Thousands of Angelenos joined in a rally Sunday morning, July 22, to emotionally affirm their solidarity with Israel and her people.
The crowd packed a two-block stretch of Wilshire Boulevard, which was closed by a massive police presence, anchored by the Jewish Federation's Goldsmith Center on the west and the Israel Consulate General on the east.
Crowd estimates fluctuated wildly between 3,000 to 12,000 people. Federation leaders, citing fire department sources, said more than 10,000 people attended, but police estimated it closer to 4,500, and former Federation demographer Pini Herman put the crowd at about 3,000.
Those who attended the two-hour rally cheered calls for unity and solidarity by an array of political, religious and community leaders, but the most moving address was by a 17-year-old Israeli girl who had lost seven of her Tel Aviv schoolmates to a suicide bomber.
"There are no words to express our pain at the loss of those who will no longer laugh, no longer hug us, who will not get married and will not have children," said Olga Bakharakh, student council president of the Shevach Mofet magnet school in Tel Aviv. "For the rest of our lives, from now on, there will remain an empty place in our hearts, a place that belongs just to them."
Gov. Gray Davis proclaimed, "In time of tragedy and triumph, California has always stood with Israel. You can't have a cease-fire when one side ceases and the other side fires."
Speaking by phone from Jerusalem, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said: "Israel is willing to pay a high price for peace, [but] we will never surrender." He added that with Israel and Diaspora communities working side by side, "We shall build a new future together."
His talk was marred by poor transmission and by a small but vociferous knot of Jewish Defense Leaguers shouting, "Peres must go!" An angered Yuval Rotem, the local Israel consul general, responded by citing Peres' numerous contributions to the Jewish State.
Among other speakers, newly elected Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn officially dedicated the area fronting the Federation building as the Los Angeles-Israel Friendship Square.
In an emotional stemwinder of a speech, Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple protested "the moral cowardice and theological perversion of those who blow up innocent people as a tribute to God. They are not martyrs, but murderers."
A spirited address by Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, was unexpectedly interrupted by the irrepressible Rabbi Shlomo Boruch Cunin, head of the West Coast Chabad, who cheer-led the crowd in "Am Yisrael Chai" -- the People of Israel Live -- and the "Sh'ma Yisrael" prayer.
California Secretary of State Bill Jones, the only Republican office-holder present, assured his listeners that "President Bush is steadfast in his support of Israel."
Federation President John Fishel urged rally participants to attend a Sept. 23 national solidarity rally in New York, visit Israel and remain engaged in the local Jewish community's support of Israel.
Other speakers included Rep. Howard Berman and Rep. Brad Sherman; Rabbis Harvey Fields, Yehoshua Berkowitz and Mimi Weisel; Federation Board Chairman Todd Morgan; Milken Community High School student Dina Kadisha and County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. Monty Hall ("Let's Make a Deal") served as master of ceremonies.
The rally was sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the Consul General of Israel and 60 other organizations.
Expressions of solidarity were at times disturbed, but not disrupted, by hecklers at both ends of the political spectrum and by some Palestinians and their sympathizers, who stationed themselves in front of the speaker's stand.
There were also quieter protests by the interfaith group Open Tent and by Women in Black. "I'm here to show Israelis that there's an alternative to the racism in Zionism. I'm originally from Jerusalem, my whole family. We all support democracy, and we don't support more rights for Jews," said Yuval Tamari from Open Tent.
Rally organizers, who had hoped for at least 10,000 attendees, said they were pleased by the diversity and unity on display. "I thought the rally was very sucessful," said Fishel afterwards. "It sent a strong message of support for Israel."
But other communal activists expressed their disappointment at the turnout-- which, depending on which estimates are followed, might have been less than one percent of the county's Jewish population of 519,000. They said the short time organizers had to publicize the event, summer vacation, L.A.'s spread-out geography, communal apathy and other factors prevented a more massive turnout.
To many observers, Orthodox and Jews of Russian orgin seemed to form the largest contingent of Sunday 's crowd. Other parts of the Jewish community were more sparsely representated. "Except politicians," noted one event staffer.
After the rally, some 50 pro-Palestinian supporters, who identified themselves only as "concerned individuals," faced off against about 100 Israelis and American Jews, separated by a heavy police cordon. Both sides shouted imprecations and obscenities at each other in Hebrew, Arabic and English.
There were no arrests, and the Palestinian contingent left under police protection.
Among the Jews who attended, CSUN student Yosef Habooshed said he was struck by "the amazing sense of unity -- we need more of this, and we need to get out more Jews."
Mike Levy contributed to this report.