WASHINGTON (Apr. 9)
The American Jewish community is mobilizing for a major pro-Israel rally next week that could bring tens of thousands of people to the nation’s capital.
The rally, planned for Monday, comes at a time when many American Jews are anguished over the situation in Israel and have been looking for ways to express their support.
It also comes as the organized community has been trying to devise a strategy that would make the case for Israel to the American government, the public and the media.
The rally, coordinated by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which just decided early this week to hold the event, is still in the planning stages.
It is already encountering some logistical difficulties, even as some in the organization world are questioning whether a rally is the best use of resources — and whether it can draw the type of attendance necessary to have the desired effect.
It is also raising questions about what the message should be — and whether the rally might be seen as a move against the Bush administration, which has been pressuring Israel to withdraw its forces from the West Bank towns it has occupied in an effort to root out terrorism.
Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents, said the rally would show support for Israel’s right to defend itself in the face of a horrific wave of suicide bombings.
“There is a feeling that this is the critical time in Jewish history and Israel’s history. The people of Israel have to realize they are not alone. We will bring together the totality of community to show solidarity.”
“Everybody says it can’t be done,” he said, referring to the difficulties of mobilizing on such short notice. “That’s exactly why we’re going to get it done.”
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s former prime minister, who has agreed to present Israel’s case to the American public even though he is Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s political rival, has tentatively agreed to speak at the event.
Hoenlein said he is also hoping to attract leaders of Congress and other ethnic groups to speak at the event, which is scheduled for 1 p.m.
Both Hoenlein and Netanyahu, who addressed the Conference of Presidents on Tuesday, said one of the main messages would be that Israel and America share the same war against terror.
Jewish organizations and federations are already mobilizing forces for the event, which will come two days before Israel’s Independence Day.
Stephen Wolnek, the honorary president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said his movement would bring at least 10,000 people from the Washington area and is already mobilizing other East Coast communities.
“Everyone’s been calling” wanting to know “what they can do,” he said. “Now they have an opportunity to respond. They’ve been waiting for this call and it’s out.”
Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, is calling out its grass-roots constituency and organizing buses from at least 12 states along the East Coast, said Roberta Elliott, national public affairs director for the group.
The North American federation system is also getting out the word to communities across the country.
“Whether or not there is unanimous agreement” as to whether there should be a rally or not, this is a response to a great deal of “pent-up desire to have a voice,” said Gail Hyman, vice president of marketing and public affairs at the United Jewish Communities.
“There is a sense that this could mobilize a lot of people.”
Some said a massive rally would also counter the anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian demonstrations taking place in the United States and throughout the world.
But questions remain what the message of the rally should be.
Some want the event to express support for Sharon’s policies, while others want to keep the support strictly to the Israeli state and its people.
This conflict mirrors one the Conference of Presidents dealt with before issuing a statement of solidarity last month.
In the end, in order to achieve full consensus, the final version of the statement expressed support for the state but not the government.
“We will not support a rally that is in support of policies of the Sharon government or challenges the Bush administration,” said Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now.
“We haven’t seen what exactly the rally is about yet, and once we have clarification of the message we will decide whether we will be on board.”
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said it was essential for the American Jewish community to support the Israeli government and that he would not lend his organization’s name to a rally that does not.
The conference’s leadership has said they expect the event to be non-confrontational, but others fear the rally could drive a wedge between the American Jewish community and the Bush administration.
If lawmakers attend, organizers would not be able to control their comments, and the possibility arises that one or more could take potshots at the president’s strategy.
And some have speculated that the Conference of Presidents chose a rally in Washington to control the message, preventing smaller organizations planning similar events from choosing the rhetoric.
Indeed, Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Coalition for Jewish Concerns-AMCHA, was planning a Washington rally to mirror his New York event last weekend that had a strong right-wing message.
Some speculated that it was Weiss’ success at bringing an estimated 5,000 to 12,000 Israel supporters to the United Nations on Sunday with very little notice and publicity that helped convince the mainstream organizations that a rally was the way to go.
Weiss, who said he is “flying” at the idea of the Conference of Presidents working on a Washington rally, suggested that a stronger message be sent to the Bush administration at the event.
“I do believe that the message needs to get across that America should not be asking Israel to do anything that America would not do” in its war against terrorism, Weiss said. “Telling Israel it has the right to fight terrorism but it must withdraw before destroying the terrorist infrastructure makes no sense.”
Among the other concerns is the expected cost of the rally, whether it will have the desired impact of reaching a national audience and, of course, security.
“We are taking all the appropriate precautions and working with police,” Hoenlein said of the security consideration
Though no one would predict numbers, Hoenlein said he expected it to be the largest Jewish gathering since 1987, when several hundred thousand Jews demonstrated in Washington on behalf of Soviet Jews seeking to emigrate.