November 20, 2003
Israel Protests Hit Southland
Local activists protesting Israeli policies have expanded this month at various events that have attracted a range of pro-Palestinian activists, scholars and clergy from across Southern California.
The growing pace of such gatherings reflects a trend among peace activists to portray Israel as a unique human rights violator, while Palestinian terrorism often is downplayed or not discussed.
"We've got more events and a greater frequency of events," said Roz Rothstein, executive director of the Israel advocacy group StandWithUs. "They are profoundly anti-Israel."
These events are problematic for Jews because, Rothstein said, when Middle East history is explained to them by protestors, "their history is this new history that leaves out Jews as indigenous to the region. It is 'Zionist propaganda' to say that Jews have been there for thousands of years."
A man dressed like a Palestinian suicide bomber, with mock red dynamite sticks on his chest, held up a sign reading, "Hamas Says No Wall," at a Nov. 9 demonstration in Santa Monica against Israel's planned security fence, which drew about 300 people.
Several hundred people braved the rain for UCLA's Nov. 15 evening memorial honoring Palestinian American scholar Edward Said, who died in September. The memorial brochure's listed event supporters included the Act Now to Stop War & End Racism (ANSWER) Coalition, the far-left group that hosts anti-war rallies featuring harsh anti-Israel speakers.
Standing near Said portraits on stage at UCLA's Schoenberg Hall, a graduate student recited in Arabic the poem, "Speech of the Red Indian," by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Pamphlets at the memorial's vendor tables included one flyer for a Nov. 22 "Divesting From Israel" seminar at Compton Community College and another for ANSWER's Nov. 19 Beverly Hills Hotel protest at a World Affairs Council dinner speech by Daniel Ayalon, Israel's ambassador to the United States.
Said's nephew, UCLA English professor Saree Makdisi, said his uncle witnessed not only "Zionist malevolence" but corrupt Palestinian leadership. Makdisi's keynote speech about Said's emphasis on literary and historic narrative found Makdisi saying that Israel engaged in "the most brutal and longest lasting military occupation of the 20th century," that Israel attempts to deny Palestinians their history and that Jewish settlers on the West Bank and Gaza are "tens of thousands of hostile foreigners."
As for peace negotiations, Makdisi said, "The Israelis are a great deal more clever with words [than Palestinian leadership]."
StandWithUs ran a Nov. 16 University of Judaism student activism workshop and sent monitors to UCLA's Said memorial and a separate, Nov. 14 UC Irvine conference on Said's academic work.
"Edward Said was a man who did not believe in the existence of the State of Israel," Rothstein said. "He was an articulate professor; now he's dead and now they're memorializing him and reiterating his positions."
Santa Monica's Nov. 9 anti-Israel protest was endorsed by some of the same Quaker and Arab American groups that backed "Peacemaking in the Middle East: The Role of U.S. Christians," a Nov. 8 peace conference for about 200 mainline Protestants at Pasadena's Fuller Theological Seminary.
"I think there is a difference between Jews going to Palestine as immigrants and Jews going to Palestine as conquerors," said San Gabriel Valley's Emma Rosenthal, one of the few Jews at the event.
While activists often call the Israeli security fence an "apartheid wall," mainstream organizers want to jettison such crass analogies that may resonate at rallies but turn off politicians and Middle-American voters.
"Avoid analogies," said Corrine Whitlatch, executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP), one of the Pasadena event's sponsors. "Using terms related to South Africa, using terms related to the Nazis, using terms related to ethnic cleansing only add another layer of complication."
CMEP media director Jim Wetekam shared results on his organization's recent focus group with a Middle American group of 22 registered voters in Kansas City, Mo. -- all but two of them Caucasian and none of them Jewish or Arab.
"There was slightly more sympathy [toward] Israelis, but not marked disapproval of the Palestinian people," said Wetekam, who added that activists calling Israel's West Bank security fence an "apartheid wall" was not a phrase that registered with the focus group.
He also said the Christian Zionist view of Israel as sacred also did not register strongly with the focus group -- from their perspective, "It wasn't, 'the land where Jesus walked.'"
Like at UCLA's Said memorial, Palestinian support blanketed the Fuller seminary conference, with some attendees sporting small Palestinian flag buttons. One woman's stop-U.S.-funding-of-Israel shirt had the words: "We are all Palestinians."
In a Fuller hallway, one attendee said to another, "We're here for Israel. No, we're just kidding."
When an Egyptian American at a discussion on Arab Christians said, "And the Jews don't want justice, that's it," his remark went unchallenged by the workshop's presenter and 17 participants.