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In Rallies Held Across the Country, U.S. Jews Pledge Support for Israel

March 26, 2002
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“The solidarity of Jews in Israel and Jews in the Diaspora is what makes us invincible,” Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told thousands of Jews in a live simulcast as pro-Israel gatherings were held in more than 100 communities across North America on Sunday.

Eighteen months into the intifada, the Palestinians are carrying out daily terror attacks against Israel, the Jewish state faces pressure and denunciation in nearly every world forum and anti-Semitism has increased around the globe.

That leaves many Diaspora Jews not just eager to show their support for the Jewish state, but desperate for some inspiration themselves.

Sunday’s “We Stand with Israel” gatherings, sponsored by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the United Jewish Communities and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, aimed to do just that.

Speaking just a few days before Passover, Sharon described Israel’s long struggle for deliverance from its enemies and offered hope for renewed freedom through Jewish unity.

“United, we can make Israel the center of Jewish life for generations to come,” he said.

“Israel is a peace-seeking nation,” Sharon continued. “My government and I are committed to achieving a lasting, durable peace with security, but our neighbors must recognize our right to live peacefully in our homeland.”

More strident attacks on the Palestinians came from New York’s two Democratic U.S. senators, Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer, who addressed the nearly 1,000 attendants at the main gathering in Manhattan, which was broadcast to the other communities.

In nearby Queens, an outdoor rally drew some 2,000 people.

“I want to be very clear about this. The responsibility for the violence and the collapse of the Camp David and Taba discussions rests only with” Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, Clinton said, referring to peace efforts that came when her husband was president.

“He has failed as a leader, he has been unable and unwilling to reign in the forces of violence and terrorism, and he leaves a trail of violated vows and death along a path that could have and should have led to peace and life.”

Clinton linked Israel’s war on terror to America’s, said America should not “dictate” to Israel how to act in self- defense, called on Europe to recognize the threat from the Palestinian Authority’s alliance with Iran and said Arafat still could help end violence by condemning it forcefully in both English and Arabic.

“Jews and non-Jews alike understand that when we stand up for Israel, we’re standing up for fundamental human rights, democracy and America,” she concluded, to a standing ovation.

Clinton and Schumer were among 52 senators who wrote to President Bush last Friday asking that Vice President Dick Cheney not meet with Arafat until the Palestinian leader takes action against terrorism.

The live telecast linked the audience to Florida, where Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel took a hard line.

The conflict is not about geography but history, he said.

The Palestinian goal, he said, is ” to establish a Palestinian state, not like Israel, but instead of Israel.”

Later, the simulcast switched to Jerusalem, where a CNN-style report moved between Moment Cafe — whose proprietor said he would reopen the popular haunt after a devastating recent terrorist attack — and the Hadassah Hospital bedside of a victim of that attack.

Maimon Amsellam, 29, was in too much pain to look directly into the camera from underneath his Chicago White Sox cap, but he told the cameras how his friend, Avi, hadn’t been lucky enough to survive.

Cantor Dov Keren from Sutton Place synagogue in New York chanted a memorial prayer while the screen flashed the faces of Israeli terror victims.

They included Transportation Minister Rehavam Ze’evi — assassinated by Palestinian terrorists last October — and Shalhevet Pass, a 10-month-old baby shot by a Palestinian sniper in March 2001 while with her family in Hebron.

For the most part, the event met the crowd’s expectations.

“I felt like there was a measure and a degree of unity that transcended” politics, and “that was refreshing, enlightening and a source of hope and inspiration,” said Cheston Mizel, 27.

“I came because it gives voice to what I’ve been feeling,” said Ryan Lifchitz, 28. The gathering “brings us all a step closer to true unification.”

Yet the event lacked one important element, Lifchitz said — young people, both on stage and in the audience.

Still, most people felt moved by the rally.

“I think that everyone walked out of here far more inspired than they walked in. And that was the whole point of it,” said Roberta Elliott, national public affairs director for Hadassah. “It worked.”

Communities ranged in their responsiveness.

While nearly 500 people came to an event in Atlanta, only about 50 gathered in Los Angeles.

Some 100 people attended an Israel advocacy workshop in Boston, 60 and 150 people attended two gatherings in Chicago, 300 joined in San Francisco, 170 met in St. Paul, Minn., and more than 400 assembled in Miami.

In the Washington area, some 500 people heard a call to action from leaders of the local Jewish community and Israel’s ambassador to the United States at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Md.

“Now more than ever,” Israel “needs your continuing support,” Ambassador David Ivry said.

“Now is the time to advocate on behalf of Israel in our communities, in the Congress and the media. It is the time now to visit Israel. It is the time now to buy Israeli products.”

In Milwaukee, federation president Allen Samson said that such events “allow us to learn from each other and from national figures about how to remain strong through this difficult period.”

“When we as a community stand with Israel now, we will be able to say we stood with Israel now and forever,” added the federation’s general campaign chair, Jody Kaufman Loewenstein.

In Cherry Hill, N.J., a largely right-wing crowd of about 250 people turned out for the Jewish Community Relations Council’s 27th Mideast Institute, which had been planned before the national solidarity event.

The community also is planning a week of Israel solidarity activities beginning April 18.

State Department official Stuart Seldowitz told the Cherry Hill crowd that the question on everyone’s mind is whether Arafat is “still a relevant partner in the peace process.”

His own instinct, Seldowitz said, is to “wait and see — there is hope.”

Foreign policy analyst Mitchell Bard was more pessimistic, arguing that not only is Arafat not a partner for peace now, but “he never was.”

“We stand with Israel, defending the ground that is Israel today,” said Cisneros, who added that he visited Israel last August and plans “to stand again in Israel” before the end of the year.

In the state capital of Austin, close to 300 people gathered at the Dell Jewish Community Campus.

Before the simulcast, the crowd did Israeli folk dances, donated funds to Magen David Adom and heard speeches from local spiritual leaders.

When the faces of Israeli terror victims were shown, one community member commented, “It was then I remembered that in a way these were my parents, my children, my brothers and my sisters.”

In Toronto, more than 2,000 people, including a spirited youth contingent, gathered outdoors in chilly weather to hear Yule Edelstein, Israel’s deputy minister of immigrant absorption, who had flown in from Israel for the day.

Many waved large Israeli flags and held placards supporting Israel and condemning terrorism. Even a little terrier named Samba sported an Israeli flag in its collar.

Shirley Marcel, who would otherwise have been home preparing for a seder and two Passover meals with her children and grandchildren, said it was “definitely more important” to be at the rally.

“I’ll have one cake less,” she said.

Nearly 200 people — more than twice the number who had registered in advance — turned out for Detroit’s event.

“We may not agree on every Israeli action or policy, but this transcends whatever our particular issues might be,” said Richard Carson of Farmington Hills, Mich.

“This is about Jews. We need to come together in support of Israel.”

His feelings were seconded by Valeric Sirloin of Bloomfield Hills, who went on two Israel missions last year and will go on another this spring.

“It is very easy to be friends when things are good,” she said of Israel, “but when things are bad they need us, and we need to go.”

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