NEW YORK, May 24 (JTA) — Several thousand American Jews let loose another full-throat cry for justice this week as the trial of 13 Iranian Jews accused of spying for Israel nears an end.
Wednesday’s midday prayer vigil in New York — once again just a stone’s throw from the Iranian mission to the United Nations — drew the largest turnout of supporters to date, with 2,000 or more crowded onto the street corner.
The vigil came as a Jewish leader in Iran revealed this week that several Jewish-owned businesses had recently been attacked, including one that had been torched in Tehran, the Iranian capital.
The New York gathering likely would have been much larger had it not been “sabotaged” by top Jewish community leaders, charged a co-sponsor of the public vigil, Rabbi Avi Weiss, president of the Coalition for Jewish Concerns- AMCHA.
The vigil had been advertised in The New York Times and on two local radio stations.
But Weiss’ event appears to have clashed with last-ditch, behind-the scenes Jewish lobbying efforts to spare the Jews the death penalty or long prison sentences.
The rift illustrates the divergent strategies for how best to pressure Iran: robust street action or the “quiet diplomacy” advocated by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Weiss, of Riverdale, N.Y., points to the impact of massive rallies in the 1980s on behalf of Soviet Jewry and how it encouraged people like Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet Jewish dissident who now serves as Israel’s interior minister.
“If prisoners sense they are not alone, they gain a certain amount of strength. We want the Iranian Jews to know their suffering is our suffering,” said Weiss, noting that Sharansky had voiced his support for the vigil.
“I am incredulous that 16 months after these imprisonments, we have not been able to put 100,000 people out on the streets of New York,” said Weiss, who prior to Wednesday’s gathering met with an Iranian diplomat at the U.N. mission.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, co-sponsor of the vigil, joined Weiss. Cooper said he told the Iranian diplomat that American Jewish leaders will continue to be vigilant regarding the treatment of Iran’s Jewish minority.
“We want Iran’s Jewish community taken off the radar screen” of the Iranian government, he said. “We do not want to make the treatment of Jews a long-term thorn in the side of bilateral relations between America and Iran.
Before the vigil, though, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference, said that the planned vigil would work against his group’s efforts.
Several at the vigil alleged that Hoenlein had discouraged numerous organizations from participating.
Hoenlein, whose group had sponsored a previous vigil, denied the charge.
“We took a position on what we would do; each organization takes its own decisions,” he said.
Hoenlein said that what was originally planned as an anti-Iran demonstration was, under pressure, scaled down into another vigil. Several previous vigils at the same site, as well as one in Los Angeles, where many Iranian Jews live, have taken place in recent weeks.
“In the past, when Iran has perceived an escalation of activities, they’ve retaliated,” Hoenlein said. “During such a sensitive week, there’s a question of how this will be perceived.”
The situation is indeed sensitive. In addition to the latest reports of attacks on Jews, there have also been reports of harassment of Jews in the workplace and against Jewish schoolchildren. This was the first report of violence.
Iran has responded to requests for protection by assigning security forces to synagogues and other Jewish institutions, Hoenlein said.
In court in Shiraz, meanwhile, six of the accused Jews reportedly met face-to-face Wednesday for the first time since their imprisonment 15 months ago.
One of the men, Faramarz Kashi, one of eight who had earlier “confessed” to spying and had implicated his brother, reportedly admitted he had lied when he confessed, Hoenlein said.
The hearings are slated to continue Monday, with a verdict now expected perhaps in early June, he said.
Until then and after, expect Jewish advocates for the 13 to continue to disagree on tactics.
“No one in this situation can claim that their strategy is 100 percent effective,” said George Haroonian, coordinator of the Los Angeles-based Council of Iranian American Jewish Organizations.
Haroonian, 47, left Iran 30 years ago. Four years ago, a first cousin of his father’s was accused of espionage and executed in Tehran.
“I definitely think the two approaches complement each other,” Haroonian said.
“Of course you need the diplomacy, but with a public outcry, you are trying to impress the governments and the public — both the American and Iranian — about what’s at stake.”
“Contrary to what many believe, I do not agree that the Iranian government is unresponsive to what the West thinks about it,” he said. “And with the new technology, news travels fast.
“We have to rely on righteous, courageous people in Iran, who have a sense of justice, to protect our brothers there.”