Vigils, protests and demonstrations have been popping across Orange County in the wake of a Hamas attack that killed over a thousand Israelis a month ago and Israeli airstrikes that have killed thousands of Palestinians in Gaza in the weeks that followed.
These protests and vigils come amid a nationwide hate spike as local Muslim and Jewish leaders raise alarms in the past few weeks of Islamophobia, antisemitism, and anti-Arab sentiment growing in OC.
The violence is resonating deeply here in Orange County – where tens of thousands of Arab American and Jewish people live together.
Vigils and rallies for Palestine in OC have been a regular occurance in recent weeks with people showing up to mourn Gazans killed by Israeli airstrikes as some also worry about loved ones there and a spike in hate crimes here.
Several Jewish groups locally have also held vigils for the Israelis killed by Hamas or taken hostage.
The Jewish Federation of OC held a vigil on Oct. 10 in Irvine shortly after the Hamas attack, and the Israeli American Council – Orange County held one last week.
Peter Levi, regional director of the local Anti-Defamation League chapter, said in a Tuesday phone interview that local Jewish families are worried about loved ones in Israel and a spike in hate crimes here as well.
He said in the wake of the attack there were vigils and that Jewish people are showing up at their synagogues because they need to be together especially after the Hamas attack.
“Now, it’s a lot of just doing the healing work and most of that work happens from within our own communities,” Levi said.
Since Israel’s bombing of Gaza and displacement of over a million Palestinians, student groups from UC Irvine and local colleges as well as other groups – have held rallies or vigils for Palestine, mainly in Anaheim, Santa Ana and Irvine.
During a Monday vigil at UC Irvine, a member of the Palestinian American Woman Association who lives in Orange County and didn’t identify herself by name for fear of her safety publicly told a crowd that she lost 12 members of her family – more than half of them children – in the airstrikes.
“I want you to know who we are. We are human beings,” she said, echoing calls for a ceasefire. “Please keep praying for all these people – praying for our freedom. We want our freedom back. We want to be Palestinians.”
OC Residents Sound Off on Ceasefire
Arab American, Muslim and Palestinian groups are also coming together as a community advocating for a ceasefire in Gaza and an end to U.S. military aid to Israel.
Sean Tser, a Palestinian American Irvine resident who attended Monday’s vigil, said what the Israeli government is doing to Palestinians is a genocide and that a ceasefire will allow humanitarian aid for innocent people in Gaza who are injured.
“It is very painful. You can’t even describe the pain that we have as Palestinians,” he said. “They need medicine. They need food. They need water. They need the electricity for the hospitals to work. They want the very basic things.”
For Tser, resilience is part of the Palestinian identity.
Within the Jewish community, there are different attitudes towards a ceasefire.
Stephen Einstein, founding Rabbi of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley, in a Wednesday phone interview didn’t support a ceasefire and said Hamas terrorist attacks need to stop.
“A ceasefire would do nothing except enable the terrorists to continue their activities,” he said, adding that if Hamas called for two days to move out civilians and release hostages, then a brief cessation would make sense.
He said the Hamas attack on Oct. 7 was traumatic for OC’s Jewish community.
“I would say we still feel quite traumatized. There is concern, of course, for the loss of all innocent lives. The death of any person, any innocent person, child, father, mother, grandparents, etc is cause for great pain for all of us,” Einstein said.
Levi, of the Anti-Defamation League, did not comment on whether he is in favor of a ceasefire.
He said people should not be surprised that Israel responded to the Hamas attack and called what is happening to innocent Palestinians devastating, adding that he would like to see humanitarian aid to help civilians.
“Our position is that Israel has to decide how it’s appropriate to engage. ” he said. “In the Jewish community, there’s a strong sense that we have to distinguish between Hamas as a terrorist organization and innocent Palestinians who are suffering.”
Estee Chandler, who founded the local chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, which identifies itself with the Jewish left, said many in the Jewish community are abhorred by what she called a genocide of the people in Gaza and are calling for a ceasefire
“In the Jewish community, there’s obviously a split as to how people feel,” said Chandler, whose group is based in LA but heads up organizing work in OC. “I can speak for (Jewish Voice For Peace) and the people in our circles, who are absolutely abhorred that this genocide is being executed in our name.”
OC Arab Americans Push For Ceasefire
Groups like the Arab American Civic Council and Yalla Indivisible have also been rallying people to call on local senators and members of congress to demand a ceasefire and end U.S. military aid.
The groups have shown up at least three times to Democratic Congresswoman Katie Porter’s office in Irvine to try and get her to demand a ceasefire but leaders with the Arab American Civic Council say she is “running away from her constituents.”
They are expected to show up at her Irvine office again today at 3p.m.
Just over two dozen organizations – many of them local including Chispa, the local chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, VietRise and more – have also signed a letter demanding Porter call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.
Days after the Hamas Oct. 7 attack and the start of Israeli airstrikes, Porter put out a statement in support of Israel that did not mention the loss of innocent Palestinian lives – an omission that drew protests from some residents.
When asked whether Porter would support a ceasefire and about residents who support Palestine feeling ignored by the Congresswoman, a spokesperson for Porter said in an email statement that staffers had met with constituents with “diverse viewpoints” in DC and Irvine.
“Congresswoman Porter welcomes when Orange County families contact our office to share their views,” reads the statement. “And she respects the civic engagement we’ve seen.”
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
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