More than 500 demonstrators, mostly Orthodox Jews, gathered in front of the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles last weekend to oppose Israel's planned, upcoming pullout of settlers from Gaza.
The two-hour Sunday afternoon rally drew the largest gathering yet of several recent anti-pullout events in Los Angeles. It took place in the Miracle Mile District near the Beverly-La-Brea and Fairfax neighborhoods, and slowed traffic on Wilshire Boulevard.
So far, the Israeli government has successfully resisted attempts to derail the Gaza pullout, saying the withdrawal ultimately will enhance Israel's security and increase the chance for peace with the Palestinians. With some of the 9,000 Gaza settlers refusing to leave, the Israeli government has mobilized thousands of police and soldiers for what is expected to be an emotionally draining, forced removal, scheduled to start in mid-August.
Experts say, and polls show, that a majority of Israelis and American Jews support the withdrawal, which would turn Gaza over to the Palestinian Authority. But opponents at Sunday's rally were adamant that leaving Gaza is wrong.
"This is not Palestinian land," said one of the speakers, Avi Davis of the group Israel-Christian Nexus, a Jewish outreach group to Christian Zionists.
Listening to Davis was attorney David Palace, 30, who attends Beverly-La Brea's Congregation Levy Yitzchok.
"I came here to protest Jews being put in dangerous situations," Palace said, as he held one of his four children.
His father, Moshe Palace, said the pullout would decrease the distance between terrorists and cities in Israel proper.
"We're not talking about Orange County to Los Angeles," he said. "It's more like what Santa Monica is to downtown Los Angeles."
The three generations of the Palace family reflected the consulate crowd's demographics, which though broad in age range appeared almost exclusively Orthodox. Several Chabads and other Orthodox shuls in Beverly Hills, Hancock Park and Beverly-La Brea supported the quickly arranged protest, allowing flyers to be distributed to their congregants.
The rally focused on the Gaza community of Gush Katif, was organized and sponsored by SaveGushKatif.org, the brainchild of Beverlywood mortgage broker Jon Hambourger.
"We pulled a police permit in half an hour even though it usually takes a week." Hambourger said. "A sound system costs $1,500. We got it for free. Everything fell into place."
The consulate protest was blessed with lower-than-expected temperatures amidst the current heat wave. Stacks of free bottled water did not interest the crowd listening to speakers denounce Israel's planned Aug. 16 pullout from Gush Katif and other Jewish settlement areas.
Along Wilshire Boulevard stood a line of teenage girls and young women holding placards toward the cars driving past them. Horns honked at signs bearing phrases in Hebrew such as, "Don't give the Arabs our homes." The loud line included two vanloads about 20 road-tripping Orthodox girls and women from New York and Toronto, who took a break from three weeks of sightseeing to join in.
"We stopped all our fun. We wanted to show our support," said 22-year-old trip leader Bracha Krausz.
The July 24 date was picked for the prayer-and-protest rally because it was also the 17th of Tammuz, a fast day on the Hebrew calendar and the start of three weeks of mourning over the destruction of Jerusalem's first and second temples. By emphasizing Gush Katif as a religious issue, organizers tapped into a broader sense of outrage in the Orthodox community.
The consulate protest's turnout surpassed other recent, middle-of-the-week Gush Katif events in synagogues, which had been attracting no more than 250 people. These included a June 23 event at Beverly-La Brea's Torah Ohr with Knesset Member Benny Elon. Six days later, a crowd of about 200 attended a Gush Katif "evening of solidarity" across the street at Congregation Shaarei Tefila.
"I tried to push it in my synagogue, said Shaarei Tefila's Rabbi Nachum Kosofsky. "It just seemed like the people who were the most ideologically driven came. I wish it was different. Even people who are very pro-Israel, to them it's a not a simple issue."
A planned SaveGushKutif worldwide event on July 19 did not materialize in Los Angeles, though its cancellation partly fueled the quick creation that same week of the July 24 event.
Whatever the crowd size, the rhetoric at Gush Katif events ranges from somber to furious. During the question-and-answer session at the Torah Ohr event, one man said that Israeli Arabs were, "sucking the blood out of [Israel].... These Arabs are basically Nazis.... One Arab less, one loaf of bread more!"
At the Shaarei Tefila event, Rabbi David Eliezrie of Yorba Linda focused on the internecine strife: "Jews fighting fellow Jews -- the images of, God forbid, a civil war."
Outside the consulate, a man gave a reporter a prayer asking God to "destroy our enemies completely and utterly wipe them off the face of the earth...."
But this sentiment appeared isolated as most in the crowd seemed more determined than vengeful.
Chavi Shagalov, a mother of four, said it is unwise to give away land.
"For years and years, the Jews have been chased by the Romans, the Greeks, or gone into exile while some stayed in the land," said Shagalov, as her two toddlers swirled around her. "We live in exile and there's no knowing what there's going to be tomorrow."