Disturbing the Peace

The local conversation between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian activists is getting less civil every day. And Lee Kaplan's tactics aren't helping.

Lee Kaplan barges through the crowd to the front of the barricade on Montgomery Street. Although it's quitting time on a Thursday, no suited bankers stroll down this block. Across the way, a few hundred pro-Palestinian activists and sympathizers clot the sidewalk in front of a neoclassical building, directing their ire at the Israeli consulate on the second floor. Kaplan hoists a 15-foot-tall flagpole flying both the Israeli and American flags, and takes hold of a bullhorn. "You want to see the next generation of garbage in the Middle East, look over on the other side of the street!"

It's the latest salvo in the local edition of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an international battle writ small on the Bay Area stage. In the past months, as the percussive explosions in the Middle East echoed throughout the world, San Francisco's advocates on opposing sides have stepped up both their activities and their antagonism. At this July 13 rally — the second in two weeks — the police dispatch the pro-Israeli protesters to the opposite side of the street to keep the peace. The two sides line up against the barricades to glare across the empty road, to chant their slogans and wave their flags at each other.

The Palestinian sympathizers that Kaplan shouts at are a mixed crowd: comprised, as Kaplan puts it, of Palestinians and Arabs, "commies," "dried-up '60s radicals from Berkeley," and college kids playing with "terror chic." But they speak with one voice — and their slogans and chants ring through the downtown corridor. A slender man in a red-and-white kaffiyeh takes a turn at the bullhorn, pausing first to taunt the opposition. "Oh, look at the racists across the street! Israel wants to make peace, yes? After killing 22 in Lebanon this morning — a nice breakfast!" He raises his voice to a harsh scream to start the chant. "Palestine will be free, from the river to the sea!"

Lee Kaplan confronts pro-Palestinian activists at their rallies, conferences, and training sessions.
Lee Kaplan confronts pro-Palestinian activists at their rallies, conferences, and training sessions.
Pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli demonstrators face off across Montgomery Street.
Pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli demonstrators face off across Montgomery Street.

Kaplan is in his element. In this town, where "Free Palestine" stickers nestle up against pictures of Che Guevara, he forges ahead, an outnumbered ideological soldier for the Israeli side. The self-appointed watchdog of the Bay Area's pro-Palestinian groups, he has made it his mission in life to disrupt their events, confront their leaders, and reveal them to the world as he sees them. He uses tactics that others call extreme, and he calls necessary: He has infiltrated their conferences and gone in disguise to their training sessions, with tape recorder and hidden camera. When his foes are college students, he calls their deans. When they're Jewish, he contacts their families. Kaplan acknowledges that such tactics won't resolve any conflicts, here or abroad, but he doesn't believe that compromise is possible with the current pro-Palestinian groups. Peace is a goal that glitters far off on the horizon; Kaplan wants to expose to the American public the "war movement" that he believes blocks the way.

There on Montgomery Street, he articulates his worldview: Anyone who shows any sympathy for the Palestinian resistance supports terrorism, and is indirectly responsible for the body parts scattered on the streets of Jerusalem. He points out a man waving an unusual Palestinian flag, with a red fist dripping blood superimposed on the green stripe. This promise of violence, he says, is the truth behind the talk of human rights and liberation that he hears college kids parroting when he brings the fight to quads and student unions. "This is why there will never be peace," he says. "As long as this garbage across the street is spreading their propaganda on college campuses."

You might expect to see this kind of fury in the eyes of a Hezbollah fighter manning a rocket launcher, or anticipate such zealous talk in the kitchen of a West Bank settler's house. The passion that runs through those partisans also animates Kaplan — it's just manifested on a smaller scale. He, too, has abandoned diplomacy for offensive action; he, too, finds many reasons to seek vengeance. On this tidy, downtown street of San Francisco, some find Kaplan's demeanor disconcerting. The pro-Israeli faction is smaller and less vocal than the Palestinian supporters; after Kaplan's bullhorn commentary, a man asks him to tone down his rhetoric and "be nice." Kaplan grudgingly passes the bullhorn, saying, "I'm sorry, but nice doesn't work with these people."

Kaplan leans across the plastic table of an In-N-Out Burger in Walnut Creek and hands over his fake ID. The Rhode Island driver's license shows a dark-haired, brown-skinned man with a bristly mustache, very different in appearance from the gray-haired, clean-shaven white man sitting across the table. This is the ID Kaplan had made in 2004 when he went in disguise to a training session for Palestinian sympathizers.

Kaplan is now notorious for his undercover investigations, but he didn't start out with such dramatic tactics. He was radicalized late in life, after an "eclectic career" that included a stint as a soap opera actor and nearly two decades as the owner of a jewelry business. By the late '80s, he had downsized his operation, and was selling jewelry out of the UC Berkeley campus bookstore. For 14 years, he watched the political currents of campus life, gradually building up a stockpile of indignation.

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