With an Israeli flag wrapped around him, Rabbi Dov Elkins stood with a crowd outside the Federal building in West Los Angeles on Sunday to participate in a pro-Israel rally. “We’re here to support Israel,” Elkins, 75, said, joined by his wife, Maxine. Residents of Princeton, N.J., the couple were in L.A. visiting their children and grandchildren; they had attended Shabbat services at the Pico-Robertson shul the Happy Minyan on Saturday, and when the rabbi announced that a pro-Israel event would be taking place the next day, they decided to attend.
“We wouldn’t be anywhere else,” Maxine Elkins, 65, said, adding, “I’m a Jew, and this is the least American Jews can do -- to come here and support Israel.”
As many as 1,400 demonstrators turned up on the afternoon of Nov. 18 to support Israel, according to police on the scene. They came in the wake of the recent violence between Israel and Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip. For approximately one week, Israel has responded to ongoing, indiscriminate Palestinian rocket fire with targeted air strikes aimed at killing Hamas military leaders and destroying weapons caches.
The demonstration was organized by the pro-Israel organizations Stand With Us, the Israeli-Leadership Council (ILC) and the Zionist Organization of America-Western Region (ZOA). Jews of all denominations came out for the rally, staged outside the Westwood Federal Building at the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Veteran Avenue, including Americans, Israelis and Jews of Iranian heritage. About 100 pro-Palestinian supporters held a counter-demonstration across the street, on the north side of Wilshire Boulevard.
For the most part, the three-hour event was peaceful, but during the final hour, the situation became heated when a fight reportedly broke out between a pro-Palestinian protestor and pro-Israel protestor. Police officers from the Los Angeles Police Department, the Los Angeles County Sherriff’s Department and California Highway Patrol officials were on scene. In response, pro-Israel supporters charged over to the Palestinian side of the street. Police officers stepped in to bring the Israel protestors back to their side. Demonstrators waved Israeli and American flags along with signs with slogans such as: “Israel Deserves Security;” “Hamas is the Enemy of Peace;” “Gaza Children Deserve Education Not Military Training” and more.
Community leaders supporting Israel included Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, Los Angeles City Councilman Dennis Zine and Los Angeles City Controller Wendy Greuel, a 2013 mayoral candidate. Also present were Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple, Rabbi Shlomo Cunin, West Coast director of Chabad-Lubavitch, Rabbi Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah, Rabbi Avi Taff of Valley Beth Shalom, Rabbi Jason Weiner, a chaplain at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and Rabbi Morley Feinstein of University Synagogue.
“We are here to protest the necessity of peace, the danger of those who would seek to destroy us and our determination to live both in strength and with justice and with peace,” Wolpe said. “Am Yisrael Chai,” he added. Other speakers included Israeli actress Noa Tishby, ILC chairman Shawn Evenhaim, Roz Rothstein, CEO of Stand With Us and Orit Arfa, executive director of the ZOA-West.
Sam Yebri, president of 30 Years After, a nonprofit that organizes Iranian-American Jews in political, civic and Jewish life, was among a group of Iranian-American Jews in attendance. In addition, the Israeli Scouts of Los Angeles, a youth group from the San Fernando Valley, brought 47 teens. All ages attended to show support for Israel. Chloe Bismuth, a 20-year-old UCLA student who said she travels to Israel every year, showed up with her knuckles painted to spell out “Israel” and tiny Israeli flags painted onto her cheeks. Israel is a “country all of us as Jews should rely on,” she said, “all of us who believe in democracy.”
Pinhas Avgani, 63, Israeli and a Woodland Hills resident, was among the dozens who gathered on the sidewalk at the southwest corner of Wilshire-and-Veteran to chant and wave flags, standing as close to the street as police officers would allow. “When [Palestinians] put weapons down, there will be peace. If Israelis are going to put their weapon down, Israel will disappear,” Avgani said. Naz Farahdel, a 24-year-old Iranian American Jew and a law clerk at the city attorney’s office, turned out with two friends, also Iranian American Jews. The pro-Israel side aimed for a broad celebration of Israel. Upbeat Israeli music played loudly; people came together for Israeli dancing, and the crowd sang the Hatikva.
Until the pro-Israel charge across the street, the pro-Israel side stayed on the southwest and southeast corners of Wilshire-and-Veteran. A line of hundreds of demonstrators began at the southwest corner of the intersection, extending eastward, halfway down the block toward Sepulveda Boulevard. People led Israel chants, speaking into bullhorns. Passing cars honked horns and waved Israeli flags out of the windows. Meanwhile, LAPD helicopters circled overhead. On the Palestinian side demonstrators carried signs expressing support for Palestinians and also denouncing Israel and the United States: “Resist Zionism and Imperialism;” “Let Gaza Live: Free Palestine” and “Stop U.S. Aid to Israel.” One banner read: “It’s not a war. In Palestine, it’s genocide.”
When the pro-Israeli group crossed the street after the disruption began, Rothstein called the Israel protestors back to their side. Soon, nine California Highway Patrol and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department vehicles parked in a line in the center of Wilshire. Police officers stationed themselves on foot at all four corners of the intersection, keeping the crowds to the sidewalk. Officers stood by the parked vehicles. Chants turned ugly. When the Palestinian side chanted, “Free, free Palestine,” a man on the Israel side yelled back, “Bomb, bomb Palestine.”
Angering many on the Israel side, a pro-Palestinian demonstrator tied an Israel flag to his leg and let it drag in the street. A group of male teenagers, a middle-aged man and two elderly women on the Israel side responded by yelling out insults and curses. Around 3:45 p.m., Rothstein, in cooperation with law enforcement, told demonstrators on the Israel side to go home. Rothstein had initially told law enforcement that the event, which began at 1 p.m., would end no later than 3:30 p.m. By this time, attendance of both sides had dwindled, but a sizable Israel group and a small Palestinian group remained.
LAPD officers accompanied the Palestinian protestors as they crossed to the pro-Israel side to walk toward their cars in the Federal building parking lot, where most of the demonstrators from both sides had parked. “We want to get those folks safety out of here,” a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department official told Rothstein.
Rothstein joined a police officer in a police car and using the car’s loudspeaker asked everyone on the Israel side to leave, as the car inched slowly in front of the pro-Israel crowd. “Thank you for your cooperation. Thank you for being here,” she said. By 4 p.m., most demonstrators on both sides departed. Rothstein acknowledged that the pro-Israel side had engaged in some bad behavior. “It is kind of why I sometimes worry about putting these things on. You never know who is going to show up,” she said. “But it’s a community and we have a tapestry.”
While the Palestinian side was small compared to the Israel side on Sunday, on Nov. 15, hundreds of pro-Palestinians had rallied outside the office of the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles, near Wilshire and Barrington avenue. There, one attendee blamed Israel for the recent violence. “It’s saddening but it’s not shocking, and if you’ve been following the news today [Nov. 15] it had been reported that Israel had broken the cease-fire first. Unfortunately Western media has not been quick to follow up on that regard,” she said.
“But regardless I support neither Hamas or Israel. What I support is the liberation of the Palestinian people,” she added.
In addition to Sunday’s rally, local initiatives are showing solidarity with Israel, including a project organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles that enables people to post messages onto the Federation website in support of the children of Israel.