January 21, 2009
Just three miles east of the happiest place on earth lies a small strip of shops and fast-food outlets where, last Sunday, people were anything but pleasant to one another.
Straddling a never-ending seven-lane stream of traffic is an Orange County neighborhood called by its largely Arab-born residents “Little Gaza” — home to what might be the Southland’s largest concentration of Palestinians.
On Jan. 18, about 150 Israel supporters and half as many pro-Palestinians spent more than two hours facing each other across Brookhurst Street in Anaheim — yelling, each side waving their own flags, each accusing the other of being terrorists, murderers and baby-killers. By the standard of many such rallies, it was a peaceful gathering — there was no violence, and there was a good deal of singing. But at the end of the day, it was impossible to see where any progress had been made to bridge the hurt and misunderstanding that divides these two worlds.
The protesters’ voices carried across the cars, which honked in short spurts of support for one side or the other. Some drivers yelled out angry epithets, though it was clear that their opinions changed nothing on either side. And this was on the day after Israel had declared a cease-fire with Hamas and already had begun to withdraw its troops from the real Gaza, half a world away.
This was not the first protest on these few blocks of Brookhurst, known for halal markets and fragrant Middle Eastern restaurants. Over the years, the area has become just as well known as the site of multiple vociferous anti-Israel demonstrations.
This round began when Israel invaded Gaza in late December. The demonstrations have at times brought together hundreds of the neighborhood’s Palestinian Americans to voice anger and distress about the war.
But not all in Anaheim’s Arab community are on the same side.
At one of these recent demonstrations, a 32-year-old pastor named George Saieg, an Arab Christian who grew up in the Sudan but now lives in Anaheim, walked among the crowd and was asked to sign a petition against Israel. When he resisted, he told me on Sunday afternoon, “They threatened to kill me.”
There was a police presence that day, and Saieg said he was able to walk away. But for Saieg, who has acted as a community organizer for dialogue since Sept. 11, the experience was a call to action to bring together people who share his support of Israel to speak out in this same neighborhood. And this meant Arabs, Christians and Jews.
Through a loose coalition of friends and like-minded volunteers, Saieg drew out members of Orange County churches, synagogues and messianic groups, as well as a local Arab-Christian alliance. They gathered Sunday from 2:30 to 5 p.m., carrying posters with biblical citations, Israeli flags both large and small and, in a couple of cases, shofars.
I joined them, along with my 13-year-old daughter, Rachel, after being notified by an e-mail from a woman named Hilary Sylvester, a member of the messianic congregation Aviv Judea in Orange, who told me that the event would be a peaceful rally in support of Israel. She said she’d been to some rallies before but had never helped organize one, and she said she didn’t know how many would come or quite what to expect.
I’ve been to many rallies for various causes over the years, but the location of this one, and the earnestness of the organizers stood out this time. I went because I wanted to see what might happen, as well as to show my daughter something about what’s going on in the world. She’s been studying Israel her whole life in Jewish day school and in religious school, yet she nevertheless knew very little about the Jewish state’s ongoing conflict with the Palestinians.
When we arrived, just before the rally was scheduled to begin, the pro-Israel demonstrators were already waving flags in front of the Sinbad Ranch Market. They’d also already had an argument with the proprietor of a food truck open for business in the adjacent parking lot, and he was now sporting his Palestinian flag.
Right after we arrived, a car pulled up at the intersection. A woman wearing a headscarf leaned out and started screaming at the demonstrators, using language that raised even Rachel’s jaded eyebrows. The other side of the street was not occupied yet, but not long after that, this same woman and others began to gather, Palestinian flags in hand.
Many of the passing cars gave the pro-Israelis the thumbs-up, in response to which there was much cheering. But there were also many ugly exchanges with people in cars, and my daughter, who also served as my photographer, was asking questions nonstop.
“What do protests do?” was one of her better ones. “Why do older people hate each other so much when kids don’t see the differences between us?”
She and I stayed with the pro-Israel group, but she saw no one like her among us. Everyone was middle-aged or older, except for one small child with his parents. Rachel knew the songs that people sang intermittently throughout the afternoon, like “Am Israel Chai,” but she didn’t see their purpose.
“Shame on Hamas. Stop killing Christians. Stop killing Jews,” the group chanted. “You need to go home; you don’t belong in this place.” In a land of immigrants, these were harsh words.
On the other side of the street, the crowd grew exponentially as the day passed. More and more Palestinian flags appeared, carried by more and more people of all ages. Their group included children, teens, elders — what looked like whole families arrived, standing together in a tight crowd. They yelled across the street — calling Israelis terrorists and baby killers and chanting: “Free, free Palestine.”
I stopped to talk with Pastor Bill Hoganson, who calls himself a “mainstream evangelical.” He is a pastor at Calvary Chapel Anaheim, and he told me, “We’re here because of Genesis 12:3,” in which God tells Abraham he will bless his people and promises to curse those who curse them. Hoganson told me that because of this passage, which Jews know as Parshat Lech Lecha, he believes Christians, too, are commanded to defend Israel and curse its enemies.
Our biblical discussion was interrupted by a youth named Yassien Halwani, who had crossed the street bearing his red, white, black and green flag, to march among his adversaries. A heated argument quickly broke out, when Halwani charged that he’d come to see whether he would be physically attacked, as he claimed he and others had been not long before at a protest in Los Angeles. He wasn’t. The worst that happened was that for a moment, an Israeli flag and the Palestinian one he carried got caught, and a few of the men had to work together to disengage the two.
I went over to listen, and when Halwani was asked by a policeman to cross back over to the other side, I followed him to see what he had to say. He quickly introduced me to his cousin, Muhammad Ataya, one of the organizers of the Palestinian group. Ataya is an articulate graduate student at Cal State Long Beach, who showed me a series of by-now healing bruises on his arm that he said were from his recent experience at a protest at the Federal Building in Los Angeles. He was confrontational at first, but he said he is against all violence, doesn’t advocate bad language and he said he had helped to quickly organize this day’s counterprotest when he heard what was going on.
When I asked him what he proposed as a solution to the war in Israel, he said, “We need to go back to the borders of 1946.” I asked whether he could foresee a two-state solution, and his reply was that “that would be a beginning, but there is no legal State of Israel.”
One of the Arab Christians, who asked that her name not be used, had also crossed the street for the conversation, and she intervened to ask Ataya whether he would be willing to participate in a public conversation with other Arabs about Israel. He agreed, and she told me that it’s a discussion that needs to happen in this neighborhood, because people with different viewpoints don’t come together enough. So, for the moment, we left it at that. Ataya politely explained that his religion prevented him from shaking hands with us, but it seemed as though at that at that moment, he might have liked to.
One person in this neighborhood who has made great efforts toward such dialogue is Saieg, who does construction and remodeling when he’s not serving his religious calling. He is a soft-spoken man who knows what it’s like to suffer discrimination, having grown up forced to study Islam, despite his family’s Christian faith, and he said he only found his Christian voice after he came to America in 1996. When the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, occurred, Saieg started to organize conferences, and his group is called the Arabic Christian Perspective.
“I am 100 percent against killing innocent people,” he told me, but he will not just stand by. “I have in my group three former terrorists,” he said, adding that he believes the best means for understanding is the Bible. “Once he sees the Jews in the light of the Bible,” he said of the youth who had confronted him, “He will love them.”
Such hope was hard for me to sustain in the light of all that I’d seen Sunday, but as the day waned and people began to pack up to leave, Rachel and I went over to talk with Sgt. Rick Martinez, a public information officer for the Anaheim Police Department, who had been watching the rally along with a half-dozen equestrian officers.
From Martinez’s viewpoint, as long as the only exchange is words, there’s nothing to worry about. No one was harmed, though I also knew the enmity had only become more harsh, and no one’s position had likely altered, even a bit.
So, what could I tell Rachel that demonstrations are about?
She was pretty repelled, and I would have liked to take her to one of the restaurants, to introduce her to the neighborhood to let her see that not everyone hates one another. I would have liked to say that by coming together, we’d learned that we can coexist — at least in Anaheim, three miles east of Disneyland.