Even as the Bush administration weighs how to deal with Yasir Arafat, New York’s two U.S. senators blamed him completely for the current Mideast violence and asserted Sunday that America stands firmly with Israel, equating Washington’s war on terrorism with Israel’s struggle against the Palestinians.
“The U.S. and Israel face a common threat, “Sen. Hillary Clinton told a packed auditorium at the 92nd Street Y. It is “unimaginable,” she said, that America could win its war against terrorism abroad “without helping Israel to win its war at home.”
A few moments earlier Sen. Charles Schumer told the audience that Arafat and his PLO practice the same terror as Osama bin Laden, and that America shares Israel’s pain and will never abandon the Jewish state.
The Democratic lawmakers received equally enthusiastic applause from the more than 900 people at an invitation-only program sponsored by the United Jewish Communities, the UJA-Federation of New York, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.
The program was part of a live hook-up linking 100 communities across North America with Jerusalem under the banner “We Stand With Israel Now and Forever,” a show of solidarity with the Jewish state.
A number of Jewish leaders spoke, including Nobel Peace laureate Elie Wiesel, who called Arafat a “liar” who is “ready to turn a million Palestinians into martyrs” and who “brings dishonor to the award [the Nobel Peace Prize] given to him prematurely in Oslo.”
Wiesel said Israel has “endured threats” before “but suicide killers present a new dimension of horror,” noting the Palestinians have a “passion and obsession with death” while Israel values life and seeks peace.
Indeed, if there is angst among American Jews about Israel’s strategy or behavior in responding to Palestinian terror, it was not evident from the more than a dozen speakers, many of whom singled out Arafat as a terrorist who refuses to negotiate sincerely.
Clinton was particularly forceful. “Make no mistake,” she said, “Israel defends herself because she has no alternative,” and the responsibility “rests solely on the shoulders of Yasir Arafat.”
“I want to be very clear,” she continued, “that the responsibility for the collapse of Camp David and Taba rests only with Arafat. He has failed as a leader.”
A key feature of the two-hour program was a live segment from the site of the Moment Cafe in Jerusalem, where a suicide bomber killed 11 Israelis several weeks ago. The owner, Yoram Cohen, pledged to reopen soon. His remarks were in the spirit of all the Israelis interviewed — including a woman with two children in the army and the mother of a newborn — who spoke of their determination to live their lives as normally as possible despite the ongoing fear over terror attacks.
“Life is difficult here but Jerusalem is alive and kicking,” said Mayor Ehud Olmert. “Nothing will break the spirit of Jerusalem.”
Acknowledging that “there is no magic formula to stop terror overnight,” he said Israelis have to be strong. “Pain must not be mistaken for weakness,” Olmert said.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in his taped remarks, said Israel is fighting “a war imposed on us by the Palestinian Authority and Yasir Arafat,” and praised President George Bush for his “close friendship” with Israel. Sharon said Israel relies on diaspora Jewry and aims to bring a million Jews on aliyah in the next decade from Argentina, South Africa and France — three countries where Jews are under stress — as well as North America.
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, in a taped interview, said, “peace is possible” because Israel “has no alternative” to living with the Palestinians.
Emmanuel Nahshon, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, acknowledged Israel has an image problem in the media, which he said was the result of the “cynical use of world media” by the Palestinians. He said Israel is “fighting it daily” and allows for a free press, even if that adds to Israel’s negative image, because “we’re a democracy.”
Conceived and planned in less than two weeks, the Sunday gathering was designed to give voice to American Jewry’s anguish and support for Israel at a time when many feel helpless. Officials said the goal was not to attract massive numbers but to show unity and connect communities in North America with Israel.
Among the more poignant moments of the program was the chanting of the prayer for the dead by Cantor Dov Keren of the Sutton Place Synagogue while the overhead screen flashed the names, ages and smiling faces of young Israeli victims.
Rabbi Binny Friedman, a former company commander in the Israeli army and current educational director of Israelight, recalled being in the Sbarro pizza store when a suicide bomber blew it up last August. He asked the audience to be mindful when opening the door for Elijah, during the seder, of the many families who will have empty chairs at home, victims of the terror. And he underscored the pain and confusion of Israelis who live with fear every day.
“What do I say to my 7-year-old son,” he asked, “when he hugs me tight and says, ‘Promise me you won’t die.’ ”
An archived Web cast of the solidarity gathering in New York may be viewed on the UJC site (www.ujc.org).