Jewish radical anti-Israel protesters disrupt start of California legislative session

Pro-Palestinian groups force gathering to adjourn as they unfurl banners calling for a ceasefire in Israel-Hamas fighting, chant slogans to interrupt lawmakers

Assembly members Heath Flora, left, and Josh Lowenthal, right, leave the Assembly chambers as pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel protesters calling for a ceasefire in Gaza disrupt the first day of the California legislative session in Sacramento, California, January 3, 2024. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)
Assembly members Heath Flora, left, and Josh Lowenthal, right, leave the Assembly chambers as pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel protesters calling for a ceasefire in Gaza disrupt the first day of the California legislative session in Sacramento, California, January 3, 2024. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

SACRAMENTO, California — Hundreds of US protesters calling for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war interrupted the first day of California’s legislative session on Wednesday, forcing the state Assembly to adjourn just moments after convening.

Lawmakers had just listened to the opening prayer and said the Pledge of Allegiance when Jewish pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel protesters wearing matching black T-shirts stood from their seats and started singing “Ceasefire now” and “Let Gaza live.”

A few people unfurled banners from the chamber’s gallery that read: “Jews say never again for anyone.”

At first, Jim Wood, a Democratic assembly member from Healdsburg who was presiding over the session, tried to continue the session despite the singing. Eventually, though, he called for a recess and adjourned a few minutes later.

Nearly all of the lawmakers left the floor. Protesters cheered when officials turned the lights off in the chamber, holding up the flashlights on their phones as they continued to sing, which included a lengthy call-and-response chant from the gallery.

“We are Jews and Californians; Assembly members, we call on you to join us in demanding a ceasefire now,” they said.

Protesters unveil their T-shirts with messages calling for a ceasefire in Gaza disrupt the first day of the California legislative session in Sacramento, California, January 3, 2024. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

Democratic Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas’s office declined to comment. Assembly member James Gallagher, the Republican leader, said the protesters obstructed their work.

“Look, we’re trying to open up our session. Granted, we probably didn’t have a whole lot of, you know, big business to do today. But if the objective is to shut down the government functions, I don’t think that’s a good way to go about getting your message across,” he said. “We can’t let them shut us down. We have to go about our business. We have big pressing issues this year.”

Wednesday’s protest was organized by far-right and radical anti-Israel groups including Jewish Voice for Peace, IfNotNow, and the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network. Binya Kóatz, a Jewish teacher and artist who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, said Americans have “not only the right but the responsibility to stop business as usual as long as our country is giving a blank check to Israel.”

Kóatz said the groups chose to protest at the California State Legislature because, while those lawmakers do not control federal money sent to Israel, “we know that state legislatures have the ear of their national counterparts in California and that getting this body to call for a ceasefire now can put California at the forefront of the national movement.”

It’s not the first time that protesters calling for a ceasefire have disrupted events in California’s capital city. In November, protesters forced their way inside a Sacramento convention hall and prompted the California Democratic Party to cancel some events during their nominating convention. And last month, Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom canceled an in-person Christmas tree lighting ceremony after protesters planned an action at the event.

Protesters did not disrupt the State Senate, which held its session as scheduled and included lawmakers giving speeches in memory of former US Senator Dianne Feinstein, who died in September.

After the lights had been turned off, protesters calling for a ceasefire in Gaza use the lights from cellphones to demonstrate during the first day of the California legislative session in Sacramento, California, January 3, 2024. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

War erupted when Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, invading the south of the country from the Gaza Strip with thousands of terrorists. The attack killed over 1,200 people, mostly civilians who were slaughtered as the terrorists rampaged through communities. Over 360 people were murdered at an outdoor music festival. The terrorists also abducted at least 240 people who were taken hostage to Gaza.

Israel responded with a military campaign aimed at destroying Hamas, removing it from power in Gaza, and freeing the hostages.

Across the United States, Wednesday was a day of disruptions at state capitols. A bomb threat emailed to officials in multiple states prompted evacuations of statehouse offices or buildings in Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi and Montana. Other states — including Missouri, Maryland, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Wyoming — received threats but did not evacuate.

California’s legislative session, which began Wednesday and runs through August 31, is expected to be dominated by decisions on artificial intelligence and the massive budget deficit. But as Wednesday’s protest showed, the ongoing fallout from the Israel-Hamas war will likely have an impact.

Protesters calling for a ceasefire in Gaza gather in the rotunda of the Capitol during the first day of the California legislative session in Sacramento, California, January 3, 2024. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

The California Legislative Jewish Caucus sent a letter to state lawmakers on Wednesday, calling for the creation of a committee to explore policy changes to protect the Jewish community.

“We have our own criticisms of Israel. We want the war to end,” said Democratic State Senator Scott Wiener of the Jewish caucus. “We also know the ceasefire resolutions we see at the local level have at times gone off the rails in terms of dredging up a lot of anti-Jewish hate and that causes a lot of fear in our community.”

Assembly member Jesse Gabriel, a Democrat from Los Angeles, said his 3-year-old child now has to walk through metal detectors to enter his preschool at a local synagogue.

“The level of fear and anxiety and tension is unlike anything I have ever seen in my lifetime,” Gabriel said.

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