NEW YORK, Oct. 16 (JTA) Steve Apsel took the afternoon off work last Friday to join his wife and infant at a pro-Israel rally near the White House.
“I feel pretty frustrated that Arafat has turned his nose to a historic opportunity,” Apsel, a software developer, said as he clutched his daughter, who was wearing a John Lennon “Give Peace a Chance” T-shirt.
Apsel and his family were joined by about 1,000 demonstrators at the Washington rally one of dozens of Israel-solidarity demonstrations held across North America during the past week.
The rallies, organized to counter what many say is a global perception that the Jewish state is to blame for the escalating violence in the Middle East.
At the largest rally in the country, thousands of street demonstrators rallied for Israel in New York on Oct. 12.
Taking their show of support one step further, a “solidarity” mission of several dozen leaders from the Jewish federation and organizational world were heading to Israel this week.
The two-day mission, which was departing Monday night, was organized by the United Jewish Communities and co-sponsored by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
The group planned to meet with both Israeli Jewish and Arab leaders. Meanwhile, Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, planned to send a separate mission Thursday of about a dozen women to “express solidarity with the people of Israel” and to visit their institutions in the Jewish state.
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 at the New York rally 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, a co-sponsor of the event with the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.
“We will not forsake thee, Jerusalem.”
Other Jewish communities turned in out in full force to show they were not forgetting Israel during the current crisis.
In Chicago, an estimated 3,000 people attended a demonstration on Oct. 12, organized by the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation.
Israeli Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg told the rally by satellite from Jerusalem that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat “is a man who wants to make peace wearing his combat uniform.”
“He took the violent alternative and tried to talk the rhetoric of peace with the actions of war.”
Israel, Burg added, “can pursue peace to the end, but we are also a nation that can defend ourselves, and we can do so in a proud manner.”
Pro-Israel events were also held last week in Canada, where close to 5,000 people attended a demonstration in Toronto, and at least 2,500 rallied in Montreal. At the Montreal demonstration, human rights lawyer Irwin Cotler, a member of the ruling government of Jean Chretien, criticized Canada for supporting an Oct. 7 U.N. Security Council resolution that condemned the use of “excessive force” against the Palestinians during the current crisis.
In Los Angeles, more than 1,000 Israelis living in Los Angeles held a rally that appeared to emphasize a longing for peace over anger at Palestinians or the media’s coverage of Israel.
“Live and Let Live” read one sign, while others urged “Put Down the Rocks” and “Stones Also Kill.” On Oct. 12, some 600 people staged a pro-Israel demonstration at the West Valley Jewish Community Center.
In Omaha, a much smaller Jewish community, more than 300 people attended a rally at the local Jewish center.
The rallies taking place in dozens of cities continent-wide indicate that the American Jewish leadership is 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 U.S. Jewish leadership took action. In addition to 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.
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 it why it is that Jews vow each Passover, “Next year in Jerusalem!”
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.
Absorption Minister Yuli Tamir, a member of Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s Cabinet, tried to reassure the New York 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 this week.
“We will pray for peace, but we also know how to fight.”
The demonstration had its share of high-profile American politicians – including 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.
At many of the events around the country, pro-Palestinian demonstrators took to the streets nearby, continuing their protests that have been going on since the violence in the Middle East began late last month.
In New York, thousands of Palestinians took to the streets the day after the pro-Israel event.
In Washington last Friday, Palestinian supporters protesting close to the pro-Israel rally were stopped by police and moved to a different part of Lafayette Park. The Palestinian group then moved in front of the White House and continued to chant anti-Israel slogans, including “Barak, Sharon: How many children have you killed today,” “No Jerusalem, no peace” and “Israel is a terrorist state.”
Beyond the rallies, Burg, the Knesset speaker, launched a two-week United States tour in New York last Friday that he called “one of the most important missions we’ve had in years” – to shore up American Jewish support.
Burg met with activists in UJA-Federation of Greater New York, urging them to help present the Israeli side in the current conflict and to push for fair media coverage of Israel.
“Being strong sometimes is very difficult to explain. It’s a better picture when you’re weak,” he said.
Burg defended the potential inclusion of opposition leader Ariel Sharon into a unity government, a move some critics have said would prevent resuming the peace process.
Israel is a democracy with Sharon a legitimately elected official, said Burg.
Burg also countered criticism from other sides that Israel erred in ceding control of much of Gaza and the West Bank over the past seven years.
“Israel’s ability to make peace will be based on our power, might, economy, army and democracy,” he said, as he interjected a note of optimism. “And we won’t control a hostile population.”
Peace talks may be “put on hold for a while” but will resume eventually, even if not with Arafat, who Burg called “old guard” and “old generation.”
(JTA staff writers Michael J. Jordan and Julie Wiener in New York, and correspondents Sharon Samber and Matthew E. Berger in Washington, Bram Eisenthal in Montreal, Bill Gladstone in Toronto and Tom Tugend in Los Angeles contributed to this report. The Jewish Press in Omaha, the Chicago Jewish News and the JUF News in Chicago also contributed.)