"I'm here to show this country, my family and friends in Israel that we Jews will be there forever," said 14-year-old Elad Menna, a Los Angeles resident who emigrated with his family from the West Bank five years ago. "Although I live here, my heart is in Israel."
The boy spoke to a reporter on a sweltering Sunday afternoon, surrounded by thousands of like-minded Jews and non-Jews who had come together in front of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles headquarters in one of the largest pro-Israel rallies in years to express their support for the Jewish state.
The song "Am Yisrael Chai" rang out, along with speeches by political and spiritual leaders, as hundreds of blue-and-white Israeli flags were flanked by banners proclaiming "Israel Left Gaza for Peace, Not for 800 Rockets," and "We Want Peace, They Want Jihad," and "United Against Terror."
Draped in a blue-and-white scarf decorated with Stars of David, Allyson Rowen Taylor carried a banner that showed a smiling United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan shaking hands with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
The text: "The Implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1559!" a reference to, among other things, a resolution that mandates the disarmament and disbanding of Hezbollah and other terrorist groups that prevent the Lebanese government from exercising its full sovereignty. In addition to her sign, the associate director of the American Jewish Congress (AJC) of Los Angeles carried a special picture in her purse: a photo of her 20-year-old son Zachary, who is American-born and currently serving as a sniper in the Israel Defense Forces.
"Because I've taught him to be a good Zionist," said Rowen Taylor, fighting back tears, "I have to be here and be a good Zionist for him."
Rowen Taylor said she has no idea where the Israeli government has deployed her son.
As Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles President John Fishel declared their support for Israel, the crowd came together for two hours to make a statement to each other, the media and the entire world: They believe in Israel, its right to defend itself and its quest for peace. Even Jews who have long been critical of Israel's presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip came out to participate.
The gathering, which Federation officials estimate to have reached as many as 10,000 but police pegged at 6,500, stretched along Wilshire Boulevard from San Vicente Boulevard to La Jolla Avenue. To keep cool, many on hand wore baseball caps, shorts and carried bottles of water.
Schwarzenegger told the gathering that he has long, deep affection for Israel. He said that he has visited the country several times, including in the 1970s as a body building champion; the 1980s as "The Terminator;" and in the 1990s to open a Planet Hollywood restaurant. He added that his first trip abroad after being elected governor was to Israel.
"Let me tell you," he said. "With all the trips I've taken to Israel, with all the business I've done with the Israeli people, and of course, I have several Israeli people working at my house, I can tell you there is nothing more the Israeli people want than to live in peace."
Villaraigosa told the cheering crowd that Israelis will welcome their message. "To the families in Haifa and Nahariyya, to all those in both the north and the south who've been terrorized in recent weeks by the relentless rocket attacks of Hamas and Hezbollah, this gathering 7,500 miles across the globe is no distant gesture," Villaraigosa said.
Fishel, who heads the Federation, which organized the rally, proclaimed that the assembled stand with Israel at a "dangerous and defining moment." He went on to question whether any actions taken by Israel can satisfy Hezbollah and Hamas terrorists.
Simon Wiesenthal Dean Rabbi Marvin Hier defiantly told Israel's Los Angeles supporters that Hezbollah and Hamas terrorists will never realize their dream of destroying Israel, especially if the Jews and their supporters remain united in the face of such implacable hatred.
"Their objective is a Middle East free of Jews," Hier said. "We can assure them today that is something they will never live to see."
While there was unanimity of spirit, there was diversity in the crowd. A group of about 25 heavily tattooed Set Free Soldiers caused more than a few double-takes. Clad in black pants and black leather jackets and vests, the burly members of the Evangelical Christian network proclaimed love for Israel.
The club's leader, a Harley rider calling himself Chief Phil Aguilar, said he has visited Israel 15 times since the early 1980s. Surrounded by his three biker sons and a daughter, Aguilar said he found the Jewish state inspirational. When visiting the Western Wall, though, he said and his fellow bikers sometimes get less than an enthusiastic reception.
"When the rabbis first see us, they look at us a little funny," Aguilar said. "But they're in black and white, too, and also look a little funny. In the end, we end up being good friends."
Metal barricades and a large police presence separated the main rally from a small counter-demonstration of about 200. As police helicopters buzzed overhead, the pro-Israeli rally-goers and the pro-Palestinian protestors hurled insults at one another. Cries of "Terrorists!" "Terrorists!" were greeted with chants of "Free, Free Palestine, Long Live Hezbollah!"
With several Palestinian flags fluttering nearby, architect Eman Bermani said she made the trek from Irvine to voice her disapproval for Israel's campaign in Lebanon.
"The violence is not going to benefit anyone," she said. "There's just going to be more killing and more loss of life. I'm full of frustration."
An Orange County engineer who would only identify himself as Avraham took a harder-edged position, saying Israel would cease to exist if she didn't learn how to live in peace with her Muslim neighbors instead of "subjugating them, colonizing them."
On the other side of the barricade, pro-Israel demonstrator Eileen Jayson said she this was the first pro-Israel rally she had attended, and she came because of the gravity of the situation overseas. The 53-year-old Tarzana paralegal added that she hopes to take her maiden voyage to Israel in November to get married.
"It's about time I went," she said. "We haven't given up yet," So did the gathering accomplish anything? Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss thinks it made a difference.
"This rally had everything going against it," said Weiss, one of the guest speakers. "It was unbearably hot. It came on late notice and during summer vacation.
"And we still filled Wilshire Boulevard with thousands of people. All elements of the community really stood up and were counted."