NEW YORK (Apr. 15)
It was 90 minutes into the community’s largest public mobilization in 15 years, and Jews from around the country continued to stream toward the U.S. Capitol, clamoring to get into the pro-Israel rally.
In the shade of a nearby acacia tree, just to the left of the Capitol rotunda, Mikaella Kagan and Marina Fox-Rabinovitz found refuge from the sweltering heat.
They looked out onto the sea of faces and took a moment to reminisce back to Dec. 6, 1987, when they joined more than 200,000 Jews who had thronged the nation’s capital on behalf of the “refuseniks” — Jews of the former Soviet Union who demanded the right to emigrate to freedom.
Mikaella and Marina, friends for a quarter-century, were themselves refuseniks from Moscow, who had made their way to America only months before.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” said Mikaella, now 66, of Bethesda, Md.
“Imagine Israel, when it seems the whole world is against them.
“We know from our experience that it’s important not to feel alone, that someone is thinking of me, that someone remembers that I am here. For refuseniks, it would have been easier for the government to destroy us if someone outside hadn’t known about us. Now that we are free, we want to do the same for Israel.”
Added Marina, 57, “If not Jews, who else will support Israel?”
“Jews feel themselves to be like a family. We want Israelis to feel they are loved and supported — and will be always.”
Within the Jewish family out on the Capitol lawn — organizers put the number at more than 100,000 — emotions ran high.
Criticized by both Israeli officials and the Jewish grass-roots for a perceived lack of visibility, the Jewish communal leadership received an overwhelming response to a rally organized only a week earlier.
It drew Jews of all ages, seemingly from all political and religious stripes, with impressive delegations arriving from the East Coast, Midwest and South.
Some 150 Jews from Toronto even made the sojourn south.
“When I grow up and have kids and tell them about the intifada,” said Daniella English, 19, of Toronto, “I can tell them I did everything I could to support Israel. I went to Washington.”
There had been talk beforehand about what sort of unified message the rally should send Washington and Jerusalem: support for Israel itself, or support for the government of Israel.
But even without the relentless heat — which several demonstrators succumbed to — temperatures were elevated.
Indeed, after 19 months of the intifada, a spate of suicide bombings, an Israeli military incursion into the West Bank and at least 450 Jews killed, the gathering in Washington seemed almost cathartic for some.
“When I read about the rally, I told my wife, ‘I gotta go; it’ll be good for my soul,'” said Alan Geller of Elmwood Park, N.J.
“And she said, ‘Al, you’re 71. You’re too old.’ But 10 minutes later — she always does this — she says, ‘Al, you’re right. Go.'”
The sentiment was echoed across the Capitol lawn.
“We’ve felt frustrated and helpless in trying to show our support for Israel,” said Debby Weinstein of Memphis, Tenn.
“We knew we had to come here to take a stand, and to say we’re so proud of the support President Bush and his administration are showing for Israel, and for standing up to the rest of the world.”
The thousands of placards on display ran the gamut.
They expressed solidarity with Israel — “Wherever we are, we stand with Israel;” and “Self-defense is Not Murder” – – to denunciations of Yasser Arafat — “Terrorist Bastard” and “Arafat: How Much More Blood Do You Hunger For?” and of suicide bombers — “Murderers Not Martyrs” and “Palestinians Danced on 9-11.”
Some equated the Israeli and American wars on terrorism and urged Washington to support Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. “Finish the Job” and “Destroy Arab Terrorism,” the posters read.
Many rally participants were in no mood for talk of a “cease-fire” or a “return to negotiations.”
Many in the crowd roared their approval when Christian radio commentator Janet Parshall boomed,
“We will never give up the Golan; we will never divide Jerusalem. And we will call Yasser Arafat what Yasser Arafat is — a terrorist!”
Many in the crowd then booed when Paul Wolfowitz, the U.S. deputy defense secretary, referred to “innocent Palestinian victims” and the “future Palestinian state.” One teen-age boy, while passing a reporter, muttered: “They should kill Arafat.”
And with no Arabs or Muslims to confront, some Jews turned on each other.
A lone placard, stating “We Have Faith in Coexistence,” up near the front seemed likely to draw some attention.
“I haven’t gotten any verbal complaints, but I do think it will be an unpopular sign,” said Micah Bycel, who studied in Israel last year and was among two busloads of Hillel students making the 16-hour trip from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
“But it’s still a necessary sign. Many signs around here are destructive signs,” he said.
“I’m as pro-Palestinian as I am pro-Israeli. Israel needs to withdraw from the territories and recognize Palestinian statehood.”
Sure enough, within minutes, an older man from Chicago approached to berate Bycel.
After challenging Bycel on which borders Israel should withdraw to, the Chicagoan — who only gave his first name, Shael — erupted.
Jabbing his finger in Bycel’s chest, he shouted, “And you want to live with Palestinians who use baby’s heads as bowling balls? You’re just going to stand there and be passive?”
“I’d be happy to discuss it with you, but please don’t touch me,” replied the Wisconsin senior.
But the scene turned uglier as a group from the political left and right converged.
Eventually, Bycel lost it, too, screaming, “It’s very offensive to me that you’re saying I don’t stand with Israel.”
A schoolmate of Bycel’s tried to intervene: “Hey guys, chill out. It’s a peace rally!”
And then a burly friend of Shael’s accosted a reporter who had earlier been interviewing Bycel, taunting him with the comment: “You must work for Al-Jazeera” — referring to the Arab news network.
Shael later said that Bycel and his friends were “naive, and haven’t lived life long enough. The only human rights they’re concerned about are the Palestinians’, not the Israelis’. Kids like that have betrayed us because they think that way.”
At which point, another college student intervened.
“I don’t want you to think that all young people are in support of Peace Now” — the dovish group of the left, said Daniela, a Stern College student from Scranton, Penn.
“There are other college-age students who realize there’s no imminent peaceful solution, and that giving in to whatever demands of the Palestinians is not all they want.”
Another Wisconsin student took in stride the strife among Jews.
“This is one of the only issues in my life that I feel passionately enough about to make the drive,” said Rachel Heilbronner, 22.
“I just wanted to experience this feeling of standing with all these Jews, who might not feel the same way about the conflict, but who can agree that Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state.”
And like Mikaella and Marina, an Israeli at the rally said he was sure that message and others of solidarity would be well-received back in the Holy Land.
“I’m pretty sure the citizens of Israel will appreciate this; it’s coming from the heart,” said Jacob, who lives in New York and asked that his last name not be used. He said he “had to” attend this rally after missing a smaller one in the city two weeks ago.
“With the terrorism that Israel is facing every day, the least Jews can do over here is to give up one day to show their support, ” he said.