More than 100,000 Jews from across America converged on the U.S. Capitol for a rally expressing solidarity with Israel this week, and by and large they got what they came for.
Participants’ political opinions spanned the spectrum of American Jewish life, but most speakers at Monday’s event kept to the central — and consensus — theme of standing with Israel and fighting terrorism.
Security was tight as local police officers searched the bags of all guests as they crossed through two major checkpoints leading to the front of the Capitol, where the program was held beneath a sweltering sun.
Access was tightly controlled once the program began. Many people who arrived late to the 1 p.m. event because of delayed bus arrivals were not admitted to the central site.
Less strictly controlled was the rhetoric of speakers at the podium.
Mortimer Zuckerman, chairman of the Conference of Presidents, said there was a deliberate effort to allow all voices to be heard.
“We were happy to invite people from the Labor Party and Likud,” he told JTA. “We’re not going to censor their message.”
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the United Jewish Communities threw the rally together in less than a week, as the Bush administration began pressuring Israel to end its military incursion into the West Bank and try again to strike a deal with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.
Audience members were reminded again and again of the terrorist threat Israel faces.
Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel condemned suicide bombings, warning that terrorism knows no boundaries.
“There is no sacred cause that justifies suicide bombings,” Wiesel said.
Some called for more American engagement as a way to move out of the present impasse.
The crowd responded loudly.
Official signs included “I Stand with Israel for Peace,” “U.S. and Israel — United Against Terror,” and Israel’s Fight = America’s Fight.”
The familiar speech ending of “God Bless America” was changed a number of times to “God Bless America and Israel.”
The audience was less receptive when reminded of the Palestinians’ plight.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, the sole representative of the Bush administration at the rally, told the crowd that “innocent Palestinians are suffering and dying as well. It is critical that we recognize and acknowledge that fact.”
Wolfowitz was booed and drowned out by chants of “No More Arafat.”
Conservative views were better received. Mention of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon — criticized by some left-wing groups for Israel’s military operation in the West Bank — brought cheers from the crowd.
A Christian radio talk show host received roars of approval when she said, “We will never give up the Golan! We will never divide Jerusalem!”
A number of Christian groups sounded their support for the Jewish state.
“We stand with you,” said Sister Rose Theiring, the founder of the National Christian Leadership Council for Israel. “Never again can we abandon Jews.”
Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Arafat the “quintessential terrorist” and said Israel could not make peace with Arafat because the Palestinian leader doesn’t want real peace.
“Arafat does not want a Palestinian state next to Israel, he wants a Palestinian state instead of Israel,” Netanyahu said.
Netanyahu called for the dismantling of Arafat’s regime and said other Palestinians will rise up to take leadership positions “once terrorism is defeated.”
The charismatic Netanyahu had the crowd shouting and cheering.
“Americans know Yasser Arafat is nothing more than Osama bin Laden with good public relations,” he said.
William Bennett, a well-known conservative and chairman of Americans for Victory Over Terrorism, said Israel should be allowed to fight its war against terror, and Americans will benefit.
Monday’s rally was believed to be the largest gathering of Jews in Washington since the rally for Soviet Jewry in December 1987, which drew more than 200,000.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents, told the audience at one point that Monday’s crowd was approaching 200,000 people, but other organizers said a more realistic estimate was more than 100,000 people.
The precise number of participants may never be known, since Capitol Police and other law enforcement groups stopped counting the number of visitors for large events several years ago.
The swarm of visitors created havoc not only for Washington commuters, but for travelers throughout the Northeast Corridor. Congestion resulted in long lines on Metro trains and delays on major roads.
Dan Nichols, spokesman for the Capitol Police, said major backups were reported on New York Avenue, a major entranceway to Washington from the Northeast.
The Metro subway lines had more than 50,000 riders above normal Monday. The Metro station closest to the Capitol building had to be closed to all people trying to exit trains at around 3:15, spokesman Steven Taubenkibel said.
The number of buses entering RFK Stadium exceeded the 1,100 capacity, so Abe Pollin, owner of the Washington Wizards and Capitals and a Jewish philanthropist, allowed overflow buses to go to U.S. Airways Arena, which he owns.
Given the short planning time and the multiplicity of views in the Jewish community, advocates for dovish and hawkish viewpoints both had expressed apprehension about the message before the event.
Groups like Americans for Peace Now wanted the rally to focus on support for the Israeli state and people, but not the policies of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
The Zionist Organization of America was concerned that the message would not be supportive enough of Israel’s military incursions.
In the end, leaders for both groups said they were satisfied with the results.
“It seems like people stuck to what the guideposts were for the event,” said Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now.
“The message of the rally is very clear, standing with Israel,” said Richard Heideman, president of B’nai B’rith International. “People can choose however they want to stand with Israel by themselves.”
Israel’s Minister of Housing Natan Sharansky glossed over the differences in message from the speakers or the crowd.
“We are not fighting for one or another political solution,” Sharansky told JTA. “We are fighting for our existence.”
Rallies held in Rome, Berlin
in show of support for Israel ROME, April 15 (JTA) — Along with a massive rally held in Washington that drew more than 100,000 people, pro- Israel demonstrations also were held this week in Rome and Berlin.
Some 15,000 to 20,000 people converged Monday evening on Rome’s historic Campidoglio city hall and then marched in silence, single file, to the city’s towering main synagogue in the old Jewish Ghetto a few hundreds yards away.
There they placed pebbles in memory of the Israelis who have died in terrorist attacks.
Held under the slogan “Israel Must Live,” the demonstration was marked by a sea of Israeli flags. Leaflets showing a photograph of an Israeli and a Palestinian child walking with their arms around each other were handed out.
Like its counterparts in Washington and Berlin, the Rome rally was designed to show support for Israel and protest anti-Semitic attacks in Europe.
Rally organizers also said they wanted to protest what they feel is an anti-Israel bias in public opinion and the media.
“Our purpose is to demonstrate our support for the survival of Israel,” Valeriano Giorgi, one of the organizers of Israel Day, told JTA. “We also believe in the right of Palestinians to have a state. At the moment, however, public opinion is unbalanced.”
In Berlin, some 2,000 Jews and non-Jews gathered Sunday for what was believed to be the largest pro-Israel demonstration ever held in the German capital.
The event, organized by non-Jewish groups and endorsed by several Jewish communal organizations, took place in an atmosphere heated by a spate of recent attacks against Jews and Jewish sites in Germany, and against the backdrop of increasing anti-Semitic violence in France.
The rally followed by one day the largest pro-Palestinian demonstration Berlin has ever seen. The hate-filled tone of some slogans and posters at that march contributed to a growing concern on the part of German Jews for their safety.
Virtually all the speakers at Sunday’s pro-Israel demonstration lashed out against what they called the betrayal of Israel by German media and politicians at Israel’s time of need. They also expressed frustration that attacks on Israel are not criticized, while Israeli retaliation is.
The demonstrators gathered at the Hackescher Market in the former East Berlin to hear speeches by Jewish and non-Jewish activists and politicians, Jewish community leaders and non-Jewish clergy. Berlin rabbis Yitzchak Ehrenberg, Chaim Rozwaski and Yehudah Teichtel were among the attendees.
The Israeli Embassy did not officially participate, but several members of the Knesset, in Berlin for meetings with members of the Social Democratic Party, did attend, as did two German legislators.
Waving Israeli flags, the marchers walked along Oranienburgerstrasse, past the New Synagogue and the busy restaurants and cafes in the newly chic neighborhood. The demonstration ended with the singing of Israeli songs.
Passersby stopped to watch the unusual scene, taking place in a country where Jews are a subject of curiosity, a trigger of many conflicting emotions, and more often than not invisible.
Julius Lippert, 66, said he found the demonstration “very good, because we should show solidarity with Israel.”
“Everyone beats up on Israel,” said Lippert, who stumbled on the demonstration on his way home from a lecture at the Catholic Academy. “Israel is a small democracy surrounded by around 100 million Arabs. It is very important that we deal with this minority properly. Including us Germans. Because we have something to make up for.”
Rome’s Israel Day rally was believed to be the first pro-Israel demonstration in Italy whose organizers are not from within the Jewish community.
The driving force behind the rally was the newspaper Il Foglio. A group of prominent Italian intellectuals and political figures launched the initiative last week with an appeal headlined in Il Foglio affirming that “Israel must live. Its existence is a token of universal memory.
“In a world without Israel, the most powerful testimony of the last century in favor of human rights would be uprooted,” it said. “The defense of the Jewish state and of the Israeli people, of their lives and their security, is above any political and ideological division. Anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are the most hateful face of modern intolerance.”
Members of Italy’s 35,000-member Jewish community said they were heartened by the demonstration. Many Jews from elsewhere in the country came to Rome in special buses to take part.
“This march was very important,” said Roberto Jarach, president of the Milan Jewish community. “It’s significant that we see so many people in Italy who feel close to Israel.”
“It makes me feel much better, much less alone,” said Raffaella, a 30-year-old member of the Rome Jewish community. “We really feel united.”
Since late last week, Il Foglio has published scores of statements from political, cultural and other prominent figures declaring their support for the rally.
Israel Day supporters came from across the political spectrum, from left-wing parties to the National Alliance, a right-wing party with neo-fascist roots.
The only major gaps were expressions of support from the main leftwing trade union movement and the Roman Catholic Church.
A number of people voiced support for Israel but at the same time criticized Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s policies and voiced their support for Palestinian aspirations.
“Supporting Israel Day is an obligation also for those who, like me, believe in the legitimacy of a Palestinian state,” said Enzo Lo Presti, a National Alliance member of Parliament. “But this cannot and must not happen with attacks and damage to civilians.”
Repercussions from the Middle East conflict have polarized Italy and have had a deep impact on local politics.
Like other European countries, Italy backs the formation of a Palestinian state and has been sharply critical of Israel’s policies since the intifada began in September 2000.
Much of the media, too, have demonstrated what Jewish observers see as a clear bias.
The criticism of Israel has mounted sharply since its current military incursions into the West Bank began in late March.
One recent political cartoon in La Stampa newspaper showed the baby Jesus in a manger, threatened by an Israeli tank, and saying, “They don’t want to get rid of me again, do they?”
Leftist parties have bitterly attacked the Sharon government and its policies, and the media and public opinion also have shifted to a sharper anti-Israel stance.
Italian pacifists have embraced the Palestinian cause, and a permanent camp of pro-Palestinian demonstrators has been set up just off central Rome’s main square, Piazza Venezia.
The Israel Day rally came in direct reaction to a leftwing “peace demonstration” in Rome on April 6 that turned into a display of anti-Israel invective so vicious that most political organizations that sponsored it withdrew before the event ended.
During that rally, youths dressed as suicide bombers marched alongside participants carrying placards equating Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon with Hitler.
Last Friday, the fiery Italian writer Orianna Fallaci entered the fray with a brutally worded, no-holds-barred indictment of Italy, Italians, the Catholic Church, the left wing and Europeans in general for abandoning Israel and fomenting a “shameful” new wave of anti-Semitism.
Fallaci, who long held pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli views, declared herself “disgusted with the anti-Semitism of many Italians, of many Europeans” and “ashamed of this shame that dishonors my country and Europe.”
Her incendiary article was the cover story of the newsweekly Panorama.
The magazine, however, also featured a political cartoon by the same artist who drew the cartoon of Baby Jesus and the Israeli tank.
This one showed the pope, crucified against flames and bursting bombs.
“How’s this?” he says, referring to the ongoing Israeli siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where 200 Palestinian gunmen have been holed up for some two weeks.
“You fire on the house where my God was born, you shoot at his tomb, you target the statue of his mother, you terrorize my priests and my nuns in order to get ride of a handful of Palestinian ragamuffins…
“And if I protest, you call me an anti-Semite??!!”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.