‘A Real Defining Moment’

Times Staff Writers

The Mideast conflict spilled into Southern California on Sunday, with dueling rallies by Jews and Muslims asserting dramatically different messages about Israel’s actions in strife-torn Lebanon and Hezbollah violence against Israel.

Braving extreme heat, a crowd of Israel’s supporters estimated at several thousand clogged Wilshire Boulevard, waving Israeli and American flags and cheering speakers who included Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Both lamented civilian casualties in Lebanon but expressed strong support for Israel.

“We’re all here to do one thing, and that is to support the state of Israel,” Schwarzenegger said, noting that he first traveled to Israel as a bodybuilder and has been back many times since. “Any nation has the right to defend itself against terrorism.”

“We’re here to affirm the basic truth that there can be no peace without security,” Villaraigosa said.


The rally, touting the twin themes of Israeli security and peace, reflected what many American Jewish leaders say is the broadest and most unified community support of Israel they’ve seen in years. Even some Jewish peace groups that have outspokenly criticized Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories are firmly backing the Jewish state’s current actions in Lebanon as a justified response to an unprovoked attack by Hezbollah, the Shiite militia.

“Israel is clearly under great duress, and its situation has mobilized support throughout the community across geographical and ideological lines,” said John Fischel, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which organized the rally. “It’s a real defining moment for Israel and the Jewish people.”

At a counter-rally a block away, about 100 protesters waved Palestinian flags and banners with slogans that included “Jews against Israeli terrorism.”

Earlier in the day, local representatives of nine major Islamic groups met to plan a unified response to the escalating conflict and to counter what they see as a pro-Israeli bias in U.S. politics and the media. They argued that the massive destruction in Lebanon would not bring peace and would jeopardize U.S. interests in the region.


“We don’t have any sympathy for any of these groups, Hamas or Hezbollah,” said Maher Hathout, chairman of the Islamic Center of Southern California. “But supposing those guys really are the bad guys, by no stretch of the imagination does that justify what is going on now.”

The Mideast fighting has strained local interfaith ties, especially among traditional allies on the religious left.

Rabbi Steven Jacobs of Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, an active proponent of interfaith activity, said he was offended by a Christian petition urging an immediate cease-fire and criticizing the U.S. government’s “cynical, inhumane and uncritical support of Israel’s military actions in Lebanon.”

The petition acknowledged Hezbollah’s threat to Israel and called for the militia’s disarmament but asserted that Israel’s response “lacks all proportionality” and that “the sovereignty of Lebanon has been trampled in the Israeli rush into escalation.”


Jacobs refused to sign the petition, which was written for the Los Angeles-based Progressive Christians Uniting by Tom Hayden, a peace activist and former state senator. The rabbi said he was concerned that backers did not consult their Jewish friends about the language.

But the Rev. Peter Laarman, the Christian group’s executive director, who edited the petition, defended the text and rejected the idea that the group should have reached consensus before circulating the petition.

“If you gather people around a table and wait for everyone to agree, you end up with something so very bland that it’s not equal to the gravity faced,” Laarman said. “The question is whether you can say something critical of Israel without being anti-Israel. I think you can.”

Some Jews have voiced criticism of Israel. David N. Myers, UCLA professor of Jewish history, expressed concern that the Israeli response was “disproportionate and might be counterproductive.” He said a shorter, more focused attack on Hezbollah, combined with international pressure to disarm the Shiite militia, could have been a reasonable alternative.


But that view is dwarfed by the sentiment among most in the local Jewish community that Israel needs to do whatever it must to neutralize Hezbollah once and for all.

According to Jewish Journal editor Rob Eshman, most Jews believe that Israel did nothing to provoke Hezbollah and had endured continuous rocket attacks from the militia group despite its withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000.

Similarly, Eshman said, many Jews are disheartened that Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza was followed by the election of Hamas, a group that has refused to recognize Israel and has continued to attack the Jewish state.

“People want peace, but they also don’t want to be chumps or sitting ducks,” Eshman said, explaining the wide support American Jews have given Israel despite the unnerving images of destruction and civilian deaths in Lebanon.


The supporters include many liberals and peace activists who have been critical of Israel in the past.

“It saddens me to say that my friends on the right can say, ‘I told you so,’ ” said Michael Berenbaum, a Holocaust scholar and University of Judaism professor who has long opposed the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.

Daniel Sokatch, executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, said he also supported Israel’s right to respond and would support only a cease-fire that led to Hezbollah’s disarmament.

“Israel, after the last several years of trying to extricate itself from conflicts in Lebanon and Gaza, has been answered by blatant provocation,” he said.


But the unified support may start to crack if the violence continues and the civilian toll grows, said David Pine of Americans for Peace Now, a Jewish peace group.

Muslims, for their part, contest the Jewish view that Israel was a blameless victim in the current round of violence.

Those who gathered at the Islamic Center on Sunday said that Palestinians in Gaza have been unable to build their economy because goods are blocked at the border by Israeli troops. They also said Israel continued killing militant targets in Gaza with missile strikes after the pullout and added that there are thousands of Lebanese and Palestinian civilians in Israeli prisons.

They also voiced anger that Villaraigosa and Schwarzenegger showed up at the Jewish rally, an action the Muslims interpreted as taking sides.


“The mayor is with Israel,” Hathout said. “The people of Los Angeles were not consulted on that.”

They said Villaraigosa failed to show up at an interfaith rally at the Islamic Center a week earlier.

However, Villaraigosa’s aides apparently did try to balance his appearances this weekend. Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, said the mayor’s office contacted him Friday night to ask if any public events were planned by Muslims during the weekend. Syed told him there were none.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said he considers it appropriate for local politicians to take a stance on the Mideast conflict. “I’m an American citizen and I have a right to take sides, and anybody who doesn’t like it can vote against me in the next election,” he said.


To better publicize their perspectives, the Muslims said they would draft a letter to President Bush, contact members of Congress and offer opinion pieces to newspapers.

“We need to give them the other side of the story, because obviously they are only listening to one side,” Hathout said.


Times staff writer Nancy Cleeland contributed to this report.