For the first time since the Six-Day War in 1967, Jewish leaders are calling for an emergency national Israel Solidarity rally in Washington to take place Monday.
With the decision to hold the rally made just a week before the event, dozens of national Jewish groups — from Reform to Orthodox, from right wing to left — were working feverishly to mobilize their members.
They were hoping to motivate tens of thousands of people to take the extraordinary step of assembling in the nation’s capital on a weekday afternoon as a major show of support for Israel, as well as for President George W. Bush’s war against global terrorism.
“There is a widespread feeling in the Jewish community that the very existence of Israel is at issue,” declared Mortimer Zuckerman, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the premier American Jewish umbrella group that consists of 52 national groups.
The Presidents Conference is spearheading the rally following the inspiration of Riverdale Rabbi Avi Weiss, who organized a successful pro-Israel rally in Manhattan last Sunday that drew more than 10,000.
“Everybody is on board,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference.
Hoenlein said Tuesday the purpose of going to Washington is to “show solidarity with Israel at a critical time for the people of Israel so they will know they are not alone.”
But it is also to send a political message to the Bush administration and Congress that “Israel, like us, has a right to defend itself against terrorism and is part of the same war against the global terrorism infrastructure.”
Nevertheless, conference leaders carefully stressed the rally is not to attack Bush, whom Zuckerman praised as “the greatest friend that Israel has ever had in the White House.”
With events moving so swiftly, and many details still being worked out at press time, officials could not answer some key questions — for instance, who would be funding the rally, who would be speaking, and how many people organizers hoped would come.
Names of speakers being bandied about included former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
“We don’t know how we’ll pay for it, but we’ll find a way,” Hoenlein said.
The rally will be held near the Capitol, he said.
Steve Bayme, a Jewish history expert at the American Jewish Committee, said Monday’s rally is similar to the one he attended on June 8, 1967 — in the midst of the Six-Day War — because of the feeling of “real anxiety” about the future of the State of Israel.
Bayme said holding the rally in Washington sends an important statement to the political echelons “that American Jewry stands with Israel, and Israel and America are tightly woven together.
He noted a major rally for Soviet Jewry was held in the Capitol in December 1987, but it did not have the same sense of urgency.
At Monday’s Presidents Conference meeting, some members wanted to wait until April 23, to coincide with a conference by AIPAC, the leading pro-Israel lobbying group.
But ADL national director Abraham Foxman argued it was urgent to hold the rally sooner, and time it with Secretary of State Colin Powell’s return from his Mideast negotiations.
Hoenlein said the reason for holding the rally on a workday rather than a Sunday was to have a show of support for Israel while members of Congress and the administration were at work.
Zuckerman, a prominent real estate developer and publisher of U.S. News & World Report and the New York Daily News, said the rally will be “an ecumenical gathering.” He planned on inviting religious leaders “from across the spectrum, including Catholic, Protestant and Evangelical communities, and also leaders of various ethnic groups in our country.”
But Foxman characterized the rally as primarily a manifestation of the Jewish community in solidarity with Israel.
He said it was essential for political leaders inside the Beltway — inundated with pro-Palestinian demonstrations around the world — to see a pro-Israel event. He said it was also essential for Jews, “who are very frustrated and want to do something.”
On Tuesday, Presidents Conference religious organizations were busy sending e-mails and contacting local chapters to get the word out, but also sharing concerns about the shortness of time.
“The Conservative movement is going to mobilize everything it possibly can through its regional offices throughout the Eastern seaboard,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “We all know the reason why it’s going to be difficult, that’s why we are working even harder.”
“There are some practical logistical concerns because of the last-minute nature of this,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement. “My hope is everybody is working very hard and hopefully we will pull it off in time.”
Rabbi Yoffie said he did not know about the content of the rally yet, but said he received assurances from conference organizers that the rally would not refer to hot-button issues that divide the Jewish community, such as the dismantling of West Bank settlements, but instead would “focus on those issues where there is consensus.”
United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group for North America’s Jewish federations, signed onto the rally Tuesday. UJC vice president Gail Hyman said the group was working the phones and e-mail Tuesday “to mobilize participation through the federation system and the JCRC [Jewish Community Relations Council] system. Right now we’re focused on getting the word out urging communities to participate, with particular emphasis along the Northeast corridor.
Young Israel executive director Rabbi Pesach Lerner said Tuesday his Orthodox organization was “getting out the word to every shul in our system, and e-mailing our entire list of thousands — not just the East Coast. “We are putting together regional area lists of bus companies, so people who want to rent have it at their fingertips.
“We will do everything we can to get the word out. The Israeli population is giving up a lot more than one day of work. The least we can do is give up a few hours and a few dollars.”
A spokesman for Agudath Israel of America said the fervently Orthodox group would not endorse the rally. He said Agudah only backs events “where we are setting the tone.”
Rabbi Avi Weiss, who for months has been calling for an Israel solidarity rally in Washington — and getting rebuffed by the establishment American Jewish community — appeared to prove his case Sunday when thousands poured into United Nations Plaza for a demonstration he organized.
Rabbi Weiss, head of Amcha-the Coalition for Jewish Concerns, said Tuesday the rally’s main message is to tell the world “there is no moral equivalency between cold-blooded murder and self-defense.”
True to his activist status, Rabbi Weiss parted from conference leaders and said that President Bush must be told he is wrong to call for Israel to withdraw from its anti-terrorism military operation.
“The president is saying this because he thinks it’s in America’s best interests, but in fact it’s in America’s worst interests. Because if Israel is not permitted to finish the job, and Arafat’s terrorist infrastructure isn’t shattered, his new instruments of terror will spread throughout the world and suicide bombers will strap on explosives and come here,” Rabbi Weiss said.
At Sunday’s demonstration, Israel supporters wended their way from the Israeli Consulate on 42nd Street and Second Avenue to Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, an open square at 47th Street and Second Avenue adjacent to the UN.
Andrew Cuomo, seeking to become the Democratic nominee in November’s race for governor, called for the rescinding of the Nobel Peace Prize given to Arafat in 1993. He was loudly applauded.
On a cold sunlit day, young men with earrings walked alongside others with earlocks and long black coats; multigenerational families walked together in a gathering that drew Jews from across the spectrum of religiosity. Handmade placards ranged from angry and ironic (“Arafat: Don’t Keep Your 72 Virgins Waiting”) to multilayered and poignant (“When the Palestinian People Stand Up to Their Leader, Israel Won’t Have To”).
One sign carried the words of Golda Meir: “There Will Be Peace When the Arabs Love Their Children More Than They Hate the Jews.”
Some came because of anti-Israel demonstrations and the recent rise in acts of anti-Semitism in countries such as France.
“I think people saw anti-Israel rallies all over the world and woke up,” said Gil Margulis, 32, a New Jersey entrepreneur. “We [American Jews] are here today making a pure statement from the heart to Israeli Jews that we support you, we are behind you, we are with you.”
Judy Schneck, 49, a teacher from Livingston, N.J., carrying a sign that said “We Want Peace,” explained that she supports Sharon’s policies because at this point she believes there is no immediate alternative to protect Israeli lives.
“If the terrorists among the Palestinians would stop killing Jews, we could talk, but they refuse to stop killing Jews, so they haven’t given us any other options,” she said.
On Monday about 500 people attended a 90-minute Israel solidarity rally in front of the PLO Mission on the Upper East Side sponsored by the New York Board of Rabbis. It drew rabbis from all denominations.
In between singing Hebrew songs and prayers, the rabbis denounced the suicide bombings.
“We belong to different communities but we stand here as one,” said Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, the board’s president.
“This is not Jews against Islam. This is about decent people against indecent people,” he said. “Young children are not born to become suicide bombers, one must teach them.”
Heather Robinson contributed to this story.