As the Jewish community awaited a verdict as early as next week in the trial of 13 Iranian Jews charged with spying for Israel, a prominent rabbi charged that a massive prayer vigil he had planned in their behalf was “sabotaged” by a major Jewish group.
Rabbi Avi Weiss, national president of the Coalition for Jewish Concerns-AMCHA, said his group and the Simon Wiesenthal Center would have had 10,000 people in attendance at a May 24 prayer vigil in front of the Iranian Mission to the United Nations but for a “concerted attempt to block our efforts. It was one of the most painful weeks I ever experienced.”
He said 3,000 people attended the event, although some news accounts put the figure at less than one-third of that.
Hillary Markowitz, vice president of the coalition, charged that it was Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Council of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, who had worked to undermine the vigil.
“I spent more time during the last 72 hours before the vigil undoing what was being done [by Hoenlein] and explaining to people what was going on,” she said.
Markowitz said that vigil organizers had reached out to Jewish schools to invite them to bring their students to the event, only to learn that Hoenlein had held what she said was an unprecedented conference call to school principals and rabbis “saying they shouldn’t go.”
Hoenlein said he had been invited to speak to the principals about the situation in Iran and “laid out our position,” which is to withhold further public demonstrations until after the verdict. He noted that the former rabbi of the Jews on trial, in response to a query from Rabbi Weiss, had encouraged the recitation of prayers in behalf of the accused but specifically counseled against reciting them at the Iranian mission or outside the United Nations.
Hoenlein noted that relatives of the 13 — both here and in Iran — expressed similar opposition to such public demonstrations, “and those views will not be ignored. They all said that until the verdict is announced, they do not want public demonstrations that they believe could have serious” repercussions.
“The Presidents’ Conference does not sabotage events,” Hoenlein insisted. “We were asked by the principals what we were doing and we told them. We welcome the activities of those who are concerned, but there are unique circumstances of this case that make it unlike Russian Jewry” when street demonstrations were encouraged.
Markowitz said she was also upset that when she called the Westchester Jewish Conference and asked them to send out an e-mail publicizing the vigil, they declined because “they are under the auspices of the Jewish Community Relations Council, which did not support the prayer vigil.” She said she eventually convinced some groups in the conference to publicize the event with the stipulation that it was not supported by the JCRC.
Michael Miller, executive director of the JCRC, said his organization “takes its guidance on this and many other issues from the Conference of Presidents in view of the broad spectrum of national Jewish organizations associated with the group.”
He said he recalled speaking with the executive of the Westchester Jewish Conference and telling her of his organization’s position. But he said it was nothing unusual because “agencies affiliated with us [routinely] call to ask our view towards issues and events, and [in this case] we indicated we were not supportive of this event.”
Miller noted that the Presidents’ Conference and the JCRC held two prayer vigils in front of the Iranian Mission in April and early May and that Rabbi Weiss spoke at one of them. The decision was then made by the Presidents’ Conference not to hold additional prayer vigils, Miller noted.
“We advise people what we believe is best at the time,” Hoenlein explained.
Rabbi Weiss said that on Tuesday he and five other rabbis representing all four streams of Judaism met with the consul of the Iranian Mission to the UN to request visas to visit the 13 accused Jews. Rabbi Weiss said they were told that four rabbis of the Neturei Karta movement, which does not recognize the State of Israel, had made an earlier request and were already on their way to Iran to visit them.
“I told him that they represented a fringe group of Jews and we renewed our request for visas,” said Rabbi Weiss.
Meanwhile, Hoenlein and the chairman of the Presidents’ Conference, Ronald Lauder, issued a joint statement calling upon Iran to release the 13 now that the trial has ended without any evidence produced against them.
“The case against them rests on confessions that are clearly inadmissible,” they said. “These are confessions without crimes, as was evidenced in the inconsistencies and contradictions when they were brought together before the court. Some defendants admitted to the charge of espionage, although they had no exposure to classified or secret information of any kind.
“It is now Iran that is on trial. The verdict will make clear to the world the kind of rule of law and system of justice in Iran. … [The accused] have suffered greatly over the last 16 months and it must be put to an end. The international community has spoken out unequivocally and they will all be watching the outcome.”
Hoenlein added that the Presidents’ Conference, representing 54 national Jewish organizations, has called for a day of prayer Monday in all schools and synagogues in behalf of the 13 Iranians. And he said it has joined with European Jewish leaders in a petition campaign calling for Iran to free them.