As Israeli military operations in Gaza stretch into their fourth week, a number of demonstrations have sprung up around the globe, some protesting alleged human rights violations suffered by Gazans living in the war zone, and others in support of Israel and its stated right to do whatever is necessary to defend itself against the largely Hamas-sponsored rocket attacks against population centers throughout southern Israel. Demonstrations have made their way to Santa Barbara, with members of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at UCSB chalking campus walkways in protest of the number of Palestinians killed in the past month-an action responded to swiftly by American Students for Israel (ASI), who found the chalked remarks offensive and had them removed by campus authorities-to the Saturday, January 10 protest in downtown Santa Barbara by people concerned about the welfare of Gazans.
Typical of the back-and-forth debate that has been going on between supporters of one side or the other, the pro-Israel camp had its time in the limelight during a demonstration held at the Jewish Federation building on Chapala Street on Tuesday evening, January 13. Sponsored by the Israel Committee of Santa Barbara, Congregation B’nai B’rith, the Santa Barbara Chapter of the Anti Defamation League, the Jewish Federation of Greater Santa Barbara, and the Community Shul of Montecito and Santa Barbara, well over 100 people showed up at the candlelit vigil-held in the parking lot. Israeli flags large and small were ubiquitous, and people held signs bearing such slogans as “Israel, We Stand with You,” “Hamas: Jihad Kills,” and “Free Gaza from Hamas.” Various members of the clergy-including Reverend Mark Asman of Trinity Episcopal Church, Reverend Alan Strout of the First United Methodist Church of Santa Barbara, Rabbi Arthur Gross-Schaefer of the Community Shul, and Rabbi Steve Cohen of B’nai B’rith-stepped up on stage to offer prayers for Israelis and Palestinians affected by the violence, and to show support for Israel. “Light a candle for peace under the pressure of darkness,” said Strout.
While the overall message was one expressing hope for peace, event organizers who spoke were adamant that Israel needs to defend itself against rockets launched from Gaza. “What if people from Summerland-about the same distance as Gaza is from Sderot-started lobbing rockets at soccer fields, schools, and businesses [in Santa Barbara]?” asked Peter Melnick, chair of the Israel Committee. “If such vicious attacks were levied against Americans, it’s hard to imagine they’d be tolerated.” Melnick also responded to claims by opponents of Israel’s actions that the nation’s response to rocket attacks is disproportionate. “There is simply no equivalency between Hamas’s violence and Israel’s action to protect its citizens. The world holds Israel to a unique standard, expecting it to tolerate what no other nation can.” Other speakers included UCSB’s ASI president, Maya Liss, and Rabbi Gross-Schaefer’s son, Yoav, who is a soldier in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF).
Although Tuesday’s rally was free of opposition, there has been a lot of it about in recent weeks, including at a meeting of SJP last week, in which UCSB students voiced concern over the alacrity with which campus police cleaned up their chalk protest on the morning of January 6. “There was no profanity or targeting of any specific groups. We targeted Israeli policy and the war in Gaza specifically,” said Aharon Morris, SJP’s president and a member of the Muslim Student Association. “I’ve never supported Hamas policies because they shoot rockets indiscriminately into civilian populated areas. I don’t want the destruction of Israel, I want Palestinians to be treated like human beings.” Liss countered that the information SJP activists had included in the chalkings was offensive and misleading. “I do see both sides-I would never disqualify people’s concerns. This is a very emotional situation,” she said, noting that she has a cousin serving in the IDF who was called into action in Gaza-something she personally is very concerned about. “I would like to see this over as soon as possible.”
“I saw the chalking on Tuesday morning, and there was nothing that suggested any threatening behavior,” said Elizabeth Robinson, UCSB’s staff advisor for SJP and KCSB-the campus radio station. She pointed out that there have been comparisons in the Israeli press of Gaza to the infamous Warsaw Ghetto of World War II. “Dissent is much freer in Israel than it is here,” she said. “The irony is that it’s not the killing that’s offensive, it’s that someone called attention to it. The Israeli government can say they are the wronged party, but every piece of evidence you can cobble together would suggest otherwise.”
In an effort to create a broader understanding of the Israeli point of view regarding the conflict, Israeli Consul Shahar Azani traveled from the embassy in Los Angeles last week to meet with student groups and Jewish community organizations to speak and answer questions. Azani highlighted Hamas control of Gaza as the root of the problem, saying Palestinian deaths have been an unfortunate consequence of Israel’s protection of its citizens. “We love life, and they proclaim to adore death,” he said, pointing to Hamas’s use of human shields in their defense against the IDF. “This is our obligation as a government : We believe we have the support of the world on this.”