Israel rally to send broad-based message


NEW YORK, Sept. 10 (JTA) — “Standing together with the people of Israel” may not be the most forceful slogan organizers of this month’s pro-Israel solidarity rally could have devised, but North American Jewish leaders say the pareve message should appeal to all parts of the diverse community.

In an effort to build a wide net of support for the Sept. 23 rally, North American Jewish leaders say organizers purposely chose a noncontroversial message. If they had been more specific — asking for a return to the Oslo peace process or increased U.S. intervention in Israeli-Palestinian relations, for example — part of the coalition of sponsoring organizations might have bolted.

The rally, to be held near U.N. headquarters here, is expected to draw tens of thousands of people from across North America. It will feature speeches by American and Israeli political leaders, including Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and a representative of the Bush administration.

Organizers say about 800 buses already are registered for the rally, with groups planning trips to New York City to attend what is being called one of the most significant gatherings of North American Jews in decades.

Other people are planning to participate in satellite rallies throughout Europe, Australia, Africa, Israel and North America. Some will be linked to the New York event via video link up.

Hundreds of Jewish groups, including JTA, have signed on to support the rally, and their names have been featured in a mass advertising campaign.

“The whole point of the program is the integration and the balance, both in terms of political views and religious balance,” said Arthur Naparstek, vice president of the Israel and Overseas Pillar at the United Jewish Communities and national director of the Israel Now Solidarity Rally. “So it’s around balance that we are focusing on, not siding on one side or the other.”

A diverse array of speakers will express a wide range of views, Naparstek said.

Some Jewish leaders say they worked to ensure that the rally agenda is vague enough not to alienate sectors of the community.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said he raised concerns that the message be broad enough to include all viewpoints American Jews hold on Israel and the causes and tactics of the past year’s violence.

“We thought it was important that the message not just reflect one end of the spectrum, but reflect views from across that spectrum,” Yoffie said. “We were very emphatic; if this was just representing the radical right wing, it would have undermined the purpose of the rally.”

An official with a pro-peace Jewish organization said his group was apprehensive to sign on to the rally because of bad experiences at events in the past year. Since the current wave of Palestinian violence began last September, smaller pro-Israel rallies have been held with messages further to the right than the peace organizations had expected, the official said.

At a rally in New York last October, Jews carrying signs in favor of the peace process were harassed, officials with left-wing organizations said. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) — who in the past had come out in favor of a Palestinian state and who, on a visit to Gaza, had remained impassive as Palestinian first lady Suha Arafat accused Israel of using poison gas against children — was booed as she addressed the crowd.

Organizers say they hope for a different attitude at this rally, with people coming together under a unifying message.

Indeed, the rally’s Web site, sponsored by UJC, lists suggested slogans for signs. All have a pro-Israel message, including “Our Hearts Are With Israel” and “I Stand With Israel.” The only suggestion that addresses violence in the region is one saying “Stop the Terror.”

“These are messages that are very important at this time because Israel is under attack and Jewish communities around the world are under attack,” Naparstek said. “It’s a message that something very serious is going on, and Jews have to pay attention.”

Naparstek sees the rally as the start of a pro-Israel revitalization among American Jews.

It also will kick off a new solidarity initiative and fund-raising drive called “Israel Now” designed to increase North American Jews’ connection to the Jewish state.

“Too many American Jews haven’t been as strongly connected to Israel as in the past,” Naparstek said. “This is an attempt to build towards that, and I think people are beginning on their own.”

Naparstek said the rally also hopes to send a pro-Israel message to the United Nations, whose General Assembly session commences a day later.

Rally organizers also will express gratitude to the Bush administration for its actions in recent months, specifically walking out of the U.N. Conference Against Racism last week after the forum in South Africa became stridently anti-Israel.

However, the rally will not take a stand on some of the major issues in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians — including Israeli settlements or Israel’s policy of “targeted killings” of leading Palestinian militants — because the North American Jewish community is divided on these issues.

Some supporting organizations are concerned that the rally’s message is not political enough.

The Zionist Organization of America was one of only a few Jewish organizations that declined to sponsor a rally for Prime Minister Shimon Peres at Madison Square Garden shortly after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. ZOA National President Morton Klein said he did not support the rally because it favored continuing with the Oslo peace process, which the ZOA opposed.

ZOA is sponsoring this year’s rally, but Klein said he is disappointed that the message does not specifically mention support for the positions of the Sharon unity government.

“This rally should unequivocally state, ‘We support the government of Israel,’ ” Klein said. “I think all of the governments around the world expect the Jews to show solidarity with the State of Israel. It would be more worthwhile to show support for the government.”

Klein said he does not think this year’s rally sends a clear message, in contrast to a massive 1987 Washington rally for Soviet Jewry that focused on the slogan “Let Our People Go.”

Meanwhile, some Jews on the far left and some Arab groups are expected to participate in counter-protests on the day of the rally.

American Jewish leaders acknowledge that the Israel rally’s message is broad and a bit simplistic, but say that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Yoffie said reaffirming the North American Jewish community’s solidarity with Israel is like prayer — doing it often does not decrease its value.

“In a sense it’s like a religious ritual,” Yoffie said. “You do rituals again and again.”

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