Most American Jews may support Ehud Olmert’s troubled West Bank realignment plan, or at least bear their misgivings quietly.
Jonathan Silverman isn’t one of them. The 23-year-old Brooklyn resident stood with the Jews of Amona last spring when they were forcibly evicted from the illegal West Bank settlement and plans more trips to the area to oppose any further removal of settlers.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that you can’t throw Jews out of their homes and hand them over to terrorists,” said Silverman while standing outside the Israeli Consulate here last Thursday with about 110 other protestors.
The turnout was smaller than that of similar protests against last summer’s Gaza disengagement and far smaller than the estimated 700 at a rally in front of the Syrian mission to the United Nations on Monday calling for the release of captured Israeli soldier Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who is believed to be held by forces loyal to Khalid Meshal, the Damascus-based Hamas leader.
Sporting the same orange signs and shirts that marked the unsuccessful demonstrations against last summer’s Gaza disengagement, the protestors last Thursday were angered by a quotation in The Jerusalem Post by Consul General Arye Mekel that, “with all due respect to our brethren in the U.S., it’s not up to them to second guess Israeli democracy and the Israeli voter’s choice.”
The protestors took that to mean they should be silent about Olmert’s plan, which he recently reiterated would go forward despite recent clashes in Gaza and elsewhere.
To the protestors, silence during troubled times seemed a particularly un-Jewish concept and they expressed that sentiment in rhetoric peppered with Holocaust and 9-11 references.
“Silence is a sin,” said Miriam Jaskierwicz-Arman, a Lubavitch music instructor from Brooklyn who spoke at the rally. “The charred bodies of our murdered scream never again. The 2,800 murdered on 9-11 scream never again.”
An organizer of the protest, Reuven Levavi, said he had planned the protest for three weeks. What it lacked in numbers it made up for in passion, with angry chants directed across Second Avenue. Most of the participants were Orthodox, including members of a Hebrew rock band, Eden, which performed songs from their CD, on sale at the site.
Among the speakers were Assemblyman Dov Hikind of Brooklyn, Rabbi David Algaze of Havurat Yisroel congregation in Queens, Helen Freedman of Americans for Safe Israel and Shmuel Sackett, founder of the Jewish militant group Zo Artzenu.
The small turnout may have been a result of summer distraction, but it begs the question of whether protestors on the right have lost their steam after the futile rallies against the Gaza pullout last year. No matter how they may distrust the process of ceding land, most American Jews seem disinclined to second-guess the Jewish state’s elected leadership.
But Hikind, in his remarks, insisted that supporters of Israel should not mistake silence for loyalty or forsake criticism in the name of unity. “If someone in your family is about to commit suicide you don’t stand by and let them jump off a cliff,” said Hikind. He assured every member of the audience that God would take note of their participation.
If clashes between Israel and Hamas continue over the kidnapping and continued rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel, more American Jews may see a more urgent need to speak out as Israel is now forced to return to Gaza to engage militants in a confrontation sparked by the kidnapping of Shalit.
“As I speak to people across the country, most are uncomfortable about [Olmert’s] plan or outright oppose it,” said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, who regularly travels to speak out against the plan. “I think especially in light of the fact that the Gaza has been shown to be a major mistake, increasingly people are opposing it and fewer people are supporting it with real commitment.
“Many people I have spoken to are embarrassed that they supported Gaza.”But Lewis Roth, executive director of Americans for Peace Now, said the degree of support for Olmert will depend on how his plan emerges from the current crisis. If the Gaza pullout failed to bear fruit in the peace process, he said, it is because of poor implementation.
“Those of us who supported the disengagement plan did so with the caveat that it should be done with the coordination with the Palestinians,” said Roth. “But the economic and political loose ends were left dangling … matters were left to fester, which contributed to a situation where Hamas gained politically.”
The final West Bank plan, Roth predicted, “will probably work somewhat differently than [discussed] during the election. And there will be greater interest in it after the situation calms down in Gaza.”
Abandoning the plan altogether, he added, is unlikely. “At the end of the day the demographic threat still holds,” said Roth, referring to Arab population growth that exceeds that of Jews in Israel and the territories. “Israel needs a way to part ways with the territory and the millions of Palestinians who live there. And they have to have a negotiated process to get results.”
At Monday’s anti-Syria rally, just one block up Second Avenue from the Israeli consulate, close to 1,000 protestors filled the street, including teens from Camp Moshava in Pennsylvania and Camp Tel Yehudah in upstate New York who were bused to Manhattan for the event.
Participants made many of the same points about the failure of the Gaza disengagement to bring peace as those who attended the Israeli consulate rally on Thursday. Their ire, however, was directed away from Israel.
“For the first time in the history of the Palestinians it was the Jewish people who turned over, for an independent Palestinian land, the land of Gaza,” said real estate and publishing mogul Mortimer Zuckerman, past chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “And what did they get? … Since then roughly 1,000 rockets have landed … Hamas has turned the Gaza area into a terrorist base.”
Zuckerman was one of several American Jews who contributed millions to purchase greenhouses built by Jewish settlers so they could be used by Palestinian farmers.
Manhattan Rep. Jerrold Nadler said handing over Gaza to the Palestinians “was an opportunity for them to run their own territory and maybe provide a model for a Palestinian state. And wouldn’t it have been nice if they had done that?”
The rally was coordinated by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Jewish Community Relations Council. Similar rallies were held at Syrian offices in Washington, London, Paris and Johannesburg. “Assad and Meshal, stop the terror now,” the crowd chanted, referring to the Palestinian militant and Syrian president Bashar Assad. Because Syria harbors Meshal and controls anti-Israel groups like Hezbollah, many of the speakers made clear that that country should be responsible for Shalit’s fate.
“We know the orders to kidnap Cpl. Shalit came from Damascus,” said Councilman David Weprin of Queens.
“Syria is the controller of all the agents of terror,” said Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.Leonard Petlakh of Russian American Jews for Israel predicted that Israel would retaliate against Assad if Shalit were harmed.
“The Syrian dictator who was so upset that the Israeli Air Force flew over his summer palace should know that the Israeli Air Force knows where he lives in the other seasons as well,” said Petlakh.
But in more reserved and hopeful comments, Rev. Michael Faulkner, founding pastor of Harlem’s New Horizon Church, drew applause when he noted that he has a son about the same age as Shalit, and led the crowd in a prayer to “strengthen him and strengthen his family.”