NEW YORK, May 8 (JTA) — It’s not every day that eight rabbis break the law en masse.
Yet, because quiet diplomacy, public condemnation and prayer vigils have yielded dubious results — the apparent show trial of 13 Iranian Jews accused of spying for Israel is now entering its second week — a group of New York City rabbis felt they needed to take more drastic measures.
Led by the activist Rabbi Avi Weiss, eight rabbis and two lay leaders draped in tallitot plunked themselves down before midday Manhattan traffic May 3.
Within minutes, the protesters, singing and praying, got what they wanted. The two dozen police officers standing by politely whisked them into a large patrol wagon, and traffic moved on.
The site for this act of civil disobedience was chosen because it sits in the shadow of the 11th-floor offices of the Iranian mission to the United Nations.
“It’s so different to be arrested here in New York, in a free country,” Weiss, president of the Coalition for Jewish Concerns — Amcha, told a crowd of 70 or so supporters before leading his troops into the street.
“But in this tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny way, we are expressing our solidarity with our brethren who are suffering in Iran.”
For the arrested rabbis — who included Orthodox, Conservative and Reform spiritual leaders— this was perhaps the loudest way they could make their frustration heard.
“The American Jewish community remained silent during the Holocaust, and that certainly didn’t work,” Rabbi Mordechai Mordachowitz told the crowd. “We have 6 million reasons to never to be silent again!”
The 10 protesters were released after spending 10 hours in jail.
This isn’t the first time Weiss, 55, has been behind bars.
He said his initiation came in 1969, under very similar circumstances. Nine Jews in Iraq were accused of spying, confessed — presumably under duress — and were hanged in a Baghdad square.
Weiss was later arrested on numerous occasions for protesting the treatment of Jews in the Soviet Union. In Poland in 1986, he scaled a fence at the Auschwitz concentration camp to protest the planting of hundreds of crosses by activist Polish Catholics.
Weiss and New York police are so accustomed to civil disobedience that the whole event was orchestrated ahead of time.
Police were notified of the protest, and the group marched to a prearranged location, safely behind blue police barricades.
Such protest is obviously not for everyone.
“I don’t have the courage to do what these courageous rabbis are doing,” said one young rabbi who was among the crowd.
Weiss himself concedes that such action is only “a last resort.”
“To me, violating the law is a very serious matter, and is more difficult for me to do the older I get,” said Weiss, whose arrest this time was observed by three of his seven young grandchildren.
“But American Jews have yet to learn a fundamental lesson: The more you speak out, the more you are protected.”