NEW YORK, Oct. 12 (JTA) — Thousands of street demonstrators showed solidarity for Israel in New York on Thursday, in a counteroffensive to what organizers say is a global perception — promulgated by much of the news media and the United Nations — that the Jewish state is to blame for the escalating violence in the Middle East.
And in a sign that Jewish leaders sense the Palestinians have gained the upper hand in international opinion in their quest to recover the Temple Mount, many speakers took the opportunity to emphasize the centrality of Jerusalem to the Jewish people and Israel’s sovereignty over Judaism’s most holy site.
The Temple Mount is sacred to both Jews and Muslims, and the issue of its guardianship is said to have caused peace talks to collapse.
“We will not be silent,” vowed Ronald Lauder, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, a co-sponsor of the event with the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.
“We will not forsake thee, Jerusalem.”
The “Rally for Solidarity” in New York — and others planned for dozens of cities continent-wide — indicate that the American Jewish leadership is finally on the offensive, after its self-admitted paralysis during the first week the current conflict broke out. The paralysis, they say, was induced by the shock of renewed violence and wrangling over how the crisis was triggered.
After some Israelis criticized the sluggish response, the leadership took action. Aside from the demonstrations and various full-page newspaper advertisements, there is feverish work behind the scenes, say activists.
Diplomatically, they are lobbying various European missions in New York and embassies in Washington, said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents. At the same time, Hoenlein said, the American Jewish Committee is lobbying in Geneva to prevent passage of a one- sided resolution against Israel by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.
On the home front, leaders say perhaps the greatest challenge is to shake American Jewry from its complacency, alert it to the threat facing Israel, and remind why it is that Jews vow each Passover, “Next year in Jerusalem!”
Concerning the Temple Mount, some activists said, “Jewish history has become myth, while Palestinian myth has become history.”
Said Bonnie Lipton, national president of Hadassah and co-chair of the Conference of Presidents “Jerusalem Committee”: “We have to go out and aggressively re-educate the Jewish community as to the real history of Jerusalem.”
“It’s going to be difficult,” she said, “but if we can’t even re-educate Jews, then what can we expect from the rest of the world?”
At the massive New York demonstration — which covered six city blocks — the tone of speakers ranged from hints of a triumphal “I told you so” expressed by more hard-line Jewish leaders to disillusionment among more dovish activists that hopes for peace had evaporated so quickly.
Elie Wiesel, the Nobel laureate, lambasted Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as “ignorant, devious and unworthy of trust,” and said he had “betrayed” the values of the Nobel Peace Prize he won in 1994.
Wiesel also lamented that “the dream of peace has gone up in smoke.”
A pair of leading Israeli politicians were combative.
Absorption Minister Yuli Tamir, a member of Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s Cabinet, tried to reassure the massive crowd that Israel is prepared in case the situation worsens.
“Anyone who knows anything about Israel knows that we will not yield to threats, we will not yield to violence,” said Tamir, who noted that her teen-age daughter will be drafted into the Israeli army next week.
“We will pray for peace, but we also know how to fight.”
Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, who in an earlier speech to the Conference of Presidents repeatedly spoke of “war,” declared to the cheering crowd: “There is one capital of the Jewish people. There was one capital of the Jewish people. There will be one capital of the Jewish people!”
The demonstration was not without its share of high-profile American politicians — and candidates one month away from elections, like first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. Both Clinton and her Republican opponent for the U.S. Senate seat in New York, Rep. Rick Lazio, expressed their unwavering support for Israel.
Yet Clinton, who has drawn heavy criticism for some past steps vis-a- vis Israel, was loudly booed throughout her entire speech. She was the only speaker to get such treatment. Nevertheless, she maintained her composure.
“I know this is a season of politics,” Clinton said, “but it is also a season of peril” for Israel.
The booing lasted her entire speech, which angered others in the crowd who felt the focus on this afternoon should have been on Israel, not politics.
“It’s disgusting,” said one Jewish activist. “Never mind that it’s Hillary. This is supposed to be a rally of unity and solidarity.”
Diagonal from the stage, a smaller-than-expected counterdemonstration by a group called “Jews for Peace Through Justice” was the only outlet for those critical of Israel’s handling of the situation. Some 10 to 15 protesters held placards stating “Israel security forces: Stop the killing of demonstrators” and “We support a democratic Israel for all citizens: End discrimination against Palestinian Israelis.”
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