “We barely slept, and we were constantly on the phone. We had to carry our phone chargers because we killed our batteries halfway through the day.

“But it was amazing how few struggles we had to go through. Everyone was very responsive and up for the cause, so we were able to focus on reaching out to as many people in the Bay Area Jewish community as possible.”

“This required dozens of person-hours over the course of less than a week — there are so many logistical details needed to make an event like this happen,” marveled Dr. Mike Harris of S.F. Voice for Israel, which helped promote the rally via its 1,300-member email list. “We were happy to get the word out, but what really helped was their work in getting the other community organizers on board.”

Planning the event included making sure security was in order, lining up speakers, and enlisting the support of some 38 Bay Area Jewish organizations and agencies. The organizers also promoted the rally through loads of emails and on social media, mainly Facebook.

They and their supporters also spent time making signs and banners, about 60 of them (although most of the signs at the rally were homemade by the attendees, Limonchik said). They also made and sold “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace” T-shirts for $10 to help defray the cost of the rally, selling out of their supply of two big boxes. “We even had one lady give us $250 so we could give out T-shirts to whoever wanted one,” Wahnishe-Jacobs said.

During his opening remarks as rally emcee, radio talk show host John Rothmann said, “We are here today because of four individuals. They are former soldiers in the IDF … let’s call them to the stage … And they deserve a hand! Let’s give it to them.”

Much of the support the young Israelis have received has come from the Israel Cultural Connection at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto.

The four Israelis represent a committee of the ICC Young Adult Group, which formed 2 1/2 years ago as a way to make young Israelis living in the Bay Area feel more at home. Ronit Jacobs, the director of the ICC, has played a key role in supporting the group’s endeavors, including the recent pro-Israel demonstrations. Jacobs emphasized that even though she helps in whatever way she can, the events are initiated completely by the young Israelis.

“I think what’s exciting about this ICC Young Adult Group is that they are doers and not just talkers,” Jacobs said. “They’re working until the wee hours of the morning. It’s very moving to see that they really care and they’re getting everyone else involved.”

After the rally, the organizers received many commendations on Facebook, including “Thank you for making it happen!” and “You rock! Kol hakavod.”

Added Harris: “We’ve always had folks of all generations showing up at our [pro-Israel] events, but this is the first time we’ve had young people as a real organized group that we were able to work with. I am so impressed with their efforts.”

J. managing editor Andy Altman-Ohr contributed to these reports.

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen
Rachel Raskin-Zrihen

A wife and mother of two grown sons, Rachel Raskin-Zrihen is a longtime Bay Area journalist, columnist and co-author of the book "Jewish Community of Solano County."