NEW YORK (JTA) – Barely a year ago, Jewish groups were urging the White House to tone down rhetoric linking its Iran policy with pledges to protect Israel because they feared Jews would be blamed for any military action the United States might take.
Any such qualms seem to have evaporated as Jewish groups and prominent Jewish figures took center stage this week in urging a tough line on Iran.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was met with two major protests Monday in New York, the day before he was to deliver his annual address before the United Nations General Assembly.
Across the street from the United Nations, thousands gathered at a rally organized by leading American Jewish organizations and attended by Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and prominent members of New York’s congressional delegation.
Uptown at Columbia University, another large crowd assembled during Ahmadinejad’s lecture there Monday afternoon.
“Make no mistake – Iran is not only a threat to Israel, and not only a threat to its neighbors, but a threat to the entire world,” Livni told the crowd opposite the United Nations. “And today we ask, where is the world?”
Speakers at the U.N. rally generally were long on rhetoric and short on specifics, vowing to stop the Iranian threat but offering few clues as to how that might be done.
Ahmadinejad was compared repeatedly to Hiter and the world’s reaction to him likened to the global silence in the face of the Nazi rush to power before World War II.
As Ahmadinejad landed in New York, members of the U.N. Security Council continued to haggle over a third round of sanctions against the Islamic Republic, with China and Russia resisting American calls for more intense economic pressure.
Ahmadinejad’s visit has vastly overshadowed the opening of the General Assembly, the event for which more than 100 foreign ministers and heads of state and government are gathered here this week. As dignitaries roamed the halls of U.N. headquarters Monday, crowds clustered around television sets to watch Ahmadinejad’s Columbia lecture televised live on CNN.
The Columbia event started off with an introduction from Columbia’s president, Lee Bollilnger, who chided Ahmadinejad. Bollinger said that the Iranian president possessed “all of the signs of a petty criminal and a cruel dictator.”
Bollinger asked Ahmadinejad to defend his oppression of women, homosexuals and the Baha’i, as well as to explain statements in which he called for the destruction of Israel. He also challenged the Iranian president’s denial of the Holocaust and questioned his country’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, which has brought United Nations sanctions against his people.
“I doubt you will have the intellectual courage to answer these questions,” Bollinger said.
Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs had invited Ahmadinejad as part of the school’s World Leaders Forum. The school received widespread criticism for proffering the invitation. His appearance drew a crowd of 600 in an auditorium at the New York City school, as well as several thousand who watched on a screen in the center of campus. The Iranian also addressed questions from Columbia faculty and students.
Ahmadinejad asserted that Bollinger had insulted the intelligence of his audience by offering a one-sided introduction “affected by the press and a political monster,” a seeming allusion to the pro-Israel lobby. While Iran welcomes its guests with honor, Ahmadinejad said, “I got a wave of insults” from Bollinger.
He reiterated his past claim that the Palestinian people are unfairly paying the price for the Holocaust. “Why should five million Palestinians pay for this, when they had nothing to do with it?” he asked. He later insinuated that Israel is the reason for all strife in the Middle East. In response to questions about his denial of the Holocaust and his hosting of a conference of Holocaust deniers last year, the Iranian leader said that studying the issue is like any other scientific pursuit and that it should continue, regardless of how well the Nazi killings have been documented.
“There are Europeans in jail because they attempted to write about it from a different perspective,” he said. One would not suggest that scientists stop studying chemistry simply because there has been an enormous amount of research already, he said. “Why should we not research an event that has been the cause of so many catastrophes in this region?” he asked.
When asked whether he believes in the destruction of Israel, Ahmadinejad sidestepped the question, saying that he wants a free election in Palestine in which Muslims, Jews and Christians can vote on the nature of their state. But, he said, Iran is open to negotiations with all governments of the world aside from two – “the apartheid regime in South Africa,” which no longer exists, and “the Zionist regime.”
Speakers at the rally across from the U.N. had harsh words for Columbia, which has come under sustained criticism in recent days for extending an invitation to the Iranian leader. Columbia has stood by its decision, citing the school’s commitment to confronting difficult and even offensive ideas.
“We should not give him a platform in the United States that will strengthen him at home,” said Richard Holbrooke, a former American ambassador to the United Nations.
“Ahmadinejad should go to school – not to lecture, but to learn,” Livni added.
U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said that like Ahmadinejad, Hitler told the world exactly what he planned to do – and the world stood idly by. “We know what happened,” Nadler said. “The so-called civilized world let it happen. When we say ‘Never Again,’ we should mean it.”
Speakers stressed the need to take strong action to block Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.
“All options are on the table,” said U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), employing a phrase commonly understood as a euphemism for military action, as he addressed the crowd outside the United Nations.
Menendez said sanctions and divestment were not enough, and he urged congressional action to confront the threat of a nuclear Iran.
“It is time for the United States to act now,” Menendez said.
On Monday, speakers and protesters were unabashed in invoking the need to defend Israel. But concerns over an anti-Jewish blowback have not entirely evaporated, as evidenced by the efforts to portray Monday’s rally in anything but Jewish terms.
“The message is the revulsion of the American people to everything the Iranian president stands for,” said David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee. Harris, who led a 35-member AJCommittee delegation to the rally, carried a sign reading “No Iranian Nukes.”
Still, the U.N. rally was very much a Jewish affair. The bulk of the protesters were students from New York-area Jewish day schools, and virtually every major Jewish organization sent a delegation.
It was organized by an ad hoc coalition that included the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, United Jewish Communities, UJA-Federation of New York and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. Prior to the speeches, a band warmed up the crowd with Chasidic melodies.
Among the protesters were a small number of Iranian-Americans and several Christians who came from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New Hampshire and points beyond to voice their support for the Jewish state.
“I came here to support and stand with the Jews,” said George Bellmany,” who endured a 26-hour bus ride from Florida to attend the rally.
Bellmany, who heard about the rally through the grassroots group Christians United For Israel, said he was unfazed by the long journey.
“It’s not really” a long distance, Bellmany said, “if you have a purpose.”
New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn helped kick off Monday’s event, declaring: “We are all here today to send one clear, loud and united message that there is no place for hate and terror in this world, but there will always be a place for the great State of Israel.”
Staff reporter Jacob Berkman in New York contributed to this report.