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In US, War of Words Over Gaza

by Carla Marinucci

As war rages between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, and President-elect Barack Obama counts down the days until he has to deal directly with the conflict as the leader of the free world, a war to control the message is raging at home. And it's unusually fierce.

A woman prays for the Palestinian people at a gathering in San Francisco's Civic Center on Friday. (Mark Costantini / The Chronicle) This week, some jarring events made headlines and illustrated the nature of that war:

-- Hugely popular comedian Jon Stewart, who is Jewish - birth name, Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz - was lauded by the Muslim Public Affairs Council this week for a scathing "Daily Show" segment entitled, "Israel Invades Gaza ... Missile Tov!"

The Comedy Central host, noting that rockets lobbed from Hamas into Israel are not new, posed the question, "Why does Israel feel that they have to react so strongly right now?"

Answer: the Obama inauguration. "I get it. ... Israel gets their bombing in before the Jan. 20 'hope and change' deadline ... it's like a civilian carnage Toyota-thon!" he said to roars of approval from his audience.

-- In San Francisco, Jewish protesters joined pro-Palestinian forces this week as hundreds gathered outside the Israeli consulate to make their voices heard, some carrying signs saying "Gaza = Warsaw Ghetto." Among them was Jack Fertig - known to many in town as performance artist Sister Boom Boom - who said, "I'm descended from Holocaust victims, and we need to identify with the oppressed, not imitate the oppressors."

-- Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa came under attack for pro-Israel statements he made to the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles this week. Villaraigosa had said that "any nation would take action to protect its citizens ... and no country would sit silently while innocent families are threatened and civilian lives are at risk."

That prompted Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council Israel, to ask publicly: "Why is the mayor of Los Angeles dragging himself and his constituents into international conflicts in the Middle East?"

 

Pro-Israel demonstration

Pro-Israel groups, citing the need to counter "local newspapers, television news reports and city streets ... filled with anti-Israel demonstrations," have planned a demonstration to support Israel at 11 a.m. today at the San Francisco Civic Center.

"You may have noticed the lack of strong and united voice for Israel and her people," said organizers, who include San Francisco Voice for Israel. "Now is the time to show our solidarity."

The protest is further evidence of a tug-of-war for the hearts and minds of progressive voters in the Bay Area, especially Jews.

Journalist Ron Kampeas, bureau chief of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in Washington, D.C., who covers the conflict, said the increasingly vocal concerns of Jewish Americans such as Stewart, who have come forward to express themselves, reflect changing culture and mores. But it doesn't mean they are anti-Israel, he said.

"This is a culmination of something that has been going on for a while," he said. "What used to happen is that when Israel did something controversial," many Jews thought it "wasn't kosher" to publicly question because it might fuel perception that "Israel is losing Jewish support."

But increasingly, growing progressive Jewish political action groups like Americans for Peace Now and the J-Street Project - with energetic fundraising and activism - have begun to serve as an alternative voice to the group that has long held center stage as the powerful pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

"They're saying we can be pro-Israel, and we can criticize Israel. It's not cut and dried," Kampeas said of groups like J Street, which appeal to an increasing number of American Jews who have been concerned about the wide-ranging impact of the Gaza escalation.

Surprising shifts of opinion

But some are still wary of speaking out, like one Oakland Jewish professional who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of alienating her business clients. She said this week she's seen some surprising shifts in opinion - even among Jewish friends in her own synagogue - that have convinced her that "Israel is losing the public relations war" in the conflict.

She said it really came home at a recent Torah study, when a fellow student took her aside and said, "What is Israel doing? How can these bombs go on?"

Some on the far left in the Bay Area - like Berkeley attorney Steve Pearcy, who has been a headline-making activist in anti-war and pro-Palestinian efforts - complains the news media have long underplayed support and protests on behalf of Palestinian causes. He said the current harsher criticism of Israel, even from prominent Jews like Stewart, could represent a changing political landscape.

"I believe a significant number of people throughout the world regard Israel as the terrorist state in all this, and a lot of people in the U.S. feel this way," he said. "But we don't hear any Democratic representatives speaking out against Israel in a harsh tone, and we hear it tailored with a lot of criticism against Palestinians and Hamas."

Pearcy's characterization of Israel as a "terrorist state" might outrage many liberals, but GOP political consultant Patrick Dorinson says it underscores a challenge from the left for the incoming Obama administration.

"I am very troubled by the form these protests are taking," he said. "It's very dangerous, we're on a slippery slope. Israel can try to win the PR war, but the farther away we get from World War II and the Holocaust, at some point that generation will be gone," he said. "So the left had better start looking at itself - and the Democrats should be looking at who's on their side."

Polarizing images

Jessica Rosenblum, vice president of Rabinowitz/Dorf Communications - a leading Washington, D.C., public affairs firm that represents a wide range of progressive foreign policy and Jewish organizations, agrees that the complex conflict, with its heartrending images, has presented a challenge for pro-Israeli interests.

"What really strikes me about this invasion is how raw and polarizing the images are on both sides," she said. "You see bombed-out houses and ambulance drivers being killed," images that move millions of people.

But "what I think is the primary challenge the media faces ... and the missed story, is about the moderate majorities on both sides, both the Israelis and the Palestinians," she said.

The real message, she said, is that "the majority of Israelis and Palestinians want exactly the same thing - to live in peace and security."

In Gaza: Israel and Hamas continue to battle despite U.N.'s cease-fire resolution.
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