Japanese Americans react to Gaza conflict

SUPPORT FOR CEASE FIRE — A sign that reads “LOVE DEMANDS PERMANENT CEASE FIRE NOW” hangs in front of the Buddhist Church of Oakland, one of several Bay Area religious organizations supporting a permanent cease fire in Gaza. photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei News

Opposing genocide sounds like an easy decision.

“I’m not into the extermination of a people anywhere. It’s not kind of our values,” Brenda Wong Aoki, a professional storyteller, said.

Yet the technicalities of such a decision, or the lack of education on a more than a century-old conflict, has sown a rift within the Japanese American community since the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israel that killed some 1,200 people and the ensuing months-long Israeli counteroffensive that has so far killed 34,000 and pushed the Gaza strip into a state of crisis with famine and lack of medical care.

“One of the criticisms I think is, we shouldn’t be taking a side. My feeling is, I’m taking a side against violence against children, and violence against innocent people, and against war in general,” the Rev. Henry Gyoko Bridge, resident minister of the Buddhist Church of Oakland, said.

Bay Area Churches Raise a Banner
Bridge’s church is among a number of Bay Area religious institutions that have raised a banner supporting a permanent ceasefire with the support of the Interfaith Movement for Humanity based in Oakland, Calif.

While his church raised a banner on Jan. 21, he said a number of churches had already raised banners in the East Bay, such as Berkeley Methodist United Church in Berkeley, Calif., which raised their banner on Dec. 24, 2023, as well as in San Francisco, where Pine United Methodist Church raised their banner Jan. 7, becoming the first congregation in the city to do so.

The black banner at the Oakland church, featuring a white dove with bold red and green text reads, “LOVE DEMANDS PERMANENT CEASEFIRE NOW.”

Similarly in San Francisco, the Rev. Jeanelle Ablola of Pine United Methodist Church said the decision to raise a banner was relatively easy. The congregation had been discussing the issues in Palestine for at least the past decade already.

“A lot of it is because in mainstream Christian culture, the mention of Israel is so prominent, and some people tend to conflate that with the modern state of Israel. And so, as people of faith, we kind of spent years grappling with that, whether they’re the same historically and politically and all that kind of stuff, and also just hearing more voices of Palestinians,” Ablola said.

Ablola, too, said they were preparing for backlash for raising the banner from the local neighborhood, but nothing extreme came up.

“We’ve gotten a couple of positive comments and we’ve also had a few negative responses as well, mostly in the form of e-mails, phone calls, messages, those types of things. No damage to the building, which is kind of the worst case scenario we were expecting,” they said. “And then I know that some of our members, as we moved about the JA community, we’ve also come across some folks sort of questioning what we’re doing and being surprised that we would put up a banner.”

Ablola, who spoke during the Feb. 17 interfaith reflections at the 2024 Bay Area Day of Remembrance in San Francisco’s Japantown, said they did not hear much opposition from the Japanese American community on their stance, and Bridge even said their church had gained a member after seeing their banner. For the Berkeley Buddhist Temple in Berkeley, Calif., however, the banner has elicited considerable debate within the congregation. The church began discussing raising a banner last December, but church leaders expressed reticence on choosing a political side.

“I think it’s been difficult to get everyone on the same page,” the Rev. CJ Dunford, a minister’s assistant at the temple, said. “One of the main things I think we keep facing at the temple is that people want to politicize the issue, when it’s an issue of human rights … I get concerned when folks in our community talk about things as just political issues when they’re human rights issues, because I’m a trans person, and so my rights are up for debate across the country, and so I feel like that’s deeply connected for me.”

Ultimately, the church raised a banner in their inner courtyard, away from the street, changing the wording from the Buddhist Church of Oakland banner stating “love demands” to “compassion requires” to emphasize Buddhist teachings.

“What we really centered on was compassion, because in Buddhism, that’s a big part of the teachings, it’s just showing compassion for everybody and I think that’s where we were able to find some common ground,” Tara, a temple member who asked to only go by her given name, said.

“We had heard, not necessarily in Berkeley, but other temples (where people) … had left or decided not to attend the church or change their level of affiliation with their temple, because of their temple’s reticence to take a response,” Juliet Bost Yokoe, a minister’s assistant at Berkeley Buddhist Temple, said.

“And I think there was one particular incident, a couple Sundays ago, where someone in person had approached Rev. Kuwahara and expressed their disapproval of the temple taking a stance, and that’s why they’re going to not really continue their involvement in the temple, and so I think it’s definitely been a mixed bag of mixed response, because there are also folks who were really excited,” they continued. “At the actual event, where we raised the banner … I’d seen the broader Berkeley Buddhist Temple community that you wouldn’t see every Sunday had come out, and so it was really interesting to see who is showing up to these kind of events and what conversations that this banner raising has raised.”

Groups Call on National JACL
The issue extends beyond religious groups. Nationally, several chapters of the Japanese American Citizens League have called on the National JACL to support an immediate and permanent ceasefire for the conflict. And in February, the 31-chapter Northern California Western Nevada Pacific District discussed a resolution calling for a ceasefire, but the vote failed with only four chapters voting for it in February.

Riki Eijima, a member of the San Francisco chapter and a member of the Nikkei For Palestine activist group, said part of the issue was that they had little time to educate individual chapters on the issue ahead of the February vote. Eijima noted that many people are concerned about being called antisemitic by calling for a ceasefire and criticizing the state of Israel.

“They don’t want to inflict any type of antisemitism or any type of anti-Jewish sentiment … that is not a part of the movement for a free Palestine. It is about freedom to be human beings and freedom to express your religious or spiritual beliefs freely,” Eijima said.

While most chapters did not support the district’s resolution, chapters who were more familiar with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict did. Josh Kaizuka, co-president of the Florin Sacramento Valley chapter, said his chapter supported the resolution and has worked with Palestinian Americans in the Sacramento Valley area for the past decade.

“It was 2012 or 2011, there was an event where a Holocaust survivor was talking about issues relating to human rights violations against Palestinians by the Israeli government over in the West Bank and Gaza. And we kind of sponsored it and apparently got blowback from some of the Jewish organizations like (Jewish Community Relations Council),” Kaizuka said. “And at that point, a number of our members got together concerned about these issues, about how some of our members were personally attacked and called antisemitic, and developed a sort of a resolution for our chapter, which talks about human rights for all, including Palestinians.”

While the February vote failed, Kaizuka said the National JACL Convention, which will be held in Philadelphia in July, will likely see some kind of discussion over a ceasefire.

“I’ve spoken with some members who said if National JACL doesn’t call for a ceasefire and support the Palestinian human rights, that they’ll quit their membership, and I’ve heard that from a number of our members,” Kaizuka said. “Some have even suggested our chapter to get out from the umbrella of JACL. I mean, we wouldn’t think about doing that, but … people are very passionate about this issue. And I’m pretty sure that this will be an issue in Philadelphia.”

Eijima said she was happy to see a number of JACL chapters across the United States, including her own chapter, support a ceasefire and call on National JACL to take a stand. She said Nikkei For Palestine is working with like-minded chapters to draft a resolution for the national convention. The activist group has been calling on the National JACL to support a call for an immediate and permanent ceasefire, as well as cutting ties with Zionist organizations.

“They’ve had relationships with the Anti-Defamation League, which has been known to specifically target Muslim, Palestinian, Arab folks and call anyone, even a Jewish American person who is calling for a free Palestine, antisemitic, which I disagree with,” Eijima said. “I appreciate their civil rights work, of course, but I think any organization inclusive of the JACL — nobody’s perfect, everybody’s multifaceted.”

David Inoue, executive director of the National JACL, noted in a March 24 report by The Guardian that it would be difficult for the National JACL to cut ties with the ADL, citing the two organizations collaborate on hate crime prevention. However, he also told the Nichi Bei News he is open to calls for peace and an end to the violence from both sides.

“I certainly believe that is the common ground that exists for everyone,” he said. Though, he noted the civil rights organization has typically not engaged in international issues.

“We consider ourselves a primarily domestic issues organization. Some calls for us to make a statement have also been much more aggressive in choosing a side, which is very different from calls for peace,” he continued. “We have long worked with groups who are on both sides of this issue and I think it is notable that none of those partners have asked us to take a position one way or the other, even as they themselves have been very vocal in their own self advocacy.”

When asked then why the organization took a stand against South African apartheid in the 1980s, Inoue said: “I would say there are always exceptions to the rule. So, yeah, there are occasional exceptions. And there’s no reason this couldn’t be one of those possible exceptions,” he said on calls for supporting the ceasefire.

Japanese American Community on Palestine
Beyond the JACL, Nikkei for Palestine, an online collective of activists, has also worked to develop educational materials to teach others about Palestinian issues and hold weekly “power hours” to call on elected officials to urge them to support a ceasefire. The organization participated in interrupting the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival Parade April 21, stalling it for 15 minutes.

The protest done in collaboration with fellow activist organization Nikkei Resisters denounced the ongoing genocide and the role the U.S. and Japan have in supporting Israel.

Beyond protesting, Japanese American community organizations have also engaged with the ongoing conflict. The Little Tokyo Service Center in Los Angeles expressed their support for a ceasefire, the administration of aid to Gaza and the release of all hostage in a March 9 statement.

The Japanese Community Youth Council in San Francisco’s Japantown, meanwhile, held a one-week fundraiser to raise money for the World Central Kitchen in March, raising more than $25,000, including a $10,000 matching donation from the organization. The fundraiser ended just before the Israeli military killed seven of the aid organization’s workers on April 1.

“I had been engaged in several different conversations with members of the Asian American community who were outraged over the thousands of Palestinians fatalities that were growing as a result of the Israel/Hamas war. An escalating level of anger was being expressed by many who I deeply respect and I started to think about a way that JCYC could somehow impact the situation,” Jon Osaki, executive director of the organization, said to the Nichi Bei News. “As I learned more about the threat of famine in Gaza, I became aware of the efforts of the World Central Kitchen and felt it could be a productive way to involve the community.”

While Osaki was amazed to see the community respond with donations, he said it was “horrific and deflating” to learn about the deaths of the aid workers the following day.

“It was my understanding that the WCK had been extremely careful about coordinating their efforts with the Israel Defense Forces. For civilian … aid workers who (were) trying to feed starving Palestinians to be murdered is inexcusable,” he said.

The previous month, Wong Aoki, who runs the performing arts organization First Voice, also raised issue on the ongoing war after she learned the JCRC planned to present the API Council in San Francisco an Outstanding Community Partner Award during its 75th anniversary celebration March 10.

Wong Aoki said she expressed her concerns to the 57-member coalition of Asian American San Francisco nonprofit organizations after learning the Jewish organization held Zionist views.

She said council members, including members from the Asian Law Caucus and Chinese for Affirmative Action, also made a case during a meeting, but the organization ultimately agreed to accept the award since its steering committee voted to do so eight months prior.

“I used to think that most of the major decisions (were) made in council … so I was kind of surprised that something that could be potentially this damaging to our reputation would be decided without us,” Wong Aoki said.

Debate on whether the API Council should accept the award also took place at the Japantown Task Force’s Feb. 21 board meeting. Emily Murase, the organization’s executive director, noted she has had a “long and productive working relationship with JCRC.” She said the API Council and JCRC joined together to fight hate crimes in December of 2022 and conducted a joint trip to New York and Washington, D.C. last year.

Meanwhile, board members Jeremy Chan and Yuki Nishimura raised their concerns with the JCRC.

“JCRC has been very publicly in opposition to a ceasefire in Israel and Palestine, including opposing ceasefire resolutions from local city councils,” Chan said during the meeting. “Other criticisms of JCRC include their history of criticizing local Arab and Muslim organizations, and they’ve also received criticism from other Jewish organizations as well, including Jewish Voice for Peace, who feel that this organization does not speak for the Jewish community in the Bay Area.”

Meanwhile Jessica Trubowitch, director of public policy and partnerships at JCRC, commented at the meeting stressing the organization’s long history of allyship with the API community in San Francisco.

“JCRC is honoring the API Council of our shared values and commitment to social justice, public safety and addressing rising antisemitism and anti-Asian hate,” she said. “The people asking you to vote to support the API Council not taking an award from JCRC are trying to put a wedge between Japanese American and Jewish American communities in San Francisco, they are trying to make you take a position on a conflict thousands of miles away.”

The JTF ultimately tabled the discussion after hearing public comment and debating whether the issue was “appropriate” for the organization to discuss, based on the organization’s mission statement that focuses specifically on the development and preservation of San Francisco’s Japantown.

The Nichi Bei News contacted Cally Wong, executive director of the API Council, for comment multiple times, but did not receive a response.

Generational Divide
While support for a permanent and immediate ceasefire in the Palestinian-Israeli war came from all corners of the Japanese American community, Kaizuka noted that youth were taking the lead. While his chapter had voted in support of the NCWNP District ceasefire resolution, he said younger members had pushed for it.

Ablola supposed the growth of ethnic studies has helped younger generation understand the issues more readily today. “I think that they’re able to understand things like occupation and colonization and such power dynamics a little bit more easily,” they said.

In Berkeley, meanwhile, Dunford and their fellow church members acknowledged that younger members have been able to grasp the issue to challenge older members, but also noted older members have also expressed their support.

“I think one thing that came up in one of our discussions is that at the Berkeley temple, back in the ‘60s when the Vietnam War was going on, there were difficult conversations being had. And so I think, in some ways, this is sort of continuation of that,” Dunford said.

Bridge said he hopes the hostilities can ultimately be de-escalated.

“So to me, the Buddhist expression I turn to from Dhammapada is ‘Anger cannot be overcome with more anger. Anger can only be overcome with the absence of anger,’” he said. “And so, we need a ceasefire, because what good can come out of it? Nothing.”


Accuracy is fundamental in journalism. In the April 25, 2024 issue of the Nichi Bei News, the article entitled “Japanese Americans react to Gaza Conflict” misquoted a Berkeley Buddhist Temple member saying, “What we really centered on was compassion, because in Buddhism, that’s a big part of the teachings, it’s just showing compassion for everybody and I think that’s where we weren’t able to find some common ground.” She in fact said they “were able to find some common ground.”

The Nichi Bei News regrets any inconvenience it may have caused. To contact the Nichi Bei News about an error, please e-mail news@nichibeiweekly.org, write to P.O. Box 15693, San Francisco, CA 94115 or call (415) 673-1009

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