NEW YORK, June 4 (JTA) — In the wake of the most rousing pro- Israel solidarity rally since the early weeks of the Palestinian uprising, some U.S. Jewish activists are pondering: “What next?”
Thousands of Jews — 10,000, according to police — crammed into mid-Manhattan streets near the Israeli Consulate on Sunday to vent their anguish at the ongoing bloodshed and rail against the man they hold directly responsible: Yasser Arafat.
The Palestinian Authority president, rally organizer Rabbi Avi Weiss proclaimed, has hands “dripping in Jewish blood.”
“To Arafat we declare: As we defeated Nazism and Communism, so will we defeat your terrorism,” said Weiss, president of AMCHA: The Coalition for Jewish Concerns.
Thousands of demonstrators thronged four city blocks, many carrying pro-Israel or anti-Arafat placards.
They cheered the impassioned speeches of rabbis from across the religious spectrum, recited prayers, sang songs and listened quietly as the name was read of each of the 100-plus Jewish victims of Palestinian violence.
Quantifying the success of such events is tricky, but the rally did appear to achieve at least two of its aims.
Visiting Israeli officials continually beseech American Jewry to show support and solidarity with the Jewish state. Observers said the weekend rally sent a clear message to Israel, via the Israeli and international media in attendance, that “We are with you.”
The rally also used the media to underscore that many Americans agree with Weiss’ view that “there can be no moral equivalence between cold-blooded murder and self-defense,” observers said.
While the rally was a big story locally, it was not the stuff of nationwide coverage. Only a smattering of network affiliates around the country mentioned it.
That has some Jewish activists thinking bigger, looking for more effective means to drive their point home to America, the Bush administration, Arafat, the United Nations and others.
Several expressed hope that the New York rally might spark similar demonstrations nationwide.
Chicago already has been planning a demonstration for Wednesday, and another rally is slated for June 17 in Miami.
The United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group for Jewish federations across North America, had planned to sponsor a bicoastal rally last Sunday, but backed out because it couldn’t guarantee the presence — and security — of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
The UJC is nearing a decision about holding a large rally in New York around the High Holidays, and will be encouraging federations across North America to do the same simultaneously, UJC President Stephen Solender said.
A September date also would coincide with the reconvening of the U.N. General Assembly, hopefully grabbing the attention of the dozens of heads of state, Solender said.
Weiss broached the possibility of a “march on Washington” — a reprise of the Dec. 6, 1987, rally in the nation’s capital to demand freedom of emigration for Soviet Jews.
While some debate whether rallies are the best use of funds — Sunday’s event cost $60,000, while a D.C. mega-rally might cost as much as $3 million — one activist said the issue is moot.
“It’s not that we want to have it; we have to have it,” said Rabbi Simcha Freedman, co-chairman of the South Florida Solidarity for Israel Committee, which is organizing the June 17 event.
“We feel the pain and have to express ourselves. The level of frustration and despair is so intense that we simply have to vent it, and coming together in this venue offers us exactly that.
Freedman added, “Not responding is also a response that we’re disinterested, that we’re inured to the terror. And you don’t get used to this kind of brutality and terror.”
As for the notion of a Washington rally, it may get a lukewarm reception at the UJC, whose support would be key.
“I happen to be a person who ascribes to the need to have these kinds of rallies,” said Solender, referring to Sunday’s event.
But pressuring President Bush may be unnecessary, Solender said, as “our impressions from what Israeli officials are telling us is that they’re quite satisfied” with the administration’s current stance during the crisis.
Weiss and others, however, say Washington must be pressured to pursue Palestinians who kill American citizens in Israel, as they pursue killers of Americans around the world; to brand the Palestinian Authority a terrorist organization; and to withhold economic assistance from Arab authorities that do not assist in efforts to free Israeli MIAs.
If the D.C. rally “is not going to be done by the establishment,” Weiss said, “then it will be done from the grassroots.”
“One has to have vision and be prepared to take some risks. I’m absolutely convinced that our community is yearning to be involved, to stand up and be counted, and we just have to give them the opportunity.”