Israel solidarity and 'Bring Them Home' rally in San Francisco's Yerba Buena Gardens, Oct. 29, 2023. (Photo/Rebecca Goodman-JCRC)
Israel solidarity and 'Bring Them Home' rally in San Francisco's Yerba Buena Gardens, Oct. 29, 2023. (Photo/Rebecca Goodman-JCRC)

Huge turnout at ‘Bring Them Home’ solidarity rally in S.F.

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In the Bay Area’s largest Israel solidarity rally since the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, an estimated 1,800 supporters of Israel showed up Sunday at Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco, just blocks from where a march calling for a cease-fire had briefly shut down the 101 freeway the day before.

Sunday’s event took place inside metal barricades on the lawn, and San Francisco police were stationed in spots on the perimeter. Security guards moved about inside, keeping their eyes out for suspicious activity. Although attendees were all ages, children were less visible than usual at a community event.

The sounds of English, Russian and Hebrew commingled in the crowd, with people standing side by side wrapped in Israeli and American flags, holding signs calling for the release of 239 hostages held by Hamas in Gaza, and chanting “Bring them home!” in unison as 14 speakers took their turn at the microphone.

Sarah Levin, director of the nonprofit JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa), paused for a moment halfway into her speech to share that she has a relative being held hostage and that Sunday was the first day she’d been able to collect herself and get out of bed. “I’ve spent the last three weeks in total and complete sadness,” she said.

Levin delivered a message on behalf of the 1 million Jews “kicked out” of Arab and North African countries, who “since 1948 were ethnically cleansed and displaced,” she said. She noted that these Sephardic and Mizrahi refugees and their offspring today make up more than half of Israel’s Jewish population.

“All Jews, regardless of where our ancestors were exiled to, are indigenous to Israel,” Levin said to applause. “Israel is our ancestral homeland; it’s where we emerged as a people, and we have every right to live there unapologetically, in peace and security.”

Marco Sermoneta, the San Francisco-based consul general of Israel, came with a singular focus: the immediate and unconditional release of the hostages. “We want all of our brothers and sisters to be returned to us, to their families, now!” he said, calling on the International Red Cross to seek access to check on the hostages’ condition. He also wondered aloud why organizations outside the Jewish community had not joined in the demand to free the hostages, pointing to silence from LGBTQ organizations, women’s rights organizations and children’s rights agencies like Save the Children. “No decent human being should stay silent in the face of such evil,” he said. “Do not be silent. Do not forget their names.”

Anne Grenn Saldinger and Erez Saldinger at Israel solidarity and 'Bring Them Home' rally in Yerba Buena Gardens, San Francisco, Oct. 29, 2023. (Photo/Courtesy)
Anne Grenn Saldinger and Erez Saldinger at Israel solidarity and ‘Bring Them Home’ rally in Yerba Buena Gardens, San Francisco, Oct. 29, 2023. (Photo/Courtesy)

One speaker who brought on extra cheers was Danielle Sobkin, a student at UC Berkeley and co-president of Bears for Israel, who has been on the front lines, so to speak, at the volatile campus. “I am a Jewish student and I am scared,” she admitted. “Colleges are failing their Jewish students. The narrative around Israel and the Jewish people is being twisted and manipulated on campuses, in the media and in the court of public opinion.”

However, “I refuse to be silenced by fear. I refuse to let hate dictate how I live my life, how I engage with others, or how I express my identity,” Sobkin said. “I am Jewish and proud. And I will always stand up for my community and our right to live without fear or prejudice.”

Other speakers included Jewish Community Relations Council Bay Area CEO Tye Gregory, Rabbi Shimon Margolin of the Russian-speaking Jewish Community of San Francisco, state Sen. Scott Wiener and Berkeley council member Sophie Hahn. Among the 50 cosponsors were JCCs, Jewish agencies, synagogues, Chabads, schools, youth groups and others. 

Zack Bodner, CEO of the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, was comfortable with the microphone. “Since when did self-defense become a crime?” he asked, raising his voice. “Since when did murdering and kidnapping children become acceptable? Since when did raping women become OK in the Western world? I’ll tell you when: when it happens to Jews! The world turns a blind eye when Jews are the targets of hate.”

Noting the uncommon Jewish alliance of “left and right, Republicans and Democrats, religious and secular, leaders of UnXeptable and leaders of StandWithUs,” he urged people to stay united. “It’s going to get hard. The images are going to be tough to bear. But Israel is fighting a moral and just war,” Bodner said.

“We cannot stand by. We need to stand with Israel by shouting every day, over and over again: Bring them home! Bring them home! Bring them home!”

Rabbi Noah Westreich of S.F. Congregation Emanu-El focused on giving comfort in a time of fear and sorrow, quoting Israeli writer Etgar Keret and then offering a prayer.

“May the One who brought blessings to our ancestors bless all who stand guard in order to protect Israel and the Jewish people. Give them strength against our enemies, and strengthen their spirit to preserve their highest moral values at this time of trial. … Bless the State of Israel which marks the dawning of hope. Shield it beneath the wings of Your love… We are wounded, angry, frightened – but united. We are pained, confused, sorrowful – but resolute. As You have done repeatedly, deliver Israel from danger, and crown its efforts with success.”

Sue Barnett

Sue Barnett is managing editor of J. She can be reached at [email protected].