A rally at Madison Square Garden this week marked for some the awakening of the “silent Jewish majority” in America that has long supported the Arab-Israeli peace process, but was not moved to express that support until last month’s assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Sunday morning’s overflow crowd clearly was a relief to rally organizers, who had wrangled intensively in recent days over a program that would not alienate opponents of the peace process.
Although not everyone at the gathering belonged to the Israeli government’s peace camp, all seemed bent on demonstrating their support for Israel, Jewish unity and the pursuit of peace.
An estimated 14,000 people, including more than 40 members of Congress and a host of other dignitaries, braved freezing temperatures, tight security and logistical snafus to enter the Garden and pay tribute to the memory of the slain Israeli leader.
Close to 200 buses brought people from beyond the New York region, organizers said. Some traveled from as far as Washington, D.C., and New Hampshire.
Once inside, they were exhorted to honor Rabin’s legacy of peace by Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, U.S. Vice President Al Gore and Rabin’s widow, Leah, all of whom underscored the close friendship between the United States and Israel.
Peres drew the loudest applause when he called for broadening the circle of peace to include Syria and Lebanon and when he called for Jewish unity.
“When you have two views, you don’t have to become two people,” he said.
“We do recognize the right of the opposition to oppose us,” he said, but Jews should “be united against murder, against violence, against curses. Let’s argue, not hate.”
Israeli Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yisrael Lau, meanwhile, called on Jews everywhere to draw on their tradition of love, respect for human life, solidarity and brotherhood.
Religious Jews “know what it means to appreciate human life” and have to think about “our failure,” said Lau, a highly esteemed figure among the Orthodox, who are on the defensive in the wake of the assassination.
Confessed killer Yigal Amir was a product of Orthodox Zionist education and said he killed Rabin to save the Jewish people from the territorial concessions that are an integral part of the peace process.
The event was organized by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, the United Jewish Appeal-Federation of New York, the State of Israel Bonds and the World Jewish Congress.
Although the rally was called to show Jewish unity and promote healing in the wake of the assassination, its planning became a lightning rod for all the community’s divisions.
Critics of the peace process demanded the inclusion of speakers from the Israeli government opposition to show that Jews are not monolithic about the way peace should be achieved.
The organizers, for their part, maintained that the rally was nonpolitical and, to prove it, eliminated any references to “the peace process” in advertisements for the event. Instead, the organizers billed the rally as a show of support for “the pursuit of peace.”
The change infuriated advocates of the peace process.
For fear of violating the Orthodox ban on hearing a woman’s voice, the organizers also reportedly turned down an offer made by Barbra Streisand to sing at the rally.
Despite the concessions, a few organizations boycotted the event. And even though many modern Orthodox Jews attended, the black-garbed fervently Orthodox were conspicuously absent.
In an apparent effort to demonstrate the pluralistic nature of the event, the emcee at the rally went so far to announce the names of three members of Likud, including Zalman Shoval, former Israeli ambassador to the United States.
The problem was that none of the three was present. Reached at his hotel Sunday night, Shoval said he was invited to attend but not to speak. He refused the invitation.
“I thought it was a wonderful occasion to have a unity rally and for someone very senior in Likud to have said a few words in memory of Yitzhak Rabin for the sake of unity.”
Shoval said, however, he did not think that it was appropriate for him to come and “be a decoration.”
And, if it was forbidden to utter the words “peace process,” the message from the speakers was transparent.
“I call on everyone here to carry on a commitment to Yitzhak Rabin’s vision of peace,” said Edgar Bronfman, WJC president and one of the main backers of the rally.
“Whatever our differences, let us vow to discuss them with civility and mutual respect,” he said, triggering applause.
Leah Rabin also urged unity.
“Nothing could be more important” in this time of Jewish “crisis,” she said.
She also said, “We do not want to forget who killed and who was killed.”
Recalling the climate of violence and hostility by opponents of her husband in the months leading up to his death, she said, “The voice of the silent majority was not heard.”
The turning point, she said, was the Nov. 4 peace rally where he was killed.
“The State of Israel is crying, the world is crying, but friends, beyond all the tears, I see he bequested peace, he bequested solidarity, he bequested Jewish unity,” she said.
Leon Levy, chairman of the Conference of Presidents, said, “No assassin’s bullet and no terrorist’s bomb can deter Israel from a true, just and lasting peace.”
Peres underscored Rabin’s courage in pursuing peace in the face of intense opposition. He said Rabin walked through “streets of hatred, squares of chaos, avenues of accusation.”
Although Rabin was “not indifferent” to what was being said, “he did not change his mind,” Peres said, and “paid the highest price” for it.
Gore waxed emotional when he addressed each Rabin family member by name and said Americans “have been and are attempting to lift you up and say to you, `We respect you and we love you.’”
Noting the approach of Chanukah, he said, “The ancient light of the Maccabees will guide the house of Israel [toward] light over darkness, faith over cynicism, reason over arms.”
Gore issued a resounding call to follow Rabin’s pursuit of peace, while warning, “The road to peace is not an easy one.”
The obstacles of evil, hate, pain and division will slow the fulfillment of Rabin’s legacy, he said.
But “we will not be daunted,” he declared, to thunderous applause. “We will not bee afraid.”
Many in the crowd were not aware of the controversies in the planning of the rally; they came to express support for the Israeli government’s policies.
“We are, many of us, the silent majority, and I think it was very important for us to show ourselves today,” said Murray Klein of Great Neck, N.Y.
“We’re not people who generally demonstrate but I think that from this day forward we must,” Klein said. “Perhaps if we had showed more support for Yitzhak Rabin and the peace process, some of the opposition would have been less militant, and that’s the thing that bothers me.”
“There is a great division” among Jews “that we’ve been exposed to” as a result of the assassination, Klein continued. “I don’t think many of us realized how great the division was until now.”
Ira Orchin, who had traveled from suburban Philadelphia with a bus from his synagogue, Congregation Mishkan Shalom, expressed similar sentiments, saying that he was there “to stand up for the less vocal part of the Jewish people who believe in the peace process.”
Esther Moreh, who immigrated to New York from Iran 17 years ago, came to show her strong support for the peace process.
“We need it,” said the Great Neck resident, saying that all her life she has been a “real Zionist.”
Shai Ingber, a sophomore at Princeton University, said American Jews have to support the Israeli government.
“You have to trust the government,” Ingber said, adding that he was “disgusted” that right-wing groups either would not come to the rally or sought to turn it into a political event.
Rochelle Floug, who came from Queens with a group organized by Israel Bonds, said she does not support the “peace process as it is.”
Although she knew many who chose to stay away, Floug said she felt that it was important to come “to show support for Israel and that all religious Jews are not assassins.”
Floug, whose feelings were echoed by others interviewed and was one of the few in the arena who did not stand when Leah Rabin was introduced, said she was upset that no one from the Likud opposition was invited to speak.
Across the political spectrum, some said the compromises by the organizes did not help and served only to heighten tensions.
“Unity is an inappropriate goal at this historic moment,” said Michael Lerner, publisher of the liberal Tikkun magazine.
“To ask Jews to assemble but to not specifically endorse the peace process would be like asking Americans to assemble after the murder of Martin Luther King but not mention civil rights.”
Last Friday, The New York Times ran a full-page ad by the Zionist Organization of America and the National Council of Young Israel, which protested the event as partisan.
“How can I accept this as a rally of unity and reconciliation when both sides are not represented” in the program? said Morton Klein, president of the ZOA, a member of the Conference of Presidents.
But the public show of disunity by a conference member angered people such as Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
“It’s distressing and disturbing that after we’ve gone through the tragedy, we’re unable to come together if only for the sake of memory and unity,” he said. “Everybody’s still playing their games and trying to make a point.”
The attendance at the rally showed that the interorganizational “nitpicking and dissonance” occurred on the sidelines and that the vast majority of Jews support the peace process, Foxman said Sunday.
“The silent majority is silent no more.”
“This was a great success,” said one Israeli official who did not want his name used. “We want the Jewish community to support the peace process and we know the majority does.”
In planning the event, he added, “there was an attempt to satisfy as many people as possible without losing the fact that there is one and only one government of the State of Israel.”
“There were accommodations made,” said Letty Cottin Pogrebin, an author and former president of Americans for Peace Now.
But except for her outrage over the Streisand ban, she said she felt that the rally “was a healing experience and no one compromised on the basics.”
“The `peace process’ words were banished,” she said, “but the sentiments were clear.”