It was reminiscent of demonstrations for Soviet Jewry 30 years ago.
A group of rabbis — 22 in all — staged a sit-in on the curved public stairway adjacent to the Isaiah Peace Wall on First Avenue opposite the United Nations Tuesday afternoon. They demanded that the UN oust Iran from the world body for saying Israel should be “wiped off the face of the earth” and repeatedly threatening the Jewish state.
Two white police vans were used to take the rabbis to central booking. Among those arrested was Rabbi Moses Birnbaum, spiritual leader of the Plainview Jewish Center, president of the Long Island Board of Rabbis and a onetime student activist for Soviet Jewry who had never before been arrested.
“I’m 59 and the closest I came to getting into trouble for demonstrating for Soviet Jewry was when I demonstrated outside the Soviet Mission to the UN in 1962, and the administration at Yeshiva High School in Manhattan, threatened to shave points off my average,” he recalled.
The same tactics used successfully in the Soviet Jewry movement should now be employed against Iran, Rabbi Birnbaum said.
“We want to ratchet up the volume on this issue,” he explained. “It can’t be business as usual anymore.”
Rabbi Avi Weiss, president of Amcha-The Coalition for Jewish Concerns, sponsor of the event, and Rabbi David Kalb, the group’s vice president, were the first two rabbis arrested.
Some rabbis blew shofars to signify distress during the demonstration that preceded the arrests. They sang Shlomo Carlebach’s “Am Yisroel Chai” and “Ani Ma’amim,” and protesters held aloft signs reading, “Stop Hating Jews” and “Stop Him Before it is Too Late,” a reference to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
“Ahmadinejad seems like a madman, but not that long ago a madman followed up on his threats and brought the world to ruin,” Rabbi Weiss said.
Almost all of the rabbis wore a tallit as they were arrested and their hands were cuffed behind their backs with white disposable plastic flex-cuffs. They were all charged with obstructing governmental administration, told to appear in court May 15, and released four hours later.
“We had an express checkout,” Rabbi Birnbaum joked as he left the building.
Along with the rabbis, Glenn Richter, a leader of the Soviet Jewry movement and an adviser to Amcha, was also arrested.
“We know the price of silence,” he said before his arrest.
While in one large cell, the rabbis, who were from the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements, recited afternoon prayers after asking two police officers outside their cell which direction was east.
“Being with these people was wonderful,” Rabbi Birnbaum said of his fellow rabbis. “Avi Weiss talks of spiritual activism. That is what this was. There is a certain spiritual aspect to what we did. It was very powerful. While davening [praying] I focused on the part that talks about the evil that will be destroyed from the earth and I prayed for all the righteous. I hope that moral indignation and righteousness will spread throughout the Jewish community and the general community … so we can make this issue like the issue of Soviet Jewry. Iran violated the Geneva Convention [with its threats against Israel] and it should be held to account.”
Rabbi Birnbaum said it would be “wonderful if we could galvanize people of good will to march on Washington,” something Rabbi Weiss said he would like to see happen late next month or in early June.
“Our message was a moral outcry to tell our community and the world that there is a fire burning and that it is coming from Iran,” Rabbi Weiss said.
“It cannot be business as usual. … Iran must be treated the same way the Soviet Union was treated. We will start picketing and protesting all Iranian delegations and athletes here.”
As the demonstration took place, a counterdemonstration of 50 to 70 people organized by the Neturei Karta, an organization of Jews who do not recognize the State of Israel, gathered in two separate areas several blocks away. The group’s leader, Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss, who wore a badge in the design of the Palestinian flag, was one of the Neturei Karta delegates who flew to Iran to meet with Ahmadinejad during a Holocaust-denial conference a few months ago.
“We are deeply thankful to the Ayatollah Ali Khameni and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for the respect they give to the Jewish Iranian community,” he said. “We know that they’re not anti-Semites.”
He said those getting arrested were doing so to make a statement that Ahmadinejad “hates Jews and wants to see the destruction, God forbid, of Jews. We know that is utterly false. President Ahmadinejad is against the State of Israel, as we are, and he wants [to destroy] the state through dialogue.”
Stewart Ain is a staff writer and Jonathan Mark is associate editor.