Nearly 100 supporters of Israel’s ultra-dovish Women In Black movement stood silently last Thursday night on a narrow sidewalk at the south end of Union Square holding up signs with legends like “End The Occupation” “End The Violence” and “Two States — Israel and Palestine.”
A few feet away, separated from the Women In Black by a knot of wary-looking New York City police, a group of about 40 supporters of the Kahane movement chanted slogans like “Arab Nazis Must Go” and “2-4-6-8 Israel Is A Jewish State, 1-3-5-9, No Such Thing As Palestine.” Some screamed vitriol like “traitors” and “Arafat’s whores” at the Women In Black group.
For months Rabbi Avi Weiss, president of Amcha-Coalition for Jewish Concerns, has been leading demonstrations by activists from his organization in front of the PLO Mission on the Upper East Side to demand that the U.S. expel what he terms “a rat’s nest of terrorism on Park Avenue that puts at risk every house of worship in the city.”
It has taken a while, but the raw passions roiling Israelis as they confront the escalating violence of the Palestinian intifada are now increasingly being manifested on the streets.
Rabbi Weiss said he is pleased that increasing numbers of supporters have been turning out at his demonstrations, including City Councilman Oliver Koppel, who has introduced a bill to close the PLO mission but said that much more needs to be done.
“I believe the history of the last two years will show that American Jews have not done their share,” Koppel said. “Israelis feel abandoned that American Jews are just going about their lives as Israelis are being murdered.”
Rabbi Weiss said he expects in the coming weeks to lead his followers in acts of civil disobedience in front of the PLO mission that are likely to result in mass arrests.
The dueling demonstrations between the Women In Black and Kahane groups are quickly becoming a Thursday afternoon staple on Union Square. The Women In Black group has been holding weekly silent vigils on the square for months, but in recent weeks as the level of violence has escalated in Israel, the numbers of demonstrators has grown dramatically.
Meanwhile, in recent weeks, a few counter-demonstrators from groups like the Zionist Organization of America have begun protesting against the Women In Black. On March 7, a few “mainstream” defenders of the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon largely stood aside, however, when confronted by the large turnout and strident rhetoric from the Kahane demonstrators.
“The behavior of the Kahane people is a bad tactic because it makes the Women In Black look sympathetic to passers-by,” said one observer from a mainstream Jewish organization who asked not to be identified. “I have chosen not to take part.”
In comparison to the Kahane supporters, the Women In Black vigil was decidedly nonconfrontational. Suzanne Gottlieb, a retired bookkeeper, said she had decided to participate in a Women In Black demonstration for the first time because “I felt a need to go out to the street to call for an end to violence and an end to the occupation.”
“Yes, both sides have to stop the killing. The greater onus is on the Israelis because they have the overwhelming preponderance of power,” she said.
Alexis Kort, 24, a coordinator of Israel Programs at the Habonim-Dror Youth Movement, said she was participating in the demonstration “as someone who supports Israel as a democratic and Jewish state but feels Israel’s policy is wrong. If we believe in the idea of Jewish peoplehood, then we American Jews are responsible for Israel and must be involved.”.
Not every participant in the Women In Black demonstration was so reasoned. Daniel Lang-Levitsky, a bookseller and member of Jews Against the Occupation, displayed a large puppet-like caricature with the line “Ariel Sharon, War Criminal.”
Asked whether such a display was appropriate, Lang-Levitsky responded, “Yes, I believe that when a leader pursues policies which cause the deaths of enormous numbers of people — Palestinians and Jews alike — then it is appropriate to portray him as a war criminal.”
Irena Klepfisz, an organizer of the Women In Black rally, was “very pleased so many have shown up.” She added, “The presence of the Kahane people, who have been cursing us as ‘bitches’ and ‘dykes,’ is intimidating but it creates sympathy for us among those who pass by.”
Asked whether Lang-Levitsky’s Sharon puppet might not also be construed as hate speech, Klepfisz responded, “No, I personally think Sharon is a war criminal. The other day he said Israel should kill more Palestinians. It is appalling to me as a Jew that he represents the Jewish state.”
Mike Guzofsky of the Kahane Organization said his group will rally at Union Square every week “as long as the Women In Black show up.”
“We are seeing an upsurge in support from grassroots Jews,” he said. “Even in this terrible crisis, the Jewish establishment leaders won’t wake up and say what has to be said. We are calling for all Arabs who will not swear loyalty to the State of Israel to be driven out — before it is too late.”
Ben Pekar, a stockbroker, was asked whether the Kahane group, with their cries of “Arab Nazis,” do not advocate fascist-like solutions.
“Absolutely not,” he responded. “The Arabs are murdering Jews every day and have to be stopped. They are behaving like Nazis, not us. Did any Jews kill Germans before Hitler came to power?”
Melissa Bernath, president of the Zionist Organization at Cardozo Law School, wore a long dress imprinted with the Israeli flag and said she plans to make aliyah soon and hold her wedding at the Machpela cave in Hebron.
Asked whether she was comfortable with the slogans many of her fellow demonstrators had shouted at the Women In Black, Bernath responded, “No, I didn’t like everything that was said, but a lot of people here are very angry, indignant and frustrated because the media and groups like Women In Black are blaming Israel for everything at a time when such an obvious injustice is being committed against Israel.
“What we need to say in an open and forthright way is ‘Jewish brothers and sisters, unite and take up arms against those who would kill us.’ ”