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Jewish Journal

Los Angeles community reacts to violence in the Gaza war

by Ryan Torok and Nuria Mathog

August 6, 2014 | 4:05 pm

<em>Rabbi David Hekmatjah (third from right) and teens from his synagogue, Maohr HaTorah, stand up for Israel at a shloshim for three murdered Israeli teens in Beverly Hills.</em> <br />
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Rabbi David Hekmatjah (third from right) and teens from his synagogue, Maohr HaTorah, stand up for Israel at a shloshim for three murdered Israeli teens in Beverly Hills.

Two simultaneous events in Los Angeles last week that focused on Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip revealed a community split between progressives who expressed some criticism of Israel even as they supported its efforts at security, and more unconditional supporters of the Jewish state.

On July 31, more than 1,000 people attended an event at Valley Beth Shalom (VBS), a large Conservative synagogue in Encino. The event, titled “Shoulder to Shoulder: A Community Gathering in Support of the People of Israel,” displayed American-Israeli solidarity to full effect. 

“We have a strong Jewish community in this country and around the world. And we are organized, and we are powerful, and we’re inspired. And we know that we have a homeland to fight for that is just, that is moral,” Israel Consul General in Los Angeles David Siegel said at VBS, appearing alongside the congregation’s Rabbis Ed Feinstein and Noah Farkas, as well as Rabbi Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, and others. 

At the same time, about 250 others from the Jewish community wrestled with issues pertaining to Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza at an event titled “Crisis in Israel: What Now What Next?” at the Westside Jewish Community Center (JCC). The town hall-style event featured Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR, Daniel Sokatch of the New Israel Fund, UCLA Jewish history professor David Myers, Americans for Peace Now’s David Pine and J Street’s Yael Maizel. 

“Tonight, we actually come together to reflect and to think about and hear about how we got to this place, and what in the world we can possibly do so that we might be able to find our way out of here,” Brous said, explaining her discomfort with Israel’s activity in Gaza. “There are so many Israelis who are taking the lead in this conversation now, artists and activists and thinkers and academics, people who are, with their own broken hearts, able to say, ‘What kind of country do we want to build, what are [the] great dreams we want to dream?’ We wanted to create a space for that conversation to happen here in Los Angeles, as well.” These two events illustrated how, even when the L.A. Jewish community is united in support of Israel during this latest operation against Hamas, turning out repeatedly in recent weeks in large numbers at rallies, vigils and memorial services for the three kidnapped and slain teens Gilad Shaar, Eyal Yifrach, and Naftali Frenkel — a Saban Theatre shloshim on July 30 drew more than 1,000 people and featured speakers Roz Rothstein of Stand With Us, Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Jewish Journal President David Suissa and others — it is not homogenous in how it processes what is happening inside Gaza. 

Some have found an outlet by expressing absolute harmony with the decisions of the Israeli government. 

Others are trying to carve out a moderate position between those who would call Israel’s action “genocide” (more on that later) and those who are embracing Israel now more than ever. 

Chabad of Northridge congregant Andrew Miller is an example of an ardent Israel supporter. An attendee at the VBS event — where audience members wore yarmulkes with Israel and U.S. flags stitched to them, and a video screen situated between a U.S. flag and an Israeli flag displayed pictures from Israel -— Miller said the event demonstrated that the American-Jewish community stands behind Israel. 

“It’s so nice that we had the opportunity to all get together and show our support for Israel, especially now, when they need it most,” he said. 

For some, neither option suffices. This appeared true at the Westside JCC, where emotions ran high when one audience member, L.A. Jews for Peace member Rick Chertoff, yelled out and interrupted the panel’s discussion to declare that the death of Palestinian civilians in Israel’s current war with Hamas is more than just collateral damage — these deaths, he said, reflect a concerted Israeli effort to wipe out Palestinians. 

Security officers quickly escorted Chertoff out of the event because of his disruption, which also included cursing at other members of the audience. 

It was clear that, for the segment of the Jewish community present at the JCC — whom Sokatch described as the “progressive Jewish community of Los Angeles, who care deeply about Israel and who care deeply about Palestine” — Chertoff’s claim that Israel is intentionally targeting Palestinians is too radical. 

“We do not believe Israel engages in deliberate slaughter of its neighbors and represents the sole criminal actor on the world stage,” Myers said.

“[But] I think that as we contemplate the prospect of moving forward, we have to hope for a mix of more sophisticated statecraft [in Israel] … for realist morality that has been sorely lacking for the last number of years now,” Myers said. 

Later the same week, on Aug. 2, between 1,500 and 3,000 people turned out for a pro-Palestinian rally in Westwood. And they signaled that they would, likely, dispute Myers’ remarks. Marching to and fro between the Wilshire Federal Building and the headquarters of the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles, which is located just over a mile west of the Federal Building, protesters carried signs that read, “Zionists, Get Out of Gaza Now!” and “Israel Is Mass Murdering Children.”

The event, as has been true of other rallies on both sides during the past several weeks, had its share of rowdiness. The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) arrested one person for sexual battery, according to LAPD-West L.A. Division Officer Hornback, who described the incident as “involuntary touching of a private area.” No further details were available. 

Additionally, Israel activist Steve Goldberg, carrying a large Israeli flag, engaged in shouting matches with a group of pro-Palestinian demonstrators at one point; a woman covered in fake blood carried a baby doll also covered in fake blood and marched with duct tape over her lips; demonstrators clashed with Bible-thumping Evangelicals who stationed themselves on the north side of Wilshire Boulevard behind a banner proclaiming support of Israel as the Jewish homeland.

“We stand with you,” 22-year-old Cerritos College student and pro-Palestinian group ANSWER Los Angeles member Waylette Thomas told the Journal when asked if there was any message she’d send to Hamas, the governing party in Gaza.

The climax of the event occurred about two hours in: A sea of protesters were marching eastbound on a closed-down Wilshire Boulevard under the 405 Freeway, their pro-Palestinian chants echoing against the walls of the underpass. 

Viva, viva, Palestina,” Spanish-language protesters chanted as they made their way back to the Federal Building later that afternoon. 

“We’re demanding that Israel end its indiscriminate bombing and its indiscriminate genocide of the civilian population — we ask it to end and demand for it to end its siege on the Gaza Strip,” Gus Hussein, 25, a Palestinian UC Riverside graduate student and Students for Justice in Palestine member, said, marching with the large group. 

The tone of the rally was not only vastly different from the sentiments expressed at the Westside JCC and VBS, but also from those expressed at an Aug. 5 morning ceremony at Los Angeles City Hall, where L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and the city’s top leaders, including City Councilmember Bob Blumenfield, who organized the media event, officially expressed their solidarity with Israel. But even in those Israel-friendly rooms, there was a universal eagerness to see the conflict end as soon as possible. 

Siegel predicted, however, that Israel will face difficulties even after it ends its war in Gaza. (As of press time on Aug. 5, a 72-hour cease fire had gone into effect and peace negotiations were expected to begin soon in Egypt, with both sides already claiming victory, according to a JTA report.)

“The day after this conflict is over, it only just begins,” Seigel said, noting that the country will face “one-sided international investigations” aimed at limiting Israel’s ability to defend itself.

Brous, meanwhile, expressed hopes for a day when events like the ones last week won’t be necessary. 

“I want to suggest there is another way for us, not to put aside the pain and suffering but to hold it and grieve over it and to contemplate what in the world we can do to get out of this place, so that we don’t have to meet again in another 18 months, or two years, to have a community forum in which to grieve the loss of so many more lives,” she said.

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