A breath of fresh air

August 12, 2006

In News

Editor’s note: See also The Real Threat of “The Lobby”? and Behind the campaign to rescind divestment

Tonight a small group of mostly Jewish activists disrupted a talk by the Israeli consul general to a group of about 300 hard-core Zionists at the San Francisco Jewish Community Center. It was a surreal experience, and I’m still wondering how worthwhile it was.

The best thing about it was that we did it with almost no planning. We met about 40 minutes before we needed to be there. Some people felt we should just stand up and hold up a banner, while others wanted to try to speak out. We agreed that we would do both, which worked out to be an excellent strategy.

We discussed what we should do if there was no media there. I argued that in that scenario, we should not do the action, because it would just let them know who we were and what we were planning, and probably limit our ability to do it another time, when there might be more potential impact. Other people felt that it was important to do it just to send a message to the Zionists, that we will be there challenging them wherever they go, that we won’t let them have events without confronting us. “No Justice, No Peace,” someone said.

We assumed they would have pretty heavy security, do a big search of all our stuff, so we sanitized what we were carrying. Figuring out how to stuff the banner under people’s clothes without making them look like they had five breasts was pretty amusing. We decided we needed to go in in pairs and not sit together.

In fact, we just could walk in, no one took any particular notice of us, they didn’t really search our stuff though they were making people open their bags, and the middle-aged guy in front of me had to open his jacket, so our precautions were probably well taken. I took a seat in the middle of a row about a third of the way up the large stepped hall. I figured being in the middle would keep them from ejecting me easily once I started ranting. Waiting for the event to start, I tried to read the novel I had brought (you know I never go anywhere without one), but I couldn’t really concentrate. As people filtered in, I looked at them and thought, god, it really could be the synagogue my mom goes to. These people look like the people I should feel most at home with, and yet they are right now the people I feel most alien from. I really can’t figure out what to do with that. As the song goes, How did I get here?

There was no media present as far as I could tell. It occurred to me as the lights went down that since we were all sitting separately (the banner group of 3, two who were designated as observers/documenters, and three of us singles, who would be the ones to stand up and yell things out), and we had not worked out any signals, we had no way to call it off. I figured, well if someone else does it, I will. But even as Yoel Kahn, San Francisco’s first openly gay pulpit rabbi, got up to welcome everyone, I thought, what is the point of doing something here? No one in this room is interested in a word we have to say, and no one outside it is going to hear them.

And then the speaking started. The new director of the Israel Action Center, talking about the kibbutz in the Galil where he and Yoel first met, and the Katyushas now falling there. No mention of the US-supplied GBU “bunker busters” and F16s strafing Beirut. He mentioned a place called Kfar Qana, but not the massacre of a family sleeping in a shelter in Qana, Lebanon. He asked us to rise (they never say “stand”, it’s always “rise”) for a moment of silence to remember those who have fallen. There was no question, he did not mean the 1000 Lebanese and 200 Palestinians. (They had already talked about Israel’s heavy military and civilian casualties, and not one word about the Lebanese casualties who are more than 10 times higher.) The director of the Jewish Community Federation’s Israel Center, just back from a visit to Israel, spoke about the wonderful resilience of the Israeli people, undeterred by the evil Hezbollah, and how “though the news gives a very different story,” Israelis (like most Israelis, using “Israelis” to mean “Jewish Israelis”) were opening their homes to those evacuated from the north, “even allowing Druze and Arabs into their homes.” Not a mention of the 1 million refugees forced out of Southern Lebanon by these very generous Israelis.

And then the Consul General got up and spoke about the current “hostilities” and how Israel had had no choice, after it generously gave back “every inch” of Lebanon in 2000 (which it did not, actually), and Hezbollah, which exists for no other reason but to kill Jews, to gleefully kill children, continued to engage in unprovoked attacks, but to go to war to destroy Hezbollah. And he said that the Israeli army was shocked to find out what firepower Hezbollah had — “anti-ship missiles,” he said with horror, they had advanced military technology, they were “almost like a real army!” And so, he said, of course as you attack Hezbollah, some civilians are going to be hit, but you have to understand that some of those so-called civilians are really Hezbollah.

The thought swept over me, it was like it was 1940 and a group of German Americans had assembled to listen to a representative of the German government talk about the invasion of Poland, and how they were surprised to find out that the Jews actually had some weapons after all, that they were not quite a primitive and easily wiped out as they had expected, and so it would take a little longer and the attacks would have to be a little more fierce, but it was going well and with your support, we will prevail. And I thought I cannot just sit here and not speak out. It doesn’t really matter who hears or doesn’t hear me, I just have to do it because to let this kind of racist venom exist unchallenged, from anyone but especially from people I feel responsible for, is wrong. Instead of “How did I get here?” I asked myself, as I have done so many times, “How did we get here?”

After what seemed like an eternity, Rebecca, Margot and Arla got out of their seats. They stood in the aisle and unfurled the banner, which said something like “Jews Say Stop Bombing Civilians” and they chanted, “No one is free while others are oppressed, We as Jews should know that best.” People ran toward them immediately, grabbing at the banner. One guy managed to put a rip in the banner, which is pretty sturdy vinyl, with his bare hands.

I heard people yelling, “Dykes, Bitches” from across the room. Interesting, how linked homophobia, sexism and militarism are, that that is almost always the first insult people (men) in situations like that think of to hurl. People were hurling other things at the women, spit, fists. A guy climbed over me to get to them. I was trying to decide at what point I would throw off my cover and intervene if it looked like they might be hurt, when thankfully Yoel Kahn rode to the rescue. He urged people to go back to their seats, leave the situation to him to defuse. Some women were also trying to shush the crowd, while others were just as bad as the men, screaming abuse at our girls.

The consul general also exhorted people to leave them alone, saying, “This is what is so great about free speech.” I heard someone say, “Only Israel would be so tolerant,” which is ridiculous, of course, since we are not in Israel and Israel is not that tolerant of dissent, and anyway lots of aggressive/repressive countries are happy to tolerate free speech when it doesn’t interfere with carrying out their agendas. But people got the point, and they turned to the women and started to applaud, and that was truly creepy. But I decided, okay, I could applaud too then, and I would mean something different than they meant. Yoel got security guards to come and stand in front of the banner, so people couldn’t read it, and the consul general would really have continued his speech, but people were too fixated on the disrupters to listen. And then, as I heard it later, Rebecca said, “We’re ready to leave now,” and they were escorted out.

The room got quiet, and the consul general picked up where he left off, saying that there was consensus among the Israeli public that this war was totally necessary. Well, he said, maybe there was some difference of opinion, after all, you know Israelis, we all think we should be the commander, and that’s one of our problems, but it’s okay. But there is consensus. That was my cue, because I had planned my rant to be about Israeli dissent. I jumped up. “Actually, there is no consensus,” I said, and started to quote Gideon Levy. I didn’t get out very much, people started yelling at me, and the guy from my row who had tried to attack the others came over and started grabbing at me. He said, “Come with me.” I said, “Don’t touch me, who are you?” He let go and said, “I want to talk to you,” and I said, “I don’t have to talk to you.” A woman was behind me saying, “You have to sit down now, this is not your turn.” So I sat down. And the consul started again and after a few seconds, I popped up again and started talking again. That happened two or three more times, and then security was there and I decided it was enough. Just before I was ejected, the woman behind me demanded, “Who are you?” so I said, “I’m a Jew who cares about 1 million Lebanese refugees. I’m a Jew who cares about 6 million Palestinian refugees. I’m a Jew who understands that it is Israel’s conduct in the world which is making us unsafe.” I just kept ranting until I was gone.

As I was being ushered out of the building, through two emergency doors which set off hideous alarms, two Asian cops appeared and asked for my ID. I argued a little and then gave it to them, because why not? They asked what it was about, and I told them, “The israeli consul is in there defending the murder of children.” They were getting ready to write down my details, and then one of the security guards came out and said to them, “They’re coming out of the woodwork in there!” They almost took off with my ID, but instead one of them ran inside, leaving the other guy to take my information, and when he was done, he couldn’t get into the building.

I waited for a long time to see the next person come out, but they didn’t. I got kind of worried and curious, what was happening, and so when someone finally came and opened the door for my unlucky cop, I ran and held it open, keeping the alarm blaring, which I thought might up the commotion level. The cop turned around and said, “What are you doing? He opened it for me, not you.” Like I didn’t know that. But I decided it wouldn’t be worth getting busted, so I closed it. Still, no one came out. Finally I went around front and saw Khadija and Brian walking out. Khadija had been overcome by the moment, and found she just had to speak. Brian says, “She was so powerful, it was really beautiful to see.” Khadija told us afterwards, “I feel like I haven’t been able to breathe for the last three weeks. I have had no voice. This is the first time I feel I can talk.”

A few minutes later, Micah came out and then Sarah, who was the last one. The cops were very pissed at her, they were saying she was “out of control.” What probably really was freaking them out was that they had no way of knowing how out of control the situation was going to get. They didn’t know she was the last one, they must have been imagining that there might be 20 or 50 of us in there, and how would they know? They couldn’t tell!

So what did it accomplish? It felt great, that’s for sure. It lets the Zionists know that they are not “safe” from our criticism and our demand that an alternative perspective be heard. They will certainly tell others about it, and doubtless they will feel like they need to have more security at their next events. Which is good and bad. I don’t want to be like Lee Kaplan and Dan Kleiman, who come to all of our events, and we find them very annoying and a little scary but we are certainly not impressed with them. They are a joke, and I don’t want to be a joke to the Zionists. But Sara was pointing out that it won’t need to be us all the time, we have 40 people on a list of Jews who want to do direct action, and there are plenty more who are not on the list. If we could have had another 7 tonight, the event would really not have been able to take place. If we have 10-15 at every event they do, they will have to face the fact that we’re not just a tiny lunatic fringe, we’re a real part of the Jewish community.

In our debrief, someone said, “But it increases their sense of being embattled, of being victimized everywhere.” Someone else said, “Nothing we can do can make a dent in their belief that they are embattled.” I think they are both right. It makes them feel justified in their paranoia, but they are so paranoid anyway, that it doesn’t really matter. True, the media was not there, but there’s no guarantee that if they had been, they would have covered it, or covered it in a way that didn’t make us look like total nuts (although I don’t really believe there is such a thing as bad press).

What it did do, was confront them where they live, make them see (in spite of themselves — “You’re not really Jews” people screamed at us) that it is not just the evil Others who criticize what they are doing, but their own flesh and blood, some of those they claim to be fighting for. And for now, that might be the best we can do.

* * * *

Bay Area folks who want to be part of future actions like this, and is not already plugged in, please let me know.

Also for Bay Area folks, on August 28 my friends and IWPS colleagues Dunya and Hannah will be in town and I’ll be hosting a house party for their Birthright Unplugged program ( BRUP is an amazing educational program enabling Jewish American and Palestinian youth to “cross borders” and come to new understandings of the conflict. Micah, who was with us tonight, is an alum). If you would like to receive an invitation (and have not), please send me your address and I’ll gladly send you one.


It is resistance that enables people to see that the suffering is not inevitable, not a natural disaster, that it has a human cause that could be ended.

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