Across the Southland, supporters of Israel in its fight against Hamas in the Gaza Strip demonstrated solidarity by speaking out, attending rallies or, in one high-profile case, actually going to Israel.
Tour groups and students set to visit Israel, meanwhile, reassessed the danger of traveling there now.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca returned Tuesday morning from a weekend trip to Israel, where he toured a home hit by a Qassam rocket, met with Israeli soldiers and Palestinian civilians at an Israeli hospital and spoke with Israeli officials about the war in Gaza against Hamas.
“There seems to be a sense of mindlessness relative to the aggressions of suicide bombers blowing up supplies for Palestinians, with people who are caught up in the war and then go to an Israeli hospital to heal and with their rockets going into an area to accomplish nothing but requiring that the Israelis have a response,” Baca said by phone, shortly after landing in Los Angeles.
“This is a war the Palestinian people can’t win,” the sheriff continued. “There is a lot of irony that only the Hamas people can answer. And the Palestinian people are being held hostage. They are not going to win peace through tools of war.”
A Christian who has worked closely with Muslims and Jews, Baca flew to Israel from Los Angeles Thursday, a few days after Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa publicly supported Israel’s military efforts. This was Baca’s fourth trip to the Jewish state since 2003. He said the visits are valuable for building relationships with other security professionals and for standing alongside Israel during difficult times.
His support has been appreciated by the Jewish community.
“It’s very important for us to have friends outside of our own community, people who are influential, high-profile public figures,” said John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which helped organize Baca’s visit. “It is a difficult time; there is a lot of controversy in some of the media. So it is important when someone who has been a friend and is prepared to continue being a friend goes to Israel to see the reality on the ground.”
Baca was scheduled to speak Tuesday afternoon, after press time, at the Israeli Consulate. He said he planned to talk about the need for an international criminal and civil justice group, made up of police, lawyers, judges and corrections officers, “to assist Palestinians in establishing a country governed by laws.”
Meanwhile, as Israeli troops pressed into Gaza during continuing military operations, Southland trips to Israel — both those already there and those planned — soldiered on.
Among those on the trips in Israel at the time the fighting began, not one participant returned home early.
“We were in Jerusalem when [the Gaza operation began], and I worried for a bit that people would want to go home immediately,” said Elaine Albert, executive director of the Holy Land Democracy Project, an educational program for parochial school teachers sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. “Jerusalem continued to bustle along, as did all of Israel. Restaurants were packed. Streets were packed. Life goes on. That’s how it goes.”
The experience provided a valuable lesson, Albert said, in the contrast between the conflict-focused broadcasts on CNN and Fox News and the reality on the ground. The operation did have some impact on the group when they visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
“The church was virtually empty, but that enabled them to get a look at things that you normally don’t get to see,” she said. “The Muslim quarter was completely closed, so they were not able to walk the Via Dolorosa.”
The group’s tour guide left the trip early when he was called up for reserve military duty.
In another interfaith mission, Temple Israel of Hollywood and its sister church, St. Thomas the Apostle Episcopal Church, are scheduled to send 20 travelers to Israel from Jan. 25 through Feb. 5.
“No one has cancelled on the basis of the Gaza situation,” Temple Israel Senior Rabbi John Rosove said. “Yes, people are nervous, but those are people who have never been to Israel.
“I have reassured them,” he continued. “I tell them this is precisely the time to go to Israel to show support. They need us, and this is a time for American Jewry to make a statement that ‘We are one with you.’”
For college students and young professionals on Jewish National Fund (JNF)-sponsored Alternative Winter Break trips, the crisis seemed to add significance to the social service projects that form the core of the itinerary. Participants — including a Camp Ramah group, a fraternity and sorority group and one organized with Chabad — spent much of the time working in development towns in the Negev that were not affected by the rocket barrage from Gaza.
To participate, students were required to raise $950 that went toward JNF’s indoor playground in Sderot.
“The crisis added a sense of urgency and necessity for what they had raised money for, and they really felt their dollars could make a real impact in Israel,” said Rebecca Kahn, JNF’s campus programs manager. “The Israelis who hosted us for our work projects were so appreciative that we were there at this time, and that made our work even more meaningful.”
Nationally, Taglit-Birthright Israel’s winter trips have proceeded as planned. The trip sponsored by The Los Angeles Jewish Federation had a busload of 40 participants, with only two people dropping out before the trip.
To garner even more support, Israel’s Prime Minister reached out to a prominent Los Angeles Jew in a surprise phone call.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, was just about to leave his home Sunday and head to the pro-Israel rally outside the Federal Building in Westwood when the phone rang. It was Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who wanted to let Hier know that the Jewish state needed his help.
“He came on the line, and he told me that this is a very important stage of what is happening in Gaza; it is very important for world Jewry,” Hier recalled Tuesday. “‘Make sure the message is clear that this is a war that Israel did not want. We didn’t start the war, and we didn’t want it. Hamas forced it on us.’ ... And he said, ‘Please speak up as much and as often as you can.’”
Olmert mentioned he had made a similar appeal to officials of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. However, which other Jewish leaders he has spoken with is unknown.
Similarly, Hier said that during Israel’s war in Lebanon in 2006, Olmert phoned while Hier and other staff from the Wiesenthal Center were helping individuals in northern Israel.
Senior writers Brad A. Greenberg and Julie Gruenbaum Fax, and contributing writers Jay Firestone and Jill Suzanne Jacobs contributed to this report.