The sound of the shofar rang out from both sides of the White House – carrying two divergent messages – as the Interim Agreement to expand self-rule in the West Bank was signed by Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
Sounding notes of hope as part of a call to prayer for peace, about a dozen rabbis supportive of the peace process blew shofars in Lafayette Park, some 50 yards away from the White House.
Just hours later, Jews opposed to the agreement, intending to send a somber wake-up call about the dangers of conceding land to the Palestinians, sounded shofars on the south side of the White House.
“In the Jewish psyche, this is the time of year when you have a reckoning of where you are and where you’re going,” said Rabbi Marc Gopin of Washington, who joined with rabbis from all denominations for the pro-peace shofar blowing.
“You can’t help but feel that that’s part of where the urgency [to make peace] comes from.”
The gathering of peace supporters was called to dispel the misconception that most American Jews are either apathetic or opposed to the peace process, said Tom Smerling, executive director of Project Nishma, a group that supports the Israeli government’s initiatives.
Project Nishma pulled off a major coup by attaining a permit – instead of the anti-peace process demonstrators – to rally in the park.
“Only a small minority of American Jews oppose the peace process, but it’s a loud and shrill minority,” Smerling said. “We’re here to make sure that the Israelis and our community know one simple fact: The overwhelming majority of American Jews support the government of Israel’s peace initiative.”
The rabbis unfurled banners displaying American Jewish support for peace, including a statement signed by 1,000 rabbis and a reprint of a newspaper ad signed by 29 national Jewish organizations.
Later in the morning, about 400 people gathered on the south side of the White House to protest the peace agreement.
“We are here to express out absolute outrage at the signing” of the agreement, said Judy Davidowitz, who helped organize the protest for the National Council of Young Israel. “We are here to express our unity, support and love for the State of Israel, and to express out pain for their suffering.”
Holding signs reading “Rabin has betrayed Zion,” “Arafat is a terrorist” and “One Holocaust was enough,” the crowd of predominantly Orthodox protesters sand “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem, and released black balloons into the sky.
The Israeli government is “risking a civil war to placate Arafat, who’s the biggest murderer of Jews since the time of Hitler,” said David Jacobs, an Israeli soldier who was born in the United States.
Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive vice president of the National Council of Young Israel, said he discounts public opinion polls that show that a majority of American Jews support the peace process.
The typical American Jew is “uninformed” about what is going on in Israel, has never been to Israel and therefore cannot identify with the problems Israel faces, said Lerner.
Although some opponents of the peace process had promised a showing of 10,000 protesters on the day of the signing, organizers of the rally said they were “shocked” to see a turnout as high as 400, given the lack of publicity and advance planning.