Published on
The San Francisco Chronicle

In US, War of Words Over Gaza

Carla Marinucci

A woman prays for the Palestinian people at a gathering in San Francisco's Civic Center on Friday. (Mark Costantini / The Chronicle)

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.

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

-- 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

-- 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


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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

"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

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

"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

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

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