June 16, 2005
The Battle Over Gaza in America
An L.A.-based group leads fight to keep Israel in occupied territories
It all started with a dream.
One night in March, Jon Hambourger slipped into a deep sleep and envisioned a train rolling through history. The 47-year-old Los Angeles mortgage broker said he had a choice: jump on or risk irrelevance.
The next morning, the Orthodox father of one told his wife that he had to go to the Gaza Strip, the coastal plain occupied by Israeli forces since 1967 and subsequently settled by groups of Israelis.
During his four-day Gaza visit, Hambourger met with Israeli factory owners, farmers and religious leaders. He also spent time with his wife's nephew, a resident of the Atzmona settlement, which faces an August forced evacuation by the Israeli government.
The withdrawal is part of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan, a key component of his government's strategy to secure Israel's borders and perhaps take a step toward peace with Palestinians and neighboring Arab countries.
Hambourger was touched by the settlers' kindness and determination to stay in Gaza, in the region known as Gush Katif, a block of Jewish settlements in Southern Gaza. They won him over.
In April, he took a leave of absence from his job and founded SaveGushKatif.org, a Los Angeles-based group committed to scuttling the Israeli government's planned evacuation through advocacy and education.
In the past two and a half months, 70 members, largely Orthodox Jews, have joined, including Jews in New York, Phoenix and Chicago. Another 800 supporters have registered on the group's content-laden Web site, savegushkatif.org. Hambourger's group is apparently the biggest U.S. organization committed solely to keeping Gaza in Jewish hands, and it has forged alliances with pro-settlement groups worldwide.
The likelihood of SaveGushKatif or any other pro-settler group stopping the evacuation has dimmed in the wake of a court decision last week: Israel's Supreme Court upheld the government's disengagement plan, ruling that the government's compensation for the displaced settlers is fair. The decision removed a crucial legal hurdle that stood in the way of the Sharon administration.
"Disengagement is decided. It's planned. It's going to happen," said David Pine, West Coast regional director of Americans for Peace Now.
Still, many newspaper polls in Israel have shown a drop in support over the past year for Sharon's plan from a high of more than 70 percent to around 55 percent. Public sentiment has shifted, experts say, partly because Israeli settlers and their partisans have launched a successful PR drive.
Among other initiatives, Gush Katif residents are going door-to-door in Tel Aviv and other largely secular communities, explaining why the settlers should stay and handing out complimentary fruit and vegetables from Gaza. SaveGushKatif helps fund these grass-roots efforts through direct fundraising appeals.
To be sure, most of America's roughly 6 million Jews continue to support the evacuation, according to most experts. Many hope that relinquishing Gaza to Palestinian control might jumpstart the peace process and lessen tensions. At the very least, they argue that Israel should leave the disputed region because of the overwhelming financial and military drain of protecting less than 9,000 Jews surrounded by more than 1 million Arabs.
But there's still a significant minority, especially among Orthodox Jews and conservative Christians, that opposes withdrawal. Hambourger hopes his organization will become one of the most influential voices among them.
"I had to do something," Hambourger said. "Otherwise, how could I look at myself in the mirror again?"
Hambourger's sojourn in Gaza convinced him that giving up the 21 Jewish settlements there would reward Palestinian terror, unfairly uproot settlers and contravene God's wishes that Jews remain in the land. Sharon's plan also would uproot four settlements in the northern West Bank.
A Sense of Mission
A religious man, Hambourger said he would ideally like Jews to control all territory the Torah designates as Greater Israel. But as a pragmatist, he said he would support trading land for peace, if he thought it would serve the interests of the Jewish state.
A pullout from Gaza does not, he said. Leaving, he added, would only embolden terrorist groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, which are bent on Israel's destruction.
Hambourger characterized the Palestinian Authority as corrupt, and said it would simply view withdrawal as a concession and step up pressure for the Jews to retreat from the West Bank, Jerusalem and eventually all of Israel.
That's why, Hambourger said, Save GushKatif highlights the security argument above all others. Such a position also resonates better with nonobservant Jews who might tune out biblical exhortations.
Seated in a booth at the kosher La Gondola restaurant in Los Angeles for an interview recently, the burly 6-foot-2 Hambourger was clad in black pants, blue dress shirt and a kippah. He said he's found his calling in heading up the group.
Working alongside his chief of staff Chaya Rivka Brenners, a special events and fundraising coordinator, he routinely puts in 12-hour days. Together, they plan events, fundraisers and educational activities.
Given the high stakes, Hambourger said, he has invested nearly $20,000 of his own money in the organization. He also recently retained an attorney to obtain official nonprofit status.
SaveGushKatif wants to make its presence felt across the United States. Members recently handed out brochures and stickers at speeches given by Sharon in New York and Washington. Several local Save GushKatif supporters traveled to Gaza in early June to show solidarity with Gush Katif residents.
SaveGushKatif members believe the tide is turning. The overwhelmingly positive response they received at their debut appearance at the Israel Independence Day festival in Los Angeles shows that opinions can change.
At the May 15 event at a Van Nuys park, revelers, braving long lines and nearly triple-digit temperatures, dropped by the group's booth and snapped up a thousand free shirts and other items all dyed in orange -- the color that has come to symbolize solidarity with the beleaguered settlers.
SaveGushKatif member Shifra Hastings, who donned an orange skirt, orange bracelet and orange nail polish at the festival, hadn't expected such a uniformly positive reaction. She thought some liberal Jews would make snide remarks about the settlers, whom she said the media stereotypes as crazy right-wingers. Instead, Hastings added, secular, Reform and Conservative Jews in shorts and tank tops, Orthodox Jews in kippahs and Israeli Jews seemed almost universally open to arguments that leaving Gaza would darken Israel's future.
"People cared. People were curious. People were supportive," she said. "It was great."
Local SaveGushKatif volunteers have also distributed bumper stickers and fliers to Jewish bakeries and mostly to Orthodox shuls in Hancock Park, Sherman Oaks, Pico-Robertson and other Southland communities with a high concentration of observant Jews. Similar mass distributions of new materials are planned, as are lectures, fundraisers and rallies. A print advertising campaign has just begun, with the first spot running in The Jewish Journal.
"I believe we're starting to make a difference," said L.A. resident Stephanie Wells, a SaveGushKatif member who attended protests in New York and Washington during Sharon's recent U.S. visit. "We're just telling the truth and trying to get it out."
"When people begin to hear the truth, they respond to the truth," added Southland resident Larry Siegel, a SaveGushKatif member who helps with fundraising. "And the truth is, disengagement is bad for the state of Israel and bad for the Jewish people on every conceivable level."
Expanding beyond its Southland roots, SaveGushKatif recently joined with seven other groups to establish the bicoastal American Coalition to Save Gush Katif/Gaza and Northern Samaria. Members include the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) and Americans for a Safe Israel/AFSI, a New York-based advocacy group that supports a "Greater Israel." Coalition partners share e-mail lists and ideas for educating the public.
Group partners discuss strategy via conference calls, ZOA President Morton Klein said. He added that even if these efforts fail, the importance of taking a stand cannot be overestimated.
"If it doesn't work here, we have to send a message to the [Israeli government]: Don't think it will be so easy to throw Jews out of Judea and Samaria," Klein said, referring to the biblical names for the West Bank.
All of these "save Gaza" efforts are misguided, said Sabiha Khan, communications director of the Southern California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). Khan said that Israel's security situation would worsen if groups like SaveGushKatif and the Zionist Organization of America prevailed.
"True peace will not occur until Israel ends its occupation and Palestinians have their independence and a viable state, too," she said.
Khan's opinion is shared by many Jews, including Daniel Sokatch, executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance. Sokatch insisted that leaving Gaza would benefit Israel in the long run.
"This overwhelming support for disengagement from the American and Israeli governments, as well as their citizens, reflects an understanding among so many that the only way Israel can survive as a Jewish democracy is to withdraw from the Occupied Territories," Sokatch said. "Gaza is a critical first step."
Sokatch and others worry that passions surrounding the pullout could lead to Jew-on-Jew violence in the Holy Land. Certainly, emotions, both locally and internationally, will heat up as the disengagement grows near, observers predicted.
At the very least, the conflict over Gaza reflects a growing division between liberal and Orthodox Jews, who frequently have more in common politically with evangelical Christians than with their secular Jewish brethren, said David N. Myers, professor of Jewish history and director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies.
SaveGushKatif founder Hambourger said the last thing he wants is to exacerbate divisions among Jews. He's admonished group members to refrain from overheated rhetoric against the Israeli government, including against Sharon, whom he calls a heroic general making a terrible mistake.
Shouting down pro-disengagement Israeli leaders or painting them as traitors only alienates moderate and liberal Jews, whose support SaveGushKatif needs, he said. Recently, Hambourger asked a man who advocated disrupting pro-disengagement gatherings to stop attending Save GushKatif meetings.
Not all SaveGushKatif members appear to share Hambourger's position. Brooklyn supporter Robin Ticker said God gave Gush Katif and other disputed land to the Jews and to the Jews alone. She thinks Israel should treat Arabs living within its borders well, but bar them from owning land. The Jewish state, which she calls a "theocracy," should also require Arabs and Muslims to take loyalty oaths.
"Only Jews can sanctify the land, just like only a violinist can play violin or a computer programmer can program," said Ticker, who has lobbied at least a dozen rabbis in her Flatbush neighborhood to publicly oppose the disengagement.
Hambourger distances himself from his more extreme supporters, because he's playing to win. And he believes he needs a wide array of Jews, without regard to their religiosity, politics or even sexual orientation.
His acolytes include Zohar Wertheim, 38, an Israeli-born gay man who owns a framing gallery in West Hollywood. He characterizes disengagement as a muddle-headed attempt to appease world opinion. After meeting with Hambourger, Wertheim said, he wrote SaveGushKatif a check for $50 and began posting pro-settler fliers in his shop window.
"I plan to do as much as I can," Wertheim said.
Talking with a reporter at La Gondola restaurant, Hambourger surveyed fellow diners and said the fight for Gush Katif begins and ends in such places.
"These are the people who make donations, call politicians and get involved," he said. "These are regular people, and I want to reach them."