By the time comedian Elon Gold took the stage to emcee the rally for the raising of the Israeli flag on Wilshire Boulevard, the street had filled with 3,000 or more people — a sea, or at least an inlet, of humanity waving little plastic blue-and-white flags as loudspeakers pumped out Israeli songs and their American Jewish equivalent: selections from “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Gold looked out upon the patriotic multitudes and uttered his welcome: “Hello everyone, I’m Elon Gold. For those of you who don’t know who I am, I’m the Jewish Jerry Seinfeld.”
That’s right — the profound, important gathering to raise the Israeli flag in front of the Consulate General of Israel for the first time ever was hosted by a standup comedian and began with a joke. I, for one, am proud of that.
I’m proud of it because while the display of the flag affirms, as several speakers pointed out, our connection as Jews and as Americans to a strong, secure State of Israel, the symbolism, I think, goes even deeper.
“This is a great day for us,” said Israeli Consul General Jacob Dayan when it was his turn to speak.
Dayan conceived of hoisting the flag in front of the consulate when he first came to Los Angeles a year ago. He was told the idea was a nonstarter: Any number of people were leery of the security risks involved in publicly identifying a building with Israel.
As I wrote in this space two weeks ago, Dayan not only vowed to fly the flag, but to raise it in a very public spectacle. Not a few Jewish leaders tried to dissuade him, convinced that L.A. Jews are only good for one mass rally every 20 years, if that.
Besides, they wondered aloud, what’s so big about a flag?
Sunday afternoon proved Dayan right.
I stood on a camera platform and looked east on Wilshire Boulevard beyond Crescent Heights Boulevard, watching the crowd grow to 3,000, or more. Two-dozen spectators broke out into an impromptu dance of “Hava Nagila” under a massive billboard advertising the HBO show “Entourage.” Several protesters entered the mix waving signs — “No More Wars for Israel! Mearsheimer & Walt R Right” — before being escorted out by police, to loud cheers from the crowd.
A large V.I.P. section — it seems at least one-third of the Jewish community is V.I.P. — was filled with many local politicians. Busloads of schoolchildren came, from Valley Beth Shalom, Milken, Stephen S. Wise, Sinai Akiba and others. Temples sent delegations. Israelis themselves turned out en masse — when Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told the assembly “Shana Tova” and “Am Yisrael Chai,” he was speaking the native language of at least half the people there.
“This city stands with Israel in security and safety,” Villaraigosa said. “We must reaffirm in one voice our support for the Jewish state.”
To reinforce the point, a contingent of churches came, a black gospel choir filled the stage, the Mexican Consul General sent a delegation and a musical ensemble. The different representation was enough to make the point: This isn’t just a Jewish thing.
Then came the ceremony itself.
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and Councilman Jack Weiss, accompanied by a Marine, raised an American flag on one tall steel pole.
The gospel choir sang “God Bless America.” If you weren’t thinking of the Jewish immigrant Irving Berlin who wrote that song, you couldn’t appreciate the beautiful irony of the moment.
State Assembly Speaker Karen Bass raised the California flag on another pole. The mayor and Dayan, accompanied by two Israeli soldiers in uniform, raised the Israeli flag on the center pole.
I was close by then, maybe 5 feet away.
Some 30 men, women and children were blowing shofars as the flag went up. The young Israeli soldiers were smiling: It was a cool moment. The mayor looked solemn, as if he were in shul carrying the Torah.
And the consul general? He was choking back tears. I think if a line of cameras hadn’t been pointed at him, he’d have lost it. His grandfather died in the Holocaust, and now, 60 years later, he had managed to raise a flag that represents security, refuge and the possibility of peace to full, public view.
And then Elon Gold cracked another joke.
“The shofars are still blowing,” the comedian said from the dais. “At this point they’re auditioning for the Philharmonic. I don’t think you’re gonna get in, guys.”
That’s when it hit me why I was so moved — not because of the show of support, not because of the consul’s tears, but because of the jokes. It’s not that the flag represents Israel, it’s what Israel, at its best, represents. That, for me, was the deeper symbolism displayed on Wilshire Boulevard last Sunday. In a world filled with fanatical ideologues of all political and religious stripes, Israel has managed to endure not just as a refuge, but as a democracy, a land of tremendous freedom, creativity and, yes, humor. It is imperfect and imperiled. It has plenty of home-grown fanatics and anti-democratic forces to battle — but that battle has been joined since before its founding, and, to its credit, continues.
As much as the flag represents Israel, it represents these values, values that every passerby, Jewish or not, should want promoted and defended. Waving on Wilshire Boulevard between the Stars and Stripes and the Bear Flag, the Israeli flag is the perfect — pardon the expression — middle finger to all the fanatics out there.
And that’s no joke.
The debates won’t matter