Rae Abileah first visited Israel with her BBYO chapter, then as a Diller Teen fellow. She remembers feeling “an amazing homecoming” the first time she stepped on the tarmac at Ben Gurion Airport.
That was then.
Now, as the grassroots coordinator for far-left organization Code Pink: Women for Peace, she takes part in protests against Israel and what she calls the “illegal siege” of Gaza.
She will be one of more than 40 Bay Area residents taking part in the Gaza Freedom March, a three-day trek from the Egyptian-Gaza border into Gaza, beginning Dec. 29. Up to 1,000 people from 40 countries are expected to participate.
There will also be local Gaza actions: a Dec. 27 vigil in San Francisco’s Union Square marking one year since the launch of Operation Cast Lead (Israel’s war on Hamas) and a march across the Golden Gate Bridge on Dec. 31.
Abileah, 27, is one of a handful of local Jews taking part in the march in Gaza.
“As a Jewish American of Israeli descent,” Abileah said, “I feel a responsibility to bear witness to the suffering of the people in Gaza, and be part of the transformation that will ultimately tear down the walls that enclose the world’s largest open-air prison.”
As one of the few paid staffers with Code Pink, an anti-war group composed mainly of women, the San Francisco resident travels the country organizing street protests. Most of those in the recent past focused on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Abileah said that changed a year ago.
“It was hard for me to see the reality of what the Israeli government is doing,” Abileah added. “Cast Lead was a real eye-opener.”
Abileah emphasized that Code Pink (one of the main organizers of the march) does not necessarily support the Hamas government in Gaza.
“This march is purely about the blockade of Gazans’ basic human rights in the Geneva Convention,” she said. “It’s not about taking one side or another, joining with a political party in power. It’s about being on the side of innocent people.”
She cites as proof the fact that last year, on a tour of Gaza she co-led, she also visited Sderot, the southern Israeli town besieged by Hamas rocket fire.
To local pro-Israel activist Dr. Michael Harris, Abileah and other Jews participating in the Gaza Freedom March are deluded. The leader of StandWithUs/S.F. Voice for Israel cuts them little slack.
He says what Abileah and her colleagues are doing is “providing support for Hamas, and that doesn’t do anything to further the cause of peace. I would say the people going on this are overtly against the existence of a Jewish state of Israel. They’re not trying to bring about peace. They are trying to encourage the eternal jihad against the existence of Israel.”
Whether that’s true for some of the Gaza marchers, Abileah’s case is more complicated. Her father, the son of Holocaust survivors, was born in Israel. Her great-uncle, Joseph Abileah, was a famous Israeli peace activist and conscientious objector.
Raised in Half Moon Bay, Abileah and her family belonged to Burlingame’s Peninsula Temple Sholom. She participating in temple activities, then and after college joined a mission to El Salvador sponsored by American Jewish World Service.
Proud of her Jewish heritage, she said, “The principle that resonated with me was tikkun olam, putting our faith into action. “It’s such an amazing legacy of Jewish activism I learned in college. I feel I’m, doing the work my ancestors have paid the pathway.”
She also says being Jewish helps her understand why most Jews resist condemning Israel as harshly as does Code Pink and similar groups.
“I have a certain compassion and understanding for the American Jewish response around Israel,” Abileah added. “I can see how it’s possible to be P.E.P. — progressive except Palestine. I was like that for a long time.”
Harris doesn’t buy it.
“There are plenty of people who support a Jewish state of Israel and also want to see peace between [Israel] and an Arab state of Palestine,” he said. “But these aren’t the people doing the Gaza march. I think if someone is going to those lengths, they’re not being duped. They know exactly what they are doing.”
He also promises his pro-Israel activists will be on hand to counter the upcoming local Gaza protests, which have hit a small bump already. Glide Memorial Church decided against hosting a Dec. 27 “memorial service” for Palestinian casualties of Operation Cast Lead that had been scheduled in conjunction with the Union Square protest, prompting local Palestinian-American activist Noura Erakat to call the church’s decision “overt racism.”
Despite that cancellation and expected counter-protests from S.F. Voice for Israel, Abileah is not deterred.
“This is an [Israeli] government that is doing illegal things every day,” she said. “We have a moral responsibility to speak up when that is happening.”