They came this time in twos and threes, with spouses, children and grandchildren, with small groups of friends — all in the hope of sending a message that American Jews stand with Israel in its battle with Hamas, the faction of Islamic militants that rules Gaza.
While pro-Israel rallies are normally fueled by busloads of day school students, synagogue members and those affiliated with other Jewish organizations, Sunday’s rally in New York seemed to draw most of its 10,000 participants from neighborhoods, villages and towns throughout the metropolitan area, an impression confirmed by organizers of the event.
“I can’t remember a rally of this nature in the middle of the winter,” said Michael S. Miller, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. “But we had no choice,” he added, referring to the event’s emergency nature.
Miller said that past rallies, usually held during a weekday and, more often than not, national in scope, have drawn as many as 80 buses. “But for this rally,” he said, “you got 20 buses.” Most of the participants emerged from subway stations, commuter-railroad stations and local, city buses to fill nearly two blocks of East 42nd Street, from Second Avenue to Lexington Avenue — close to the Israeli Consulate.
The rally’s main sponsors, JCRC and UJA-Federation of New York, began organizing the event on Tuesday, Jan. 6, leaving them only two-and-a-half days to put the demonstration together, Miller said. Organized in conjunction with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organization, the rally drew more than 100 co-sponsors, both large and small.
To Miller and others, the coming together of so many people on such short notice points to a reinvigorated Jewish community. Also telling, in their view, are that it drew more than a dozen elected officials, including New York Gov. David Paterson and U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, and that those on stage represented a cross-section of the city’s ethnic groups.
“The enthusiasm you see here you haven’t seen in many years,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Presidents Conference, as the crowd around him cheered one of the speakers. Hoenlein attributed the response to the ability of most people to relate to Israel.
They understand Israel “has shown incredible patience” through the years, even as Hamas has fired thousands of Kassam rockets at Israeli towns, Hoenlein said. They also realize that “Israel’s intentions are pure.”
Off stage, though, few black, Latino or Asian faces could be seen among the rally-goers, and with the heavy winter clothing most people were wearing, it was difficult to tell how much of the crowd was Orthodox and how much was non-Orthodox or secular. Modern Orthodox and fervently Orthodox Jews have made up sizeable portions, if not most, of the crowds that have turned out for previous rallies.
In addition, there were indications from some quarters that many Jews, disturbed by the climbing death toll among civilians in Gaza, were indifferent to the rally or opposed to it. The rabbi of one congregation said Monday that, although he endorsed the rally, a good number of congregants stayed away because of the “nationalistic” fervor they associate with such events.
Some observers have said that the Jewish community only reacts in times of crisis and that it takes a conflict, like the one in Gaza, to create turnouts like the one on Sunday. But Janice Shorenstein, president of JCRC, rejected that thinking, saying that it takes only a real concern.
“I think people are fed up,” Shorenstein said. One of their frustrations, she added, stemmed from the eight years of Hamas rockets landing in Israel, even after Israel evacuated soldiers and Jewish settlers from Gaza in 2005. And yet she also discerned a certain pride and hopefulness among those attending the rally.
“They’re hopeful that Hamas will be brought to its knees,” Shorenstein said, sounding a defiant note. “They’re proud of the strength Israel has shown.”
Paterson, among the event’s three-dozen speakers, said he experienced a Kassam missile attack during a recent visit to Israel.
“We recognize the right of the State of Israel to protect itself,” the governor said, adding that Hamas’ charter “calls for the obliteration” of the country.
Like other speakers and like hundreds of his listeners, Paterson wore a red cap, signifying the “red alerts” that residents of southern Israel hear each time a Kassam rocket is fired. In the case of Sderot, whose residents have suffered the vast majority of attacks, the alert tells them they have 15 seconds to seek shelter before the missile lands. Organizers distributed the caps as the rally began.
Schumer referred to the caps in his speech, saying that he and others vow that the red hats “will not have to be worn year after year, ever again. The rockets will have to stop.”
Later, Schumer said, “To the Palestinian people we say that Israel wants to live in peace with you, but not with Hamas. Israel is not your enemy — Hamas is.”
Schumer wasn’t alone in addressing the Palestinians, nor was he the only speaker to suggest that Israel is not at war with Palestinian civilians, but with Hamas.
Delivering one of the day’s most impassioned speeches, Sheldon Silver, speaker of the New York State Assembly, asked: “How many Israelis must be injured or killed before it’s all right to fight back? In the twisted minds of Hamas terrorists,” he said, “there will never be enough fighting, there will never be enough blood, there will never be enough tears until Israel is wiped off the face of the earth. We will never allow that to happen — never again.”
Other speakers included U.S. Reps. Carolyn Maloney, Anthony Weiner and Steve Israel, all Democrats, and U.S. Rep. Peter King, a Republican from Long Island; state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli; New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and the heads of various community groups.
While listening to the speeches, members of the crowd often broke into chants, like “stop the rockets now” and “am Yisrael chai.” Some carried mass-produced signs, such as those from Hadassah and its youth group, Young Judaea, while others brought to the rally carefully made homemade signs.
Naomi Schwartz, 16, and her sister, Rivka, 11, were among those holding a sign of their own — a piece of oak tag bearing the message: “Cowards Hide Behind Children.” Their mother, Sarah, standing nearby, said she suggested the words after seeing them on the Internet. The family came to the rally from Passaic, N.J.
Another member of the crowd, Michelle Sarfati of mid-Manhattan, brought along a sign with the words: “What innocent civilians? They elected Hamas.”
“I was born in the era that Israel came to life,” said Sarfati, who still bears the accent of her native France. “And it’s now facing near-disaster. But I’ll tell you one thing,” she added, her mood suddenly brightening: “It’s rallies like this one that give me hope that Israel will survive.”
More than one person at the rally said they had relatives who were in the Israel Defense Forces and were involved in the conflict.
As the rally unfolded, a smaller rally, drawing 50 people at the most, took place nearby. Organized by Daniel Sieradski, a peace activist and blogger, the rally called for an immediate cease-fire and the resumption of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Sieradski said that many people from the larger rally seemed “upset by our presence and didn’t know what to make of it,” assuming that it was anti-Israel. But the blogger, 29, said others “respectfully disagreed” with his group, leading, in some cases, to thoughtful exchanges. He said his group was opposed to the “demonization” of Israel, just as it opposes the demonization of Palestinians, and supports Israel’s right to safe and secure borders.
Meanwhile, the rabbis at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun encouraged members to attend the rally and to sign a petition circulated by J Street, the left-leaning pro-Israel advocacy group, calling for an immediate cease-fire. Similarly, Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky of Congregation Ansche Chesed, another Upper West Side synagogue, urged congregants to attend the rally; donate to Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, a group that has aided Palestinians in need of medical help; or do both.
Rabbi Kalmanofsky said Monday that many of his congregants may have hesitated about attending the rally because they object to some of the “nationalistic sentiments,” stripped of any nuance, bound to come across. While supporting Israel’s actions “in principle,” he said, he believes that those actions should be taken only “with the greatest anguish. … I hope the IDF uses exactly the minimum amount of force it needs and not one ounce more.”
Staff Writer Stewart Ain contributed to this report.