Arabs, Jews, Black community, Latinos, and Whites divided between both groups
Story, video and photos by Briana Gomez
Photos, left: Latinos for Israel, photo by Briana Gomez, pro-Palestinian marchers, photo by Gary Fields
View a special ECM video report: https://youtu.be/YT4tOLvpGYA
July 27, 2021 (El Cajon) – Pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian groups held large rallies Sunday afternoon in El Cajon that remained peaceful, though outside groups provoked skirmishes nearby.
Shield of David hosted a “Stand with Israel” rally at 3 p.m. at Prescott Promenade in downtown El Cajon featuring Mayor Bill Wells and keynote speaker Mike Pompeo, former Secretary of State under the Trump Administration.The event hosted a variety of other speakers as well as entertainment and Israeli food. It attracted about 1,000 Jews and supportive community members who wanted to stand united against rising anti-Semitic violence, celebrate Israel, and listen to the speakers.
A counter rally took place at 2 p.m. at El Cajon City Park led by Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM) in collaboration with other activist groups like Jewish Voice for Peace. Leaders of these groups leveled criticism at organizers of the pro-Israel rally, which they viewed as divisive at a time of intense conflicts between Israel and Palestine, including recent bombings.
“We’re here today, we’re 12 organizations who came out today to really come against the Christian Zionism rally being hosted,” said Jeanine Erikat, an organizer for PYM (photo, right, with Oren Robinson from Jewish Voices for Peace.) “It’s extremely alarming that Mike Pompeo is coming to El Cajon and that Mayor Bill Wells is welcoming him. El Cajon is known as Little Baghdad and is known for its history of being a safe place for the Arab community, Middle Eastern community, Muslim, Christian, Jewish community all alike,” Erikat added.
Former Secretary of State Pompeo launched a political action committee just last month to support conservative political candidates and in media interviews did not rule out a potential presidential run. The rally had other political overtones, including an appearance by Larry Elder, a conservative talk show host running for Governor and a presence by advocates of recalling Governor Gavin Newsom.
During his talk, Pompeo (photo, left) defended Judeo-Christian values and stated, “It is because I am a Christian and an American that I was proud to lead the fight in the defense of Israel, the Jewish people and the perennial cause of religious liberty around the world,” Times of San Diego reports.
The Israeli event was organized by Shield of David, and was advertised as a rally and festival to combat anti-Semitism which has been on a surge in recent years, as has Islamophobia, especially following recent media coverage of Israeli-Palestinian issues.
A 2021 survey of American Jewish people conducted by the Anti-Defamation League found that in the past five years, 63% had experienced or witnessed anti-Semitism, up from 54% in 2020 – and 25%, or one in four American Jews, said they had been targeted by anti-Semitic comments, slurs or threats. Most alarming, 9% said they had been physically attacked because they are Jewish.
Recent local incidents include the 2019 Passover synagogue shooting at Chabad of Poway that killed a woman and injured three others, as well as anti-Semitic graffiti at San Diego State University in March 2021.
Chart: AntiSemitic violence 1989-2019; source https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/anti-semitism-violent-incidents-worldwide. Since then, violence has grown even worse, the Anti-Defamation League reports.
But liberal groups have accused, Pompeo, a controversial figure, of being anti-Semitic and following the wave of the alt-right which is known for extreme views and has fringe elements of white supremacy.
On his way out of office Pompeo denounced multiculturalism in America via twitter.
However, Dr. Eli Ben-Moshe, the organizer of this event, told ECM that Pompeo was the perfect candidate for the event.
“We find Secretary Pompeo to actually be the perfect fit. I don’t know of another person in history that has made so many peace deals as he has in such a short amount of time,” said Dr. Ben-Moshe.
“Whether I’m conservative or liberal, knowing that Mike Pompeo was able to produce a number of peace accords – the Abraham accords – between countries that we would’ve never even dreamed of before, with zero drop of blood, with zero change of land or anything, and making so many lives better for business and saving so many lives by not having war between them - I think that’s the most liberal thing to do and I think that’s the most conservative thing to do,” said Dr. Ben-Moshe.
Suzanna Sommers (photo, left) has a Jewish father and attended the Israeli event with a message of peace for everyone. She bore a sign that read, “Yes! Bless Israel! Liberate Palestine! Security = A Just Peace.”
“We need peace, everybody is here because of that and I think we need to tell the whole story and understand the whole picture when we’re thinking of peace. We are Israel. We are Palestine. We are Black Lives. We are Asian Americans. We are every human,” Sommers told ECM.
She said that her perspective on Palestine changed after reading the book Blood Brothers by Elias Chacour, a Christian Palestinian.
Sommers was one of the few people who was able to advocate for both blessing Israel and liberating Palestine at the same time.
When asked why El Cajon was chosen for this event, Dr. Ben-Moshe said it had nothing to do with appealing to a Jewish community. He said El Cajon is a great place because there were a lot of churches and other active community members.
He mentioned that the Chaldean church was supporting the event and bringing several of its members.
“This isn’t about Jews at all; this is about civil rights. This is not specifically about just Jews…First you start with anti-Semitism, then you go against a different religion, you’re going to go against Christianity, you’re going to go against everything,” said Ben-Moshe, who described the event as an anti-hatred rally in general.
Yet, the press contact Oren Robinson, from Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) feels differently.
JVP put out a press release saying, “Not only does this event seek to silence Palestinians demanding justice, but we also know that portraying all Jews as if they are nationals of the state of Israel puts Jews in danger.”
The organization also said, “At Jewish Voice for Peace, we care about everyone’s safety, and that's why we join with Palestinians calling on Israel to end the occupation, grant equal rights to all, and allow refugees to return to their homes — because that's what is urgent, right and just.”
“It’s deeply dangerous because at the end of the day, people like Mike Pompeo, they actually don’t care about Jewish safety, they care about Jewish compliance with what they think Jewish people should do,” said Robinson who is a Jewish American as are most members of JVP.
Dr. Ben-Moshe the cofounder of the pro-Israel, pro-Zionist organization, Shield of David, says he has been involved with “every type of civil rights movement that you can think of.”
Ben-Moshe invited Arabs and others to join in this pro-Israel event and hailed it as a peace event.
Robinson of JVP also considers themself a long-time civil rights activist. They [singular pronoun] got involved with JVP about seven years ago and became an active member three years ago after their commitment to anti-racism.
Robinson’s mother worked with migrant farm workers and black migrant laborers, in what they praise as a family legacy of civil rights activism and “Jewish social justice,” but when Robinson turned their focus onto Palestinian issues, they lost some of the support of their fellow Jewish community members.
“The more that I’ve spoken up about that, I’ve also been targeted, and targeted most viciously by other fellow Jewish Zionists,” Robinson stated.
Meanwhile, Dr. Ben-Moshe of Shield of David is focused on what he feels is the correlation between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism and says it’s important and urgent to act now against anti-Semitism before it leads to worse events.
“You can say things about Jews that you wouldn’t be able to say about other people both by the media and by the Congress itself,” he told ECM.
Ben-Moshe stated that some members of Congress have been openly anti-Semitic.
The website for the event WeAreIsrael2021.com had an opening banner claiming, “Anti-Israel is anti-Semitism.”
“You can criticize an Israeli policy, there’s nothing wrong with that, and not be anti-Israel just like I can criticize an American policy and not be anti-American but when all you do all day long is just criticize Israel and Zionism…that’s anti-Semitism,” said Dr. Ben-Moshe.
But Jewish Voice for Peace disputed this statement saying, “Zionism in practice has meant massive ethnic cleansing, land theft and persecution of Palestinians, and a false promise of Jewish safety only contingent on endlessly defending militarism, policing, and silencing all criticism. These are not Jewish values.”
“It’s factually irrelevant,” said Robinson, “we [JVP] have always stood in specific opposition to Israeli policies. We are signatories to the global Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement.”
“All of our events are organized around specific policies,” Robinson added, noting that JVP did not focus on denying Israel at large, but was critical of specific issues.
“To say that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic is actually playing right into age-old tropes - the dual loyalty myth is this idea that the Christian Europe’s ruling class have used to divide and terrorize and kill Jewish communities for centuries,” said Robinson.
Robinson went on to explain to ECM that the dual loyalty myth is that, “secretly all Jewish people are not actually loyal to the country they inhabit; they are secretly all loyal to the country of Israel, now in its modern context.”
“It’s deeply confused to claim that Zionism has morphed into a Jewish project when Christians have been talking about expelling Jewish people from Europe, from North America, for centuries,” Robinson continued.
Local Arab activists were also critical of this event.
“It’s their freedom of speech, if they don’t like Pompeo…it’s up to them,” said Dr. Ben-Moshe.
“It’s going to be very hard for them to argue civil rights when out of four speakers two are black,” Ben-Moshe added saying, “We’re even going to have the star-spangled banner played by mariachis.”
Indeed, the event attracted diverse people. The group Latinos for Israel was also in attendance.
“We are supporters of Israel. We have churches in California, Arizona, Mexico, and we all pray for the peace for Jerusalem and pray for the Jewish people,” said the Latinos for Israel pastor, Efraim Valverde.
Valverde said they’ve been supporting Israel for the last 40 years, ever since Jerusalem was reunited.
“The New Testament comes from the roots of the Old Testament…two books, one book, two peoples, one people,” said Valverde, “the prophets are from Israel, Jews, and so were the apostles.”
However, the Palestinian community disagreed.
“What you will see in this rally is an alliance between right wing republicans and right wing Jewish groups…You will discover that this is a far right rally period and has nothing even to do with how Jewish Americans want to be portrayed,” said a local Arab activist who did not wish to be named publically.
It’s difficult to say how Jewish Americans want to be portrayed due to a divide on the issue. While many support the state of Israel and Zionist movement at large, some feel that Israel has apartheid policies.
“If you think that’s apartheid it’s because, you don’t know what apartheid really was,” sang Ari Lesser, a spoken word artist who performed at the Israeli event.
Yet some Palestinians say that their reality is quite different.
“My family in Palestine it’s under occupation, there are checkpoints just to go from their house to buy groceries they might have two checkpoints to go through; they’re not able to visit other parts of Palestine…It’s definitely really hard to live under those circumstance,” said Kathem Muhammad.
Brian Blacher, one of the founders of Shield of David, is a Jewish South African who described apartheid when he grew up.
Blacher spent significant time in Israel and described it very differently from apartheid South Africa.
“I grew up in South Africa so I understand what apartheid is/was. Blacks weren’t allowed to vote, Blacks weren’t allowed to go to schools, Blacks weren’t allowed to go into restaurants, Blacks weren’t allowed to be in Parliament,” Blacher described.
In contract Blacher said, “Today in Israel, Arabs are allowed to vote, they are allowed to go to schools, they are allowed get on buses and they are in Parliament, so to make the claim that Israel is an apartheid state is absolutely false and ignorant.”
“The rally is important because of the rise of anti-Semitism going on in the country and it’s going unnoticed, unreported and nobody’s doing much about it,” said Blacher.
What’s definite is that the Jewish Electorate Institute conducted a poll, published this month, that states that Jewish Americans overwhelmingly support the Democratic Party (80 percent approval).
This same poll also showed that Jewish Americans are happy with how Biden is handling issues between Israel and Hamas and are more concerned with right-wing anti-Semitism than anti-Semitism originating on the left, but patrons of this rally kept focusing on leftist extremism, noting “Antifa” groups that roamed the area as well as known white-Supremists. (Times of San Diego documented several known white supremacists engaged in skirmishes outside the event.)
Palestinian Youth Movement’s (PYM) counter rally at El Cajon City Park was joined in public sponsorship by other organizations such asJewish Voice for Peace San Diego, Union del Barrio, and Black Lives Matter’s San Diego Chapter.
Most pro-Palestinian protesters did not approach the pro-Israel rally; rather they made their rounds in a car and foot caravan from the park down to Main Street and stopped at Claydelle and Main.
Only four separate Palestinian protesters made their way in front of the pro-Israel rally.
The other group featured about 100 pro-Palestinian activists of various groups.
PYM issued a press statement saying, “The [pro-Israel] event’s message conflates Israel with all Jews, an anti-Semitic trope in and of itself that attempts to silence any voices that criticize Israel’s ongoing colonization and apartheid policies.”
El Cajon has about 15,000 residents hailing from the Arab world and Middle East, many of whom are refugees of war, and some whom identify to some degree or can relate to the Palestinian cause.
This number is part of a larger amount of Middle East and North African peoples in the East County region and one of the biggest resettlements of Iraq war refugees.
“To add insult to injury, the City of El Cajon is welcoming this event to what is known as ‘Little Baghdad,’ the heart of one of California’s largest Muslim and Arab communities, most of whom were made refugees here by Zionism, ongoing U.S. war-making, and Western imperialism,” said PYM’s press statement.
But not all Arabs and Middle Eastern people sympathize with the Palestinian cause.
“I just came here in support of Israel,” said Ayad Al-Najjar a young Arab American who sported a Jewish flag and a Trump banner. “I don’t hate someone, I don’t support someone, I’m not against Palestine I lived in Palestine for a year as well…we should support all the other countries because that’s how America is.”
“People like this [pointing at the few peaceful Palestinian protesters that were allowed in front of the event] want to come out and think that we hate them and disagree with their opinions - that’s absolutely wrong. I’m Middle Eastern, I’m Catholic and I was born here,” added Al-Najjar.
The event also gained traction from a local Chaldean church.
The Chaldean people are also a nationless group who were denied land in previous land disputes in Iraq. Their form of Chaldean Christianity closely resembles the Orthodox Christian tradition that is popular among Palestinians.
Yet, some Chaldeans stood unequivocally with Israel at this event and many of the Chaldean community aligns with right-wing politics.
Certain denominations of Christianity have historically stood with Judaism and Zionism ideologically.
In his promo video for the event, Mayor Wells said, “The Bible tells us, those who bless Israel will be blessed, but those we curse Israel will be cursed, and we want to bless Israel.”
However, Yousef Abudayyeh (photo, right), a prominent Christian Palestinian activist disagrees with Christian Zionism.
“It’s amazing that those Christian Zionists know that Israel and Zionism itself, they don’t even believe in Christ,” exclaimed Abudayyeh.
“This disgusting position is really sad, it’s nothing but politics; it’s the right-wing and the racists in this country that are buying these ideas. Christian Zionism knows that Israel is anti-Christ and doesn’t even believe that Jesus ever existed,” Abudayyeh added.
“Israel should be stopped right now and U.S. aid to Israel should be stopped at once,” said Abudayyeh.
Both groups were deeply concerned about personal safety and extremists from both sides as well as the common threat of white supremacist extremists, who are known to lurk in the East County area.
Skirmishes almost infiltrated the event featuring two groups not affiliated with either the pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian sides.
Vishal Singh, on his Twitter account, accuses white supremacists of provoking physical altercations. Singh is active on the anti-fascist @sdagainstfash twitter page. HIs videos appear to show Kris Wyrick, affiliated with the neo-Nazi group American Guard, in a confrontation, spewing profanity and acting aggressively. According to Singh, the videos show Wyrick reaching for a knife, striking Singh's chest and another person's face. He states that a member of Exiled Patriots then "attacks" and was maced by a member of the group dressed in black.
Jeanine Erikat of Palestinian Youth Movement told ECM that while the Palestinian protest turned the corner at Claydelle, some children and older protesters were maced by the external groups.
One Antifa-like group that appeared to be predominately Caucasian individuals wore all black with hoods and masks and had been carrying bats, scoping the neighborhood before the events even began. (photo, left) Organizers of the pro-Palestinian march have told ECM that they disapprove of this group and its aggressive actions and have no ties to the black-clad individuals.
The other group, also white Americans, advertised themselves as defenders with black shirts that said “Team Exile,” but some of them held pro-Trump flags, “Fuck Biden” flags, and others shouted other explicit remarks throughout the event.
An additional militant-like group's member told ECM they were not on either side but wanted to make sure rioters and looters didn’t burn down the businesses as they did in La Mesa in May, 2020.
Erikat said that PYM had received death threats in upcoming days of the protest and that they weren’t sure who or where the threats were coming from.
“I was going to the gym and I see riders and stuff and I just see a lot of white dudes with Trump flags fighting these Palestinians, and I just see now this going on about Israel stuff. I have no clue as to the situation, all I know is peace and love and hopefully freedom,” said Ryan Caldera who witnessed fighting outside of the event.
“Incited, I would say mostly the Trump supporters, I would say they probably ran up on everybody,” said Caldera who watched the fight from the sidelines.
Footage on the @acatwithnews Instagram, claims to show Mike Forzano initiating the provocation. Forzano is a member of “Exiled Patriots,” an offshoot of Defend East County but Forzano distances himself from Defend East County.
The twitter account @acatwithnews said Forzano made claims in screenshots on twitter from his Instagram account that he “met with the leader of Shield of Davids today and I got the whole breakdown security the works. It’s going to be A-blast [sic]” wrote Forzano who is open about his endeavors on his Instagram page @mikeforzano619
But Forzano says the account that he communicated with was a sock account that he knew was waiting to try to trap him.
“Regardless of their group affiliation [the far right] is going to show up at these events, but if they’re not wearing a team exile shirt, they’re not a part of our team,” said Forzano.
Photo,left: Exiled Patriot member, by Helen Horvath.
“DEC was not on the front lines with us,” said Mike Forzano.
Forzano and his wife also operate @stand.tall.america and @exiledpatriots
ECM reached out to Forzano and he answered questions during his live feed on Instagram.
Forzano is skeptical of most press and told ECM. “I [only] work with one woman that I trust to talk to when it comes to press,” adding that the Union Tribune twists his side.“You’re associating DEC people that aren’t DEC. You’re associating Exile people that aren’t exile,” said Forzano. “You’ve got everybody’s names and affiliations wrong.”
Despite being called a white supremacist, Forzano has no hate speech on his Instagram page. He also said he doesn’t control all the other “patriots” or other groups who may have been in attendance and provoking people that day. “Anything that anybody did that wasn’t wearing one of those [Exiled Patriots] shirts had nothing to do with me,” said Forzano, who has taken the brunt in the media and on social media of other groups’ behavior. “What happens at this event is Antifa shows up, they start a bunch of violence, they hijacked from other people,” said Forzano.
Forzano says that these alleged Antifa groups are not well-organized and that some of them are funded by a person named Chad Lauder. Forzano claims these groups take advantage of legitimate protests where there is civil unrest.
Forzano has video footage on his Instagram of being sprayed by the Antifa group, who ended up spraying their own people as well as Palestinian protesters. ECM witnessed an unarmed Forzano being sprayed by this group. “I knew going into this to have them come at me and spray was a possibility,” said Forzano. “What they show is me being an unarmed man, being surrounded by three or four Antifa and pushing them all off.”
Many of these alleged Antifa groups have shown up to protests, incited violence, and then convoluted the narrative. “Just because they call themselves anti-fascists doesn’t mean they’re not fascists,” added Forzano.“We [Team Exile] didn’t do anything wrong,” said Forzano who added that he can’t control what other people in the area do, and that he remains unaffiliated with other ‘patriot’ groups.
“Our goal with that whole thing was to protect people. That’s what we do. Period,” said Forzano.
So who did Forzano speak with?
“I’m going to leave them unnamed,” said Lozano of who he spoke with at Shield of David, adding that it was a “brief conversation.”
ECM also reached out to Shield of David regarding this claim.
Dr. Ben-Moshe of Shield of David said that no one from his group spoke with Forzano or any of his affiliates. Ben-Moshe told ECM that he “spoke with every member of our group. No one spoke with him. Nor would a civil rights Jewish group speak to a Nazi about protection while our kids are there and four of our speakers are black. Above that, the state department, not us, was in charge of security. They wouldn’t let us choose our people even if we wanted to,” said Dr. Ben-Moshe.
Ben-Moshe was alarmed at the media attention received by the brawl when 3,000 people had a peaceful time.
Shield of David had the Secret Service at the event due to Pompeo’s presence and also hired a private, vetted security company.
Mayor Wells enlisted El Cajon Police to guard the surrounding area. Some police wore riot gear (photo, left) and police sharpshooters were positioned atop buildings including the courthouse. A video shows Mayor Wells greeting members of Exiled Patriots. https://youtu.be/WXe21Sl74fU
Palestinian protesters (photo, right) who were turning the corner on Main and Claydelle to avoid conflict got pepper sprayed in the crossfire by one of the groups.
Witnesses say the group dressed in all-black had pepper spray canisters, some people from different groups had knives and bats.
Councilmember Gary Kendrick told ECM that the city knows of only one pepper spray incident, but ECM witnessed several various spurts of pepper spray being released in the skirmish.
“Our goal was to keep everyone safe and we achieved that goal,” said Councilmember Kendrick.
Some patrons of the event were unhappy with the way it turned out.
Jeanine Erikat said she was disappointed that the Palestinian protest got overshadowed by sideline fights and that none of the members of PYM or anyone they invited were involved in the fighting, in fact they too got pepper sprayed by the Antifa-like group during the clash with Exiled Patriots.
Dr. Helen Horvath, a veteran and psychologist who ran for Congressional District 50 last season has Hungarian Jewish decent.
She attended the pro-Israel event with the hope of exploring more of the culture and combating anti-Semitism, but found she felt it was mostly politically driven.
Dr. Horvath also wasn’t impressed with the anti-gay rhetoric espoused and brought up the fact that there are many LGBTQIA people who hold Jewish and Christian religious beliefs.
“It was just the sense that it was a political event, not so much to bring people together…It’s political when you have Mike Pompeo, you have Senator Jones…everybody’s talking about different things relating to Judeo-Christian values yet in this country we have individuals who are Muslim, who are Hindu, who have different ethnicities and religious beliefs, so how do we justify just creating all this based on one set of values?” said Dr. Horvath.
Photo,left: Ayad al-Najjar, a pro-Trump, pro-Israel supporter
What’s clear is that both Jews and Palestinians want peace, and there is a global parallel to what occurred in El Cajon – interference from third party rivals are benefitting from ongoing fighting.
“We really need a partner for peace, we can’t just dream of peace without that; hopefully with time,” Dr. Ben-Moshe told ECM.
Doris Bittar of the San Diego Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee told ECM, “It's important to reflect, not on religious differences, but on what this event with Pompeo emboldens. Does this rally's agenda promote war? Whose agenda lifts up peace? What are the appropriate gestures and first steps toward peace in El Cajon and overseas? Mayor Wells' choice heavily implies that the people of this town are not welcome in their own spaces because they are not Christian. Their culture, experiences and aspirations mean nothing. At best that attitude dehumanizes people and takes us nowhere. At worst, it could promote violence, some of which we witnessed. We need postures that heal and embrace. This event did the opposite.”