Walking through the crowd at the “Free Iran” rally outside the United Nations this afternoon, one would think the Jewish community had spent a good deal of time, effort and money to provide hundreds of day school and yeshiva students with a summer camp reunion and social hour.
High school girls in long skirts screamed with joy and hugged friends they presumably hadn’t seen in weeks, and clusters of teens chatted animatedly amongst themselves as speaker after speaker from the podium – some of them quite eloquent – spoke about against the hypocrisy of a United Nations assembly that provides a podium, rather than a docket, for leaders like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The turnout at the rally was disappointing (though not surprising) because it was smaller than previous rallies of a similar nature, and because it primarily drew the usual cast of characters at such events: the aforementioned teens, bused in from a number of schools in the metropolitan area, and a disproportionate number of adults from the Orthodox community.
Where is the rest of the Jewish community, particularly those who protest about Darfur and climate control but don’t seem as motivated by the threat of a nuclear Iran wreaking havoc on the free world?
I have great respect for the organizers of the rally, including the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, UJA-Federation of New York, and a host of other mainstream groups. And I share their frustration, which some of them shared with me privately.
They not only reached out to the wider community, hoping that the specter of a nuclear Iran would be recognized as not only a danger to Israel but to the entire Mideast, and the West, especially after the world witnessed the travesty of the presidential election in Iran several months ago.
There was an ecumenical spirit on the podium as Christian as well as Jews addressed the crowd. But one Jewish professional whose group was a sponsor of the rally told me that the non-Jewish groups “are not as organized as we are and can’t attract big numbers.
“And how would it look if Ahmadinejad came to town and we didn’t hold a protest?” he added.
One reason for the disappointing turnout may be that most Americans are sated with foreign policy concerns, mostly centered on Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In addition, the pro-Israel community has been talking up the threat of a nuclear Iran for so many years that their message may have lost credibility to some – although the Obama administration seems to be increasingly concerned.
Some right-wing activists in the Jewish community were upset that the rally focused on the lack of freedom and human rights in Iran rather than on the danger Teheran represents to Israel.
But I thought it was a wise move to broaden the theme – not that it resulted in attracting a wider audience, alas.