The streets of Annapolis were ringing with the sound of Hebrew folk songs as Jewish organizations of many stripes held rallies either in support of or opposition to the Middle East peace conference.
Two right-wing Zionist groups, Shalom International and Americans for a Safe Israel, had permits to protest against the conference outside Gate 1 of the U.S. Naval Academy Tuesday, but more than 300 protesters, including members of other organizations, lined the streets with signs and banners warning against concessions to the Palestinians.
Farther up Main Street, groups in favor of the peace process, led by Ameinu, formerly the Labor Zionist Alliance, were relegated to the courtyard of St. Anne’s Church. They were moved there at the last minute, according to Ameinu’s executive director, Doni Remba, after the Secret Service reportedly told Annapolis Police of a security threat and canceled the group’s permit to protest at the more visible Lawyer’s Mall.
Billboard trucks bearing the logos “The Time Has Come for Peace Now” and “Olmert Go Home: Solve the Palestinian Crisis” looped around the cobblestone streets of Annapolis, highlighting the sharply divided view of the talks among the Jewish community.
The tone on the streets was peaceful, but the opinions expressed by protesters couldn’t have been more divided, with groups calling the conference everything from a hopeful day to the start of World War III.
Bob Kunst, director of Shalom International and part of the “Defend Israel” coalition protesting against concessions, said he wasn’t happy about what was happening on the other side of the Naval Academy gate.
“We see this conference as Munich II. We want to prevent World War III,” Kunst said, describing the proceedings as a “gang rape” on Israel. “I’m not happy with any part of this.”
“How do you make peace with someone who wants to kill you?” he said. “They want the right of return of 4 million, a city divided. The bottom line is this is the most anti-Semitic attack we’ve seen since the Holocaust.”
For Annapolis to be a success, Kunst said he’d want to see a total repudiation of Saudi Arabia and Iran for their support of terrorism, and that Israel not be asked to return any land.
Barry Freedman, the director of Americans for a Safe Israel, said his organization’s message was: “This is not a peace conference, it’s a concession that’s appeasement and will severely damage Israel’s ability to defend itself.”
“It’s Munich 1938 all over again,” Freedman said.
The president of the Zionist Organization of America, Morton Klein, estimated that his group had managed to collect at least 200 of “the most fervent Zionists there are” to help lead the protest at Gate 1.
Klein described the Israeli-Palestinian joint statement as a one-sided substantive concession to the Arabs.
“This can only lead to disaster,” he said. “The goal of the Palestinian Authority is not to set up a state but to work for the destruction of the Jewish state.”
As critics railed against the meeting, Darya Shaikh, the American executive director of OneVoice, a group comprised of Israeli and Palestinian youth in favor of a two-state solution, and about one dozen of its members walked by, shouting out their support for a peace settlement.
They met up with Ameinu and Americans for Peace Now at St. Anne’s Church for a quieter rally that drew about 150 supporters.
“Everyone’s expectations are so low,” Shaikh told JTA. “Any spark needs to be kept alive.”
Shaikh said she was surprised to hear the rhetoric of leaders describing the conference as Munich II.
“It’s very dangerous to place this in a compartment,” she said. “It speaks to people’s boundaries and defense mechanisms. They feel betrayed by the process.”
Shaikh noted that OneVoice has seen its membership double to 600,000 Israelis and Palestinians in the past year. She said many are young activists who are tired of hearing the hopeless tenor of their older relatives when the subject of peace is broached.
New York University student Jill Goldstein took a bus from New York to Annapolis with a group of students affiliated with the Union of Reform Judaism. She said many other students that were planning to attend were thwarted by Thanksgiving airline delays and the short notice about the exact dates of the conference.
Amy Meyer and other members of the Union of Progressive Zionists at the University of Maryland also participated in the pro-Annapolis rally. They planned to hold a Day of Action on Wednesday on campus after the conference, with the expected program to include a game of “Final Status Taboo” — students would describe an issue facing Israel in terms that aren’t typically used in order to think of the conflict in a new light.
Meyer expressed hope that Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations would work with Israel to end the conflict. The conference, she said, marked “the first time ever that some nations are interested in walking with Israel down the path to peace.”