Two women light memorial candles
From right, Riva Berelson and Anita Feinstein light yarhzeit candles at a Jan. 26, 2024, event at the Holocaust memorial outside the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. The event took place ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

Lone protester interrupts Holocaust remembrance event in S.F.

An invitation-only commemoration Friday in San Francisco ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day became a symbolic microcosm of the current waves of antisemitism and anti-Zionism when a protester interrupted every speaker at the event. 

Gathered for just over an hour at the city’s Holocaust memorial outside of the Legion of Honor, about two dozen community leaders and diplomats wore yellow ribbons in solidarity with the hostages who have been held by Hamas since Oct. 7. 

The regional consulates of Israel, Ireland and Germany, the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Family and Children’s Services Holocaust Center organized the event, together with the Anti-Defamation League and Jewish Community Relations Council Bay Area.

The guests included at least one Holocaust survivor, Anita Feinstein, and a child of Holocaust survivors, Riva Berelson. Both are AJC regional board members. 

A lone protester, who declined to give his name, demonstrates against the war in Gaza during an event commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor, Jan. 26, 2024. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
A lone protester, who declined to give his name, demonstrates against the war in Gaza during an event commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor, Jan. 26, 2024. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

“Today, we gather to remember an incomparable genocide. And while it is necessary to mourn, it is insufficient to remember only the murdered Jews,” said Rabbi Serena Eisenberg, AJC director of regional operations. “When Jews are targeted, democracy falters, society fails all of its citizens. We remember, too, LGBTQ victims, disabled, Gypsy and many other minorities and political prisoners who were persecuted by the Nazi regime.” 

Eisenberg spoke about the latest manifestations of antisemitism and the need for Holocaust education to combat the type of hate that Jews face following the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre in Israel.

The rabbi’s remarks were echoed by California Lt. Governor Eleni Kounalakis, who emphasized the importance of gathering to support the Jewish community in the open, as opposed to hiding inside for fear of persecution — the way that so many people were forced to do in Europe in the 1940s. 

The lieutenant governor’s sentiments were punctuated by a sole protester who stood at the periphery of the crowd. He brandished signs, including one he painted red with a Star of David fashioned as a swastika. 

The man shouted about Israel and Jews during each of the speeches, yelling things such as other victims of the Holocaust “did not get an ethnocratic state” and that he does “love Jews, like Albert Einstein and Noam Chomsky.” 

There were no uniformed police officers and no visible police vehicles at the event, though there were plainclothes security personnel on hand.

Matan Zamir, Israel’s deputy consul general to the Pacific Northwest, remarked about the protester’s presence.

“We could not have asked for a more vivid example of the rise of antisemitism and hate than the protester who showed up holding a sign replacing the swastika with the Star of David,” Zamir said.

While the protester’s disruptions appeared to make several participants uneasy, the diplomats in attendance voiced their support for both Israel and the American Jewish community. 

German Consul General Oliver Schramm noted his nation’s unequivocal support for Jews to live peacefully in Germany, Israel and around the world. 

In accordance with Jewish tradition, guests placed stones on the memorial as an act of remembrance and respect for those murdered in the Holocaust. 

After the ceremony, the protester waved his swastika sign and charged toward Schramm, who was already inside his vehicle. The protester then fled. After he left, many of the guests remained for a moment of silence. 

The second half of the day’s commemoration was a virtual talk from a Holocaust survivor identified only as Herb, who hid in Catholic orphanages throughout the war before he was reunited with his parents and immigrated to the United States. 

International Holocaust Remembrance Day is marked annually on Jan. 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

“We are grateful to the diplomats and officials that joined us to honor the 6 million victims of the Holocaust,” Oleg Ivanov, AJC’s regional assistant director, said at the ceremony. “Antisemitism is a global phenomenon, and it’s vital that our international allies and partners continue to speak out against it as we join to fight the world’s oldest hatred wherever it arises.”

Valerie Demicheva
Valerie Demicheva

Valerie Demicheva is a journalist and photographer whose work has been published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Women's Wear Daily and Silicon Valley Magazine. She's covered culture, tech, media, restaurants and philanthropy in the Bay Area for over a decade.