October 22, 2019

Grass-Roots Support

U sing the Internet to reach Orange County’s Jews, a recently organized grass-roots group of Israel supporters drew about 600 demonstrators to a noisy public display of solidarity outside South Coast Plaza.

The rally demonstrated the county’s growing Jewish vocal involvement on Israeli matters, and heightened the Israeli community’s plight so far from home.

Passing cars honked in support as demonstrators, waving U.S. and Israeli flags and carrying signs, stood three and four deep for two hours on a breezy afternoon on Sunday, April 14. Participants included many non-Jews, some carrying hand-lettered signs in Spanish.

A week before in a larger but less visible show of support, a standing-room-only crowd of 800 packed the Jewish Federation campus in Costa Mesa in a patriotic rally for the newly organized Israel Emergency Fund. Each person received a short biography about one of the 460 victims of the latest intifada, reminiscent of cards handed out to visitors at Holocaust museums.

“Jews are in trouble,” warned Jewish Federation President Charles Karp. “Israel is at war, and we must act.” He told those gathered that they must send Israel a message that “we share your pain, we admire your strength, we will never abandon you.”

The group quickly snapped up all the available pledge cards and within a week funneled $100,000 into the fund, which will aid survivors and help pay for security and emergency services, a spokeswoman said.

Hundreds more turned out for events to commemorate Israel’s fallen and its Independence Day in a week packed with memorial services, a concert and a pro-Israeli rally at a student-organized UC Irvine event.

The whirlwind of activities demonstrated Orange County’s solidarity with Israel. “This is the first time all Jewish branches are going to unify behind Israel,” claimed Michelle Koropitzer, the Israeli-born chair of the 1,000-member local chapter of the Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO). The group mustered co-sponsors from throughout the community for its solidarity concert and Jewish fair, at which an Israeli entertainer performed before an audience of 400.

Last August, Fullerton resident Pnina Schichor co-founded Middle Eastern Reporting in Truth (MERIT) with her Israeli-born husband, David, in part to generate action from pro-Israel supporters.

Perhaps a score of people belong to the informal group, which orchestrated the sidewalk rally. Its aims are modeled after similar groups that respond to what they view as anti-Israel bias in national media stories, using e-mail to communicate.

Schichor sees any reticence among O.C. Jews to publicly wave the flag for Israel dissipating. “They are responding to the mood of the population, which is Jews who want their voices heard. It took away their fear of being criticized,” she said.

Considering that the county’s Israeli population is estimated at under 5,000, efforts to drum up Israel support clearly gained momentum by tapping into the area’s larger Jewish community.

The common thread pulling Israeli-born citizens to Orange County often is access to higher education. While many pursue studies, assuming that their stay will be temporary, economic opportunity and an Israel-like climate often lure them to settle permanently. For the last 10 years, the county’s biggest Israeli gatherings are weekly folk dances at the Jewish Community Center in Costa Mesa led by a San Diego sister-brother team.

“It’s now such an institution. You can’t plan anything with Israelis on Wednesday night,” said David Prihar, 69, of Anaheim, an Israeli-born retired military communications manager.

In the late 1980s, about the same time he helped establish a local Israeli unit of B’nai B’rith, WIZO also established a local chapter. When Prihar returned to the area in 1996, after a year’s absence in Hong Kong, the group no longer existed.

“Orange County is not big enough for two Israeli organizations,” Prihar said. Younger Israeli newcomers, who seek the county’s labor and capital to establish high-tech businesses, view themselves as temporary interlopers. “They don’t come to events,” he said.

At UC Irvine, the most visible Israel activist isn’t even Israeli. Energized by a 10-day Birthright Israel trip a year ago, 19-year-old freshman Sarah A. Tolkoff established Anteaters for Israel, named after the campus mascot.

To mark Israel’s anniversary of its founding, the group organized an Israeli drum circle at a noontime rally and an evening panel of speakers. The pounding Anteaters were answered by about 20 sign-carrying demonstrators from the Muslim Student Union. A crowd packed the campus auditorium to hear the evening’s speakers on the Middle East.

“The campus is a microcosm for the rest of the world,” Tolkoff said.