Menu JTA Search

Jewish activists at summit play to media

THURMONT, Md., July 12 (JTA) — Sitting on the porch of his 200-year-old house, Gary Megee tapped an ash from his cigarette and expressed little interest in the action down the road.

“It don’t impress me too much,” the Vietnam War veteran and small business owner said of the nearby Mideast peace talks. “It’s just a waste of the taxpayers’ money. Besides, those people over there have been fighting for thousands and thousands of years.”

Of course, many others do care — even in this 5,000-person town in the mountains that is home to few Jews.

A few doors down on East Main Street, Holly’s Country Florist offers a “peace process special — $12.99 for a dozen roses” and a window sign that reads, “Bill, Ehud and Yasser, Think Peace.”

A sporting goods store at the town’s main intersection had this in the window: “Peace for Jerusalem, Lower Gas Prices.”

If it was unclear how much the town’s residents cared about the summit going on at nearby Camp David, Jewish activists made up for the townspeople’s lack of intensity.

Emotions were intense at Thurmont Elementary School, where world media representatives split the parking lot with summer school teachers.

Volunteers from the Apples United Church of Christ sold lunch inside, while small contingents of pro- and anti-peace summit groups peacefully occupied a corner of the parking lot.

Then the bus from New York City arrived. It brought some members of Women in Green, who casually joined their colleagues from the Baltimore chapter of the hawkish group.

But members of Kahane Chai, the radical right-wing group, also got off the bus. Instantly playing to the media, their members began chanting, “Barak is a traitor, no retreat from Jewish land.” One member almost got into a fistfight with a pro-peace demonstrator who ate a sandwich in front of a “The Majority Chose Peace” sign.

Fourteen-year-old Yaacov Freedman, a student at the Talmudical Academy in Baltimore, arrived with his mother because “Israel is our homeland and they keep giving away our land. And it’s not real peace. Peace means no more murder, burning, and no more terrorism.”

But in contrast to the negotiations between Syria and Israel hosted earlier this year in Shepherdstown, W.Va., where opponents of the talks dominated the news coverage, this time those supporting the talks held sway.

The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism organized the small but spirited solidarity rally, with support from the Israel Policy Forum, Americans for Peace Now and ARZA/World Union.

Just before disembarking at the Thurmont Elementary School, rally coordinator and RAC legislative assistant Rachel Glast prepped the amateur spinmeisters about key policy points and interview etiquette.

“Please feel free to talk to the press, and please don’t use any fanatical rhetoric,” she said, while handing out a concise “talking points” memorandum.

As the solidarity demonstrators descended the bus steps, they were ready for action. Carrying placards with slogans such as “American Jews support peace” and “Pro-peace, pro-Israel,” the demonstrators formed a semi-circle as camera shutters clicked and television crews filmed a relatively brief media moment.

But others who supported the talks had some reservations.

Thirty-six high school students from the Reform movement’s Camp Joseph and Betty Harlam Camp waved signs supporting the peace talks, but didn’t seem enamored with the “land for peace” formula.

“We’re supporting the process,” said 16-year-old Lauren Schlanger, an Owings Mills High School student. “We don’t support every action, but we support that the leaders have come to the U.S. to try and work out an agreement.”

Peace hopes aside, war had been heard in the nearby mountains of late — the camp activity known as color war, that is. Camp Airy, a Jewish boys camp, sits just minutes from Camp David; its sister institution, Camp Louise, is a few more miles away.

“You know what we notice up at camp? Whatever people who come tell us,” said the director of Camp Airy, Mike Schneider. “On Monday, we saw the president’s helicopter fly overhead, which we see all the time. But this time, we wondered who was inside.”

Twenty minutes away, Rabbi Moshe Kosman has led the area’s closest synagogue, Congregation Beth Sholom, since 1961. “We serve all variants of Judaism,” explained the Orthodox rabbi. “No one’s happy.”

He recalled how regular Shabbat services were not being held during the Egyptian-Israeli summit at Camp David in 1978. Congregants suggested they do so in case then Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin showed up.

They gathered to pray, but Begin stayed at the presidential retreat.

Back in the press center, a group of Arab journalists munched on bagels with cream cheese while four children played on the floor in front of them. A nearby television offered CNN Headline News reports from the summit.

At least one group seemed pleased with the day.

Before leaving Thurmont, the RAC’s legislative director, Jeff Mandell, praised the teen demonstrators as a credit to the Reform movement’s youth programs and reassured all the demonstrators, “What we’ve done today has gone extremely well.”

Called out one bus rider, “Watch the evening news!” —Baltimore Jewish Times

(Merry Madway Eisenstadt of the Washington Jewish Week contributed to this report.)

NEXT STORY