As local streets fill with protesters condemning Israel’s Gaza incursion, some in the Bay Area Jewish community fear the level of anti-Israel vitriol has crossed the line into anti-Semitism.
“It’s like nothing we’ve seen since the Second Lebanon War in 2006,” said Michael Harris with San Francisco Voice for Israel.
Harris claimed Arabic-speaking S.F. Voice for Israel counterprotesters heard people chanting in Arabic “Death to the Jews,” “Slaughter the Jews” and “Palestine is our land, and the Jews are our dogs” at recent local anti-Israel marches.
A Jan. 5 press release from the Anti-Defamation League cited examples of anti-Semitism from other demonstrations around the country, including a protester’s sign in New York reading “Israel: the Fourth Reich,” and another in Tampa, Fla., that read “Zionism is a cancer: Radiate it.”
“I would agree the messaging coming out of these protests has elevated to a level that is more threatening,” said Jonathan Bernstein, the Anti-Defamation League’s regional director. “We’ve gotten calls from area synagogues, not about any specific incidents, but they’re interested in additional advice to enhance their security.”
Groups like S.F. Voice for Israel have mounted counterprotests at several anti-Israel rallies; more than 100 Israel supporters showed up for a downtown San Francisco march Jan. 2. Harris said pro-Israel counterprotests will take place over the coming weeks in Berkeley, Oakland and at a large-scale San Francisco march sponsored by International ANSWER on Saturday, Jan. 10.
“If they’re going to be setting up at Civic Center, then we will be there,” added Harris. “We fully expect our rights of free speech and free assembly will be upheld by the San Francisco Police Department.”
Israel’s S.F.-based Consul General Akiva Tor feels the venom coming from some anti-Israel protesters will turn off a majority of Americans, but he cautions, “It’s still a problem when they conquer the public space, and you don’t hear a clear voice from friends of Israel and the Jewish community to support Israel’s right to defend itself.”
So far, turnout at protests and counterprotests has been disproportionately weighted toward the anti-Israel crowd. Jewish Community Relations Council Executive Director Doug Kahn offered an explanation.
“There has been less focus on the street, in part as a result of the tragic loss of Dan Kliman,” Kahn said, referring to the indefatigable pro-Israel activist and S.F. Voice for Israel leader who was found dead in a San Francisco elevator shaft Dec. 1.
Kahn noted another reason for the anti-Israel crowd out-manning pro-Israel street protesters. It’s part of a deliberate strategy.
Rather than focus on marches and demonstrations, “the local Jewish community has been very active working with the media, doing community outreach,” he said. “As a result I have been gratified to see so many people who have written pro-Israel letters that have been printed in the local media, as well as opinion pieces and calling in to radio stations.”
He also praised local TV news stations that have sought to include the pro-Israel perspective in their reporting on the Gaza crisis.
Much of that coverage has shown angry protesters waving Palestinian flags and shouting anti-Israel slogans. Some among their ranks are Jews.
Joel Frangquist is on the coordinating committee of Bay Area chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace. According to its mission statement, the organization supports “the aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians,” though it has been highly critical of Israel’s policy toward Palestinians. Since the Gaza strikes, Frangquist has taken part in street protests against Israel.
“We’re concerned about the Hamas rocket attacks,” he said, “but we don’t think Israeli suffering compares to Palestinian suffering now, and we don’t think [Israel’s] military response is proportionate. We don’t think Israel’s attack will stop rocket attacks or lead to security for Israel. A negotiated solution is the only true route for Israelis and Palestinians.”
Frangquist suspects the reports of anti-Semitic hate speech at some protests around the country are “exaggerated.”
“My experience of protests is I don’t hear much in Arabic. The chants are usually in English. [JVP] has guidelines that prohibit us from working with any group that expresses anti-Semitism or any kind of hate,” he said.
As the war against Hamas grinds on and international pressure on Israel mounts, local supporters of Israel are trying to make sure their message is heard, both on the airwaves and in the streets.
“Solidarity gatherings” co-sponsored by a host of Bay Area Jewish organizations and synagogues were scheduled to take place Jan. 8 at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills and Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. The goals of both were to discuss ways the community could demonstrate solidarity with Israel.
Such “expressions of support” are important not only locally, but “for Israeli morale,” Tor said. “They are reported in the Israeli press.”
S.F. Voice for Israel will host pro-Israel demonstrations Friday, Jan. 9 and Saturday, Jan. 10 in the Bay Area. For details, visit www.SFVoice ForIsrael.org.
Orthodox rabbis undertake solidarity mission
As the fighting in Gaza rages on, many Jews are praying for Israel. Next week, 10 Orthodox rabbis from across the country will hop a plane to pray in Israel.
Among those joining the Rabbinic Solidarity Mission to Israel is Rabbi Yonatan Cohen of Berkeley’s Congreg-ation Beth Israel.
The mission was hurriedly planned in the wake of worldwide anti-Israel protests staged since the launch of the Gaza operation Dec. 27.
According to Cohen, as a sign of unity the delegation will be joined in Israel by Rabbanei Tzohar, a Modern Orthodox rabbinic organization. Among its members is the former Beth Israel rabbi and Cohen’s predecessor, Yair Silverman, who made aliyah a few years ago.
During the visit, the clergy will visit hospitals, homes and bomb shelters in Beersheva, Sderot, Ashkelon, Nitzan and other communities that have been hit by Hamas rockets.
“I would like to go and pray with the people of Israel,” Cohen said. “I believe prayer works and the people of Israel need to know our communities are praying for them.”