NEW YORK (JTA) – Thousands of protesters filled Dag Hammarskjold Plaza opposite the United Nations on Monday for a rally against Iran’s president, who came to town to address the General Assembly.
“The message to him is please go home,” Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel said at the demonstration. “Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, go home and stay home. We don’t want you here.”
Wiesel called for U.N. members to declare Ahmadinejad persona non grata and to exit the General Assembly hall in protest when he speaks Tuesday afternoon.
“In truth, the proper place of Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is not in the U.N.,” Wiesel said. “His place is before an international tribunal which will charge him with inciting crimes against humanity.”
The rally – sponsored by an array of Jewish groups – was meant to highlight the Iranian regime’s threats to Israel and the rest of the world with its pursuit of nuclear weapons, as well as its Holocaust denial, and to send a message to Ahmadinejad, organizers said.
The day after the rally, Iran’s president delivered a scathing attack on Zionism in his address at the United Nations.
In a speech replete with classical anti-Semitic motifs, Ahmadinejad said Zionists are criminals and murderers, are “acquisitive” and “deceitful,” and dominate global finance despite their “minuscule” number.
“It is deeply disastrous to witness that some presidential nominees have to visit these people, take part in their gatherings, and swear their allegiance and commitment to their interests in order to win financial or media support,” Ahmadinejad said.
“These nations are spending their dignity and resources on the crimes and threats of the Zionist network against their will,” he added.
Ahmadinejad said the “Zionist regime” is on the path to collapse.
The Iranian president also sounded a defiant note with respect to his country’s nuclear program, which he described as peaceful. Ahmadinejad described nuclear power as his country’s “inalienable” right and accused “a few bullying powers” of opposing Iran’s progress.
“It is very natural that the great Iranian people, with their trust in God and with determination and steadfastness and with the support of its friends, will resist the bullying and will continue to defend its rights,” he said. “Will not accept illegal demands.”
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Ahmadinejad said Israel “resembles an airplane that has lost its engine and is kind of going down. And no one can help it.”
Israel’s demise, he said, “will benefit everyone.”
Rally speakers slammed Ahmadinejad and warned of the threat a nuclear Iran would pose to the United States, Israel and the world.
There was little sign of the political controversy that enveloped the event last week, when an invitation to the Republican vice-presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, was withdrawn two days after U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) canceled her longstanding plans to address the rally.
With thousands of participants chanting “Stop Iran now!” and waving Israeli flags, speakers from Israel’s Knesset to Canada’s Parliament issued admonitions to Ahmadinejad and urged the international community to oppose the regime in Tehran.
Irwin Cotler, a noted human rights lawyer and former Canadian justice minister who has been part of an effort to charge Ahmadinejad with incitement to genocide, said the Iranian leader’s visit to New York “made a mockery of history, law and the United Nations itself.”
Natan Sharansky, a former Israeli Cabinet minister and Soviet dissident, recalled his own struggle against the Soviet “evil empire” and urged the crowd to keep faith even when challenging a great power. He also called for “moral clarity” that distinguishes between proponents of peace and extremists who “believe you must kill people to go to the next world.”
“Never lose heart,” Sharansky said. “This is the fight we can win. This is the fight we must win. This is the fight we will win.”
Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik also spoke.
“Our experience tells us to take this man seriously,” Itzik said of Ahmadinejad’s threats against Israel and Iran’s pursuit of nuclear capability. “Iran is not just Israel’s problem, but he is a threat to the entire world.”
Attendance at the rally was made up primarily of students bused in from Jewish day schools in the greater New York area, though some traveled from as far as Canada to attend.
“It’s a really important cause,” said Cara Stern, 19, a second-year student at Carleton University in Ottawa who traveled to the rally with 130 Canadian students. “It’s something that I think we should be fighting for.”
While the participation of American political personalities was scrapped for the New York rally, elected officials did show up for a like-minded rally in downtown Washington.
U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) were among the speakers at the rally there, which was sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.
“Not now, not ever, will we allow Iran to become a nuclear power,” Cardin told a crowd of about 125 in Farragut Square Park.
King suggested that the United States set a date after which Iran “will not be able to expand its nuclear endeavor” and thus make the regime “scramble” to “save” itself.
Holocaust survivor Nesse Godin and Iranian dissident Amir Abbas Fakhravar also spoke at the event.
Fakhravar thanked Israel and the United States for not recognizing and doing business with the Iranian regime. He also made his preference in the U.S. presidential election clear, criticizing “those who want to go to the White House to have unconditional talks with the Islamic Republic” – an apparent reference to a remark Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) made in a debate last year about being willing to meet with Ahmadinejad.
Aside from addressing the General Assembly, Ahmadinejad’s visit was slated to include a dialogue with religious and political leaders on Thursday evening at a Ramadan break-fast event sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group.
Jewish groups have criticized the event and the planned participation by the president of the U.N. General Assembly and a former Norwegian prime minister. A separate protest is planned for that event.
(JTA Washington correspondent Eric Fingerhut contributed to this report from Washington.)