Mixed Message to Bush

One message from this week’s rally at the Capitol was clear — solidarity with the State of Israel and its people. Much less clear was the message to the Bush administration.
Signs, speakers and more than 100,000 demonstrators touted support for the U.S. war on terrorism. But few expressed support for Secretary of State Colin Powell’s current mission in the Middle East, his meetings with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and the Bush administration’s call for Israel to end its military incursions into the West Bank.

A handful of U.S. senators and non-Jewish political leaders mentioned the Powell mission. American Jewish and Israeli leaders skirted it.

But while the Jewish leadership tried to stick to positive tones, a State Department official said the lasting image of the rally will be the negative response to the Bush administration’s sole representative, who spoke from the administration’s playbook.

Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense who is considered one of Israel’s staunchest advocates in the administration, was drowned out by chants of “Down with Arafat” and at times, booed when he spoke of an eventual Palestinian state and the death of innocent Palestinians.

“The fact that Paul Wolfowitz is booed for talking about the sufferings of innocent Palestinians, in many ways reinforces the deep divide between many people in government — even those sympathetic to Israel — and the pro-Israel community,” said a State Department official.

But the real question is, what impact, if any, the rally will have on administration policy.

The Bush administration is engaged in a delicate balancing act, trying to walk a fine line between supporting Israel’s position that its offensive in the territories is part of the U.S. global war on terrorism, and asking Israel to withdraw its forces and return to political negotiations with the Palestinians.

Within the administration, the response appears mixed. One State Department official said he did not think the Powell team was about to change course because of the rally.
“Given his immersion in this problem,” the official said of Powell, “I am not sure he is worrying about what tens of thousands of people gathering on a spring day are saying.”
Others in the administration, however, said policy may not change, but the numbers that turned out can’t be ignored. “This is not going to change policy because policy is not based on what’s popular,” said a Bush administration official. But he added, “We hear so much from Jewish leaders. To see that many Jews turn out for this will just speak volumes.”

Bring the Noise

An Israel solidarity rally, organized by the grass-roots association Stand With Us, attracted several hundred local Jews and other supporters of Israel to the intersection of Wilshire and Veteran boulevards in Westwood. What made this rally particularly impressive was how large the turnout was on a weekday, especially since the rally was a product of e-mail and word of mouth. Also notable was the preponderance of young American Jews and Israeli ones, many in their 20s and 30s.

Another Israel solidarity rally will be held in front of the Federal Building, on the corner of Wilshire and Veteran boulevards, on Sunday, April 7 at 2 p.m.

Stand With Us is a loose configuration of people that began last May when about 40 organizational leaders, lay leaders, rabbis and other members of Los Angeles’ Jewish community banded together to find ways of escalating support for Israel during the intifada. The credo on the affiliation’s Web site standwithus.com proclaims: "We are a grass-roots organization encompassing all branches of Judaism, Jewish organizations and friends of the Jewish people. We are not part of any religious or political organization, and we will not attempt to influence Israel’s government policies."

"It was very effective," Roz Rothstein, an activist involved in Stand With Us, told The Journal following the rally. "It goes to show that people do want to get together if given the opportunity. This is not about politics, this is about murder. We cannot have peace when people sitting around a restaurant are getting murdered."

Stand With Us organized the rally in concert with a wide range of supporters, including Temple Beth Am, B’nai David-Judea Congregation, Council of Iranian-American Jewish Organizations, and Beth Jacob Congregation. Rothstein added that in addition to support from the Israeli and Persian communities, a group of devout Christians also took part.

Beth Jacob spiritual leader Rabbi Steve Weil and Marc Rohatiner, the synagogue’s president, were among those lined up along Wilshire Boulevard.

"For a midweek rally, there’s a lot of people," Rohatiner said. "It’s a pretty decent turnout."

Weil and Rohatiner were also impressed by the short time it took for the rally to be assembled in the midst of the Passover holidays. The word went out Friday.

Although this particular rally was not a Jewish Federation event, many Federation executives, staffers, and board members and their families came down to support the movement, including Federation President John Fishel; Federation Chair Jake Farber; Jewish Community Resource Center directors Michael Hirschfeld and Elaine Albert; South Bay Federation Director Margy Feldman; and Cheri Morgan, vice chair of the United Jewish Fund.

Also supporting the solidarity rally was Los Angeles’ Israeli Consul General Yuval Rotem. On April 1, he held a media conference in which he presented Israel’s position on the Middle East conflict to local media representatives. Rotem decried the recent escalation of Palestinian suicide bombings, and called for the condemnation of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, whom he labeled a faux leader who has failed repeatedly to exercise leadership over extremists and to demonstrate a true interest in peace.

"In the meantime, we must exercise our right — the right of every country on earth — to defend its people," Rotem said.

At the Westwood rally, people waved Israeli and American flags, and carried signs with slogans such as "We Stand With Israel," "There Is No Excuse for Suicide-Murder," and "We Ji-Had Enough."

With the situation in Israel turning grislier, many of the young locals present were very concerned about what the future has in store for both Israel and America.

"My whole family is in Israel," said Sean Hashem, an Angeleno in his early 30s who attended Fairfax High School. "All my mother’s side of the family, my father’s side. It’s very frustrating. There’s a feeling of hopelessness, that nothing will be fixed soon, that it’ll escalate. I had to come here and show my support."

Hashem expressed his dismay in "the United States’ indecisiveness" and wants to see the American government "taking a more pro-active approach" in its support for Israel.

"I didn’t think there would be this many people," said Ilona Fass, in her 20s, who says she felt it was vital to demonstrate her support of Israel against the waging of terrorism. "I think that what is happening in Israel can happen here. It’s just a matter of time."

Limore Twena, a recent Angeleno raised in Toronto by Israeli parents, said that if Jews become cowed into not expressing their rage at the violent campaign being unleashed on innocent Israeli citizens, the terrorists have won.

"They want to make people scared to congregate," said Twena, in her mid-20s. "I’m here to show my support to Israel and stand up against terrorism."

Such sentiments and concerns spanned the generations of demonstrators. Blanka Lifshin, a Holocaust survivor in her 70s, has been on edge since the suicide bombings in Israel escalated in recent weeks.

"It’s heartbreaking," said Lifshin, who has family and friends living in Israel. "I call every night."

She added that she has been disappointed by the lack of high-profile Jews, such as those in the entertainment industry, making a vocal statement against what is happening in Israel.

"A lot of Jewish people have influence," she said, "and they don’t do anything."

Locals were not the only people participating in the rally. Out-of-towners visiting Los Angeles for the holidays, such as the Gruens of Boston, were also on hand to lend their support.

"We had other plans for fun in L.A.," Dan Gruen said, "but we thought that this was more important."

"Everybody’s really trying hard to get what we want, and we’ll probably get it,"said Dalia, Gruen’s 10-year-old daughter.

"What do we want?" Gruen asked his daughter.

Dalia, with a shy smile, replied, "We want peace."


Let us now praise Jewish disunity.

The com-munity-wide rally in solidarity with the people of Israel, this Sunday, is proof that there is power in what many people consider our communal weakness.

The 40-odd groups that have come together to support the July 22 rally have very different ideas on how to resolve the current Middle East crisis. Some decry Israeli policies that they believe have contributed to the crisis; others maintain the Palestinians alone are to blame.

But beyond Israel, these groups represent Jews who stand on opposing sides of many issues: vouchers, immigration, welfare — not to mention cultural and denominational differences.

It’s fair to say the groups that met to organize the rally represent a Jewish community as disunified and diverse as can be.

This fact is not lost on organizers. They are stressing that the rally is "apolitical," which of course must sound absurd to Palestinians and, for that matter, Israelis, whose futures will be determined by this crisis’ political outcome.

What organizers mean is that a broad swath of L.A. Jews is united in support of the people of Israel in this difficult time. Anyone who tries to deliver a more politically-charged message than that, as Ronald Lauder did at a Jerusalem rally last January, will no doubt find him or herself alienating a good chunk of those present.

But the rally’s clearest message should go not to organizers and participants, but to politicians, the press and the public-at-large.

The fact that we are not a monolithic community makes the message of our coming together that much stronger. When a community that rarely speaks in a single voice finally does so, its message is that much harder to ignore.