From seven-and-a-half-thousand miles away, it is difficult to place yourself in a bomb shelter. It is difficult to imagine what it is like to have 90 seconds, 60 seconds, 15 seconds to find cover, all while wondering if this will be the time Iron Dome misses. It is difficult to feel the full weight of uncertainty shared by both Israelis and Palestinians and the fierce desire to restore some semblance of normalcy, calm and peace.
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And it is also difficult to know how, from seven-and-a-half-thousand miles away, to show support for Israel’s right to self-defense, empathy for human suffering and commitment to a two-state-solution in a way that will promote peace and not fuel extremism. Here in the Bay Area there is a sad history of fringe groups using flare-ups in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a platform for extreme rhetoric and hate-speech, which has only become more vocal and vitriolic with time.
This past weekend, pro-Palestinian protestors held a rally and march through the San Francisco Financial District in which participants chanted “1-2-3-4 - we don't want your racist state, 5-6-7-8 Israel is a terrorist state” and called for a third intifada, yelling “long live an intifada, intifada, intifada”. The event culminated in the burning of an Israeli flag. This is not the first demonstration of this kind, though according to a local security official who works closely with the Jewish community, the content and mantras of these rallies have become increasingly hateful and extreme.
On Monday morning, the Anti-Defamation League sent out a security advisory in response to the anti-Israel rallies taking place around the globe. The advisory called on Jewish institutions and individuals taking part in pro-Israel rallies to take extra precautions to prevent altercations and violence. The advisory was released the day after anti-Israel demonstrators tried to break into a Parisian synagogue in which an Israel solidarity event was taking place; and a pro-Israel woman was allegedly assaulted by four males at a rally in Los Angeles, leading a Federal Protection Services (FPS) law enforcement officer to shoot one round from his gun in the air in an attempt to stop the four male suspects who were trying to flee the scene by car. LAPD officers were able to stop the vehicle and detained the four male suspects. There were also reports of pro-Palestinian protesters firing pepper spray at Israel supporters in an adjacent parking lot following the rally.
According to Seth Brysk, the ADL's Central Pacific Regional Director, “The anti-Israel rhetoric in the Bay Area has been typically radical, and we are not seeing much change – for better or for worse – at the most recent round of anti-Israel rallies in San Francisco and the surrounding areas.” He did note, however, that this extreme rhetoric is now being echoed throughout the United States and Europe, “and this is a reason for heightened concern.”
Mike Harris, a leader from the pro-Israel group StandWithUs, which has held several rallies throughout California since the beginning of Operation Protective Edge, says that one heartening thing about the international community’s response to the most recent escalation between Hamas and Israel is that “unlike during Operation Cast Lead [December 2008 – January 2009] in which international governments condemned Israel, today there is an understanding that Hamas is provoking Israel’s response by targeting Israeli civilians.”
California politicians including United States House of Representatives Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Congressman Mike Thompson have made public statements supporting Israel and its right to self-defense, and the organized Jewish community called on its elected officials in D.C. to support House Resolution 657 , which was cosponsored by Congressmen Eric Swalwell and Jared Huffman and passed unanimously, and Senate Resolution 498, which was cosponsored by California Senator Barbara Boxer. Both resolutions reaffirm the United States' support for Israel's right to defend its civilians and demand that Hamas and other terrorist groups stop their attacks immediately.
Israeli Consul General to the Pacific Northwest Dr. Andy David held a briefing for over 80 Jewish community leaders and many Bay Area synagogues held Shabbat services that included prayers for peace and healing in Israel and the Middle East and updates on the situation in Israel from the pulpit this past weekend. Three regional Jewish organizations issued a joint statement in support of Israel’s right to self-defense, and The Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund opened an emergency fund to provide immediate assistance to Israelis in need.
Despite the brief but as yet unexhausted talk of a ceasefire, plans for anti-Israel demonstrations have not abated. This coming Sunday, pro-Palestinian protesters plan to hold “a symbolic funeral procession to honor the Palestinian martyrs that have sacrificed their lives for the liberation of Palestine”. According to the Facebook invite, which already has 293 confirmed attendees and over 2,800 invited, the messages of the rally are: “The San Francisco Bay Area says no to Zionism!”, “Stop U.S. Aid to the Apartheid State of Israel!”, “Free all our political prisoners!” and “Support the Palestinian people’s struggle for liberation!” The pro-Israel Jewish community, however, has adopted a more prayer-oriented approach, avoiding incitement, holding communal evenings of solidarity and working with elected officials to ensure strong bipartisan support for Israel.
Supporting Israel, especially in the Bay Area, is not a tit-for-tat. Our activism must be strategic, and our tenor must be nuanced. Fighting rhetoric with rhetoric will get us nowhere, and letting extremists define our message could have serious repercussions – even from seven-and-a-half-thousand miles away.
Elka Looks, originally from Tel Aviv, is the communications manager for the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), the public affairs arm of the organized Bay Area Jewish community.