Dolores Berkowsky of Livingston, N.J., held her cell phone above her head Monday, snapped a photo of the thousands of other pro-Israel supporters around her, and quickly e-mailed it.
“I just sent the photo of the rally to my son Jesse in Israel, who until last August was a lone soldier there,” she said.
Organizers said the hurriedly assembled pro-Israel rally near the United Nations drew more than 10,000 flag-waving supporters — the largest local gathering of its kind in recent memory. Sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, UJA-Federation and a range of other Jewish organizations, it featured remarks by public officials and community leaders asserting Jerusalem’s right to defend itself against Hamas, whose charter calls for Israel’s destruction.
Ironically, several members of Congress spoke of Washington’s unwavering support for the Jewish state even as the diplomatic divide between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government widened and grew nasty.
Rep. Elliot Engel, a Democrat and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, assured the crowd that congressional support for Israel was strong and nonpartisan. He drew cheers when he said the Emergency Iron Dome Replacement Act, to bolster the Israel Defense Forces, will be approved soon, and that the bond between Washington and Jerusalem is “unshakeable and unbreakable.”
But there was no mention among the speakers of President Barack Obama or Secretary of State John Kerry, whose names may well have been booed — given the makeup and reactions of the crowd — in light of reports in the Israeli press that a U.S.-proposed cease-fire declaration was more sympathetic to the position of Hamas, a declared terror organization, than to Israel, a close U.S. ally.
It was later repudiated by the Obama administration, which said that what the Israeli press had leaked was not a formal proposal.
Engel also criticized the mainstream media for lack of “fairness and accuracy.”
Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, contradicting the position of his fellow Democrats in the administration, asserted that there could be no cease-fire “until Israel gets rid of Hamas.”
“We must send a message to that building over there,” he said in a disdainful reference to the United Nations, which, along with the White House, has called for an immediate cease-fire. The message, Schumer said, was that there would be no peace until Hamas is dismantled of weapons and its tunnels destroyed.
“Why,” he asked, “is Israel judged differently than every other nation?”
Ido Aharoni, Israel’s consul general to New York, spoke briefly, saying he was there to express “profound gratitude” from the people of Israel for what he called “the world’s largest show of support” for the current Israel campaign in Gaza. He called the event “a celebration” of Israeli “perseverance.”
Rep. Steve Israel, a Long Island Democrat, won wide applause when he said he has 100 congressional signatures on a letter to the UN urging that the world body investigate Hamas, not Jerusalem, for war crimes.
Other speakers included Alisa Doctoroff, president of UJA-Federation of New York; JCRC president Ronald Weiner; Israeli UN Ambassador Ron Prossor; Richard Joel, president of Yeshiva University (Orthodox); Chancellor Arnold Eisen of the Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative); and Rabbi Aaron Pankin, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (Reform).
Michael Miller, executive vice president and CEO of the JCRC, served as emcee, introducing the speakers and welcoming the crowd, which later sang Hebrew songs in support of Israel with the Maccabeats a cappella group.
Communal officials were anxious about the turnout for the hastily arranged rally, especially since efforts in recent years in opposition to UN visits by former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad drew sparse crowds. But Monday’s participation was clearly different. Despite only announcing the rally last week, the space on 47th Street between First and Second Avenues was tightly packed with a wide spectrum of participants.
It was the first major rally here on Israel’s behalf since the war with Hamas began nearly a month ago. And it was among the largest pro-Israel rallies held here in recent years, attracting teens bused in from camps, adults on their lunch hours, and others who came to the city specifically for the rally.
Organizers had planned for about 5,000 people and did not set up loudspeakers close to Second Avenue. But attendees seemed to neither mind the fact they could not hear the speakers nor see the podium.
“I haven’t been able to hear a thing, but it doesn’t make any difference,” said Eli Helfgott of Cedarhurst, L.I. “I think this rally is very well attended, especially given the short notice.”
One woman from Great Neck, L.I., Karen Mazurek, said the rally was reminiscent of the Soviet Jewry rallies of the 1970s and ’80s in the sense that the Jewish community had come together “to stand as one.”
“We are here to support Israel in its time of trouble,” she said. “We have to remain strong and resolute …”
Numerous people held signs reading, “We are all Israel” and “I stand with Israel,” which were distributed by the sponsors. Among the handmade signs were, “Dismantle Gaza for Peace,” “Kick Hamas Ass,” and “Less Hamas, More Hummas.”
One person said he saw participants grab and tear-up pro-Palestinian signs held aloft by two people. But the crowd’s anger was directed at the signs, not those holding them. In fact, despite the large number of people and a hot noonday sun — the temperature was above 85 degrees and about two dozen attendees were treated for heat exhaustion — rally organizers described the crowd as “very peaceful, enthusiastic and responsive to the speakers.”
Alicia Zahn, 46, said she took a bus from Allentown, Pa., to be at the demonstration.
“I thought it was right to come and show my solidarity,” she said, an Israeli flag draped around her shoulders. “We have to do something — it’s hard to know what else we can do.”
Ayelet Frankel, 24, drove to the rally from Kew Gardens Hills, Queens, with her 3-month-old son and her sister, Eliana Watson, 23, who brought her 5-month-old daughter.
“We thought it was very important to come and show our support,” Watson said as she and her sister each fed their infants in baby carriages amid the crowd.
Their mother, Mandy Brecher of Lawrence, said: “We knew it would not be easy having two babies here, but it was right to be here to support Israel — young and old alike. We’re thrilled to be here.”
Charlie Schulberg and his wife, Phyllis, came on one of the two buses sent by the Riverdale YM-YWHA.
“I’ve been going to rallies for Israel since it was founded,” said Schulberg, 80. “I remember taking a ‘pushka’ for JNF during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948 and collecting money on the subway from Tremont Avenue and 125th Street. Everybody contributed. I filled it up in one night.”
“It’s distressing,” he added, “that 66 years later, I’m still going to rallies for Israel.”