NEW YORK (May. 22)
When Ariel Sharon spoke here this week, he met the fury of Jewish protesters vociferously opposed to his plan to withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. “Jews don’t expel Jews,” yelled a heckler — one of three who sporadically interrupted the Israeli prime minister and were forcibly removed from the Baruch College auditorium where some 1,100 Jewish leaders and activists were gathered on Sunday.
Outside, several hundred primarily Orthodox protesters rallied in the street.
On one curb, demonstrators for Israel’s continued control over Gaza wore orange T-shirts stating support for Gush Katif, a block of Jewish settlements in Gaza, and chanted “Not one inch. Shame on you.”
On an opposite curb, a group of Neturei Karta, Orthodox Jews opposed to the man-made creation of the State of Israel, held signs with slashes through an Israeli flag.
Inside, Jewish officials stressed Jewish unity.
“The noisy minority does not reflect the view of the vast majority,” said James Tisch, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, apologizing for the hecklers to the prime minister after his speech.
But Sharon, who was slated to deliver the keynote speech at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in Washington on Tuesday, took it in stride.
“Thank you so much for your help,” Sharon told audience members, one of whom apparently yelled an expletive at the offending interrupter.
“Usually, I handle these things by myself,” joked Sharon.
The Israeli prime minister stressed the importance of Zionist education and bringing more immigrants to Israel.
He also defended his withdrawal plan, which is slated to begin in mid-August.
“The future of the Jewish people depends also on Israel’s character as a Jewish and democratic state. In this spirit we initiated the disengagement plan,” he said. “This plan will improve our security and offer a chance to start a political process with the Palestinians. It will guarantee a Jewish majority in the State of Israel. It is thanks to this plan that we can make certain that important parts of the cradle of the Jewish heritage will remain part of Israel forever.”
The event was Sharon’s first visit to New York, the metropolitan area with the largest concentration of Jews in the world, in four years.
More importantly, it marked his first major gathering with Jewish officials here since he announced his withdrawal plan.
The event was sponsored by the Conference of Presidents, UJA-Federation of New York and the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group for the North American Jewish federation movement.
The Presidents Conference had come under fire from some of its members, most vocally by the Anti-Defamation League, for failing to issue a clear statement of support for Sharon in the wake of his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.
During the group’s mission to Israel in March, Tisch explicitly told Sharon that he had American Jewry’s backing.
Sunday’s event was the first major gathering of New York Jewry “not only to embrace the prime minister but to embrace his leadership and his policies,” Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, told JTA.
“The Jewish community has not been provided with opportunities to express their support of the prime minister and his initiative,” Foxman said.
On Sunday, Sharon’s audience, which was dotted with kipot, reflecting a broad swath of Jews, expressed jubilant support, rousing applause and standing ovations.
Jewish officials also delivered high praise for the prime minister.
“We will work to build even greater understanding for the disengagement plan” with a Web site and by submitting editorials to newspapers, Tisch said.
Tisch added his hope that the Palestinians take steps to “end the vicious incitement and to uproot the corruption that has made progress toward peace so difficult.”
Before a banner depicting rustling U.S. and Israeli flags and huge lettering that read, “We Stand With Israel, Now and Forever,” leaders of the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements offered their prayers of support for Sharon’s disengagement plan.
An all-male Orthodox a cappella group introduced the event with the Israeli and American national anthems; the group later sang a Hebrew song for peace.
“You have stymied the intifada and reinitiated the peace process with the courageous decision to pull out of Gaza,” said Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary.
Schorsch also warned against fractures in the Jewish community, saying that “deep internal divides hastened the destruction of the First and Second Temples,” and reminded the audience of the 1995 murder of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by another Jew.
In his speech, Sharon stressed the importance of Jewish continuity.
He highlighted the importance of education to combat the twin threats of intermarriage and assimilation.
“The very essence of Zionism is aliyah. It is the primary goal of my government,” Sharon said, adding his hope to bring 1 million Jews to Israel in the next 15 years. “It is the best way to ensure the future of the Jewish people and the State of Israel.”
Sharon also stressed the strength of the Jewish people, exemplified in the state of Israel.
“I am willing to make painful compromises for peace,” he said. However, “there is one thing on which we will not make any compromises not now and not in the future and that is our security.”
Sharon departed from his prepared remarks to note that he had stressed this point in his discussions with the Bush administration — “maybe the most friendly leadership we have had here.”
But plenty of Jews think Sharon’s plan will undo Israel’s strength.
The protesters, organized by groups that included Americans for a Safe Israel and the Zionist Organization of America, rallied in the rain Sunday against Sharon.
People came out “to send a message to Sharon and more importantly to the Jews of Gush Katif to tell them you’re not alone, and Jews around the world are fighting with you in your fight,” said Gil Margulis, one of the protest’s organizers.
“We know that if they stay strong, Sharon’s plan will fail,” Margulis said.
For others, staying in Gaza is a biblical imperative.
“If we give them land, it won’t make them more peaceful,” said Chaim Cohen, an Israeli studying at a Crown Heights yeshiva. “And why should we? God gave the land of Israel to the Jews. It says in the Bible, God promised the land to the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”