Thousands gathered at the Capitol Mall Monday, most of them American Jews, in what organizers called the world's largest pro-Israel rally in the United States since the state was created in 1948.
But while organizers billed the rally as a show of solidarity with both Israel and the U.S. war on terrorism, the tone of the protest was highly critical of Bush administration efforts to lean on Israel to end its military activity in the West Bank, and the lone Bush official was the only speaker to provoke boos from the crowd. It was enough to cause some liberal co-organizers of the event to express regret over how the event was staged.
But the vocal crowd had no regrets, loudly booing Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz when he spoke of international support for a Palestinian state and pointed out that Palestinian civilians were among the victims of the last 18 months of violence. By contrast, former Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu railed against Bush administration efforts to end the military activity in the West Bank and denounced Bush's decision to have Secretary of State Colin Powell meet with Yasser Arafat on Sunday.
Netanyahu was clearly the main event as far as speakers went, a surprise visit from former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani notwithstanding. Always the consummate politician, Netanyahu began his speech by expressing support for Bush, saying, "No greater friend of Israel has ever been in the White House." He then spent 15 minutes arguing strenuously against the Bush administration's shifts in Mideast policy since April 5 when Bush decided to send Powell to the region on a peace mission.
Netanyahu compared Arafat to Hitler and Osama bin Laden, articulating a sentiment revealed on many of the handmade signs in the crowd. He referred to the West Bank as "Arafatistan," and called the Palestinian leader "the quintessential terrorist."
"Arafat does not want a Palestinian state next to Israel, he wants a Palestinian state instead of Israel," Netanyahu said as the crowd roared its approval. "He's nothing more than Osama bin Laden with good P.R."
Among the speakers warming up for Netanyahu were Giuliani, who received a hero's welcome from the crowd; former drug czar William Bennet; and Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Natan Sharansky, who also called for a hard line against Arafat's Palestinian Authority. "Every compromise with Palestinian terror will encourage terrorists everywhere," Sharansky said. "Make no mistake about it: Arafat is at the root of the terror."
But many American Jewish leaders had hoped the rally would be a more general expression of support for the state of Israel, not necessarily an endorsement of all the policies of the Sharon government. Organizers of the rally carefully parsed their words, billing the rally as a support of the U.S. war against terrorism, but not necessarily of Bush's decision to seek a diplomatic resolution to the crisis. An ad taken out in Sunday's New York Times by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the rally organizer that is an umbrella organization for both conservative and liberal Jewish groups, urged demonstrations "in support of the war against terrorism," but made no mention of Bush's efforts to jump-start the peace process.
By contrast, other groups, like the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, were circulating online petitions urging people to write to elected representative in Congress to express support for Israel and for American engagement in the region.
Even some of the groups involved in the protest expressed some dissatisfaction with it, although diplomatically. Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now, said his organization was "not sending a delegation down, though technically we're sponsors of the rally."
Members of other groups that sponsored the rally also complained that while it was supposedly held to show solidarity with President Bush in the war against terrorism, it became an effort to mobilize American Jews against the administration's efforts to engage and broker a peace in the Middle East. Some privately took umbrage at the fact that Netanyahu, who criticized the administration's decision to send Powell to the region in a speech before the U.S. Senate last week, was the headline speaker, without a strong moderate voice to act as a counterweight.
American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) spokeswoman Rebecca Needler dismissed some of the internal quibbles about the rally, saying most of the organizers, and those in attendance, were there primarily to demonstrate support for the state of Israel.
"I'm sure there were a lot of politics involved, but so many members of the community want to do something just to show their support for Israel," she said. "I think that was the raw motivation of the people behind the rally, and to do it at a time while the decision-making process is going on. There was a feeling across the country that people wanted to do something."
But Roth did say the subtext of the demonstration was disturbing. "This could have been perceived as an anti-Bush-peace-initiative gathering," he said in an interview just before the rally. "While the message was adjusted to our satisfaction on paper, the reality of looking at Binyamin Netanyhu, fresh off a major attack on the Bush administration in the Senate last week, gives us pause and reason to think that in practice the rally may not adhere to the aims that were set out for it."
Those sentiments are not surprising coming from someone like Roth, whose organization is considered among the most eager to see Sharon broker a settlement with the Palestinians. But even some more moderate Jewish leaders, like Jonathan Jacoby of the Israel Policy Fund, expressed disappointment with some of the crowd reaction at the rally. Jacoby lamented the reaction to Wolfowitz's comments, which prompted chants of "no more Arafat," "no double standards" and "get the hook."
"It's really unfortunate that Wolfowitz was booed," Jacoby said. "The American role is appropriately to be Israel's most important ally and serve as a credible mediator in this conflict, and that's exactly what he articulated. Those of us who are in positions of leadership in the Jewish community need to do a better job of explaining that American role."
But judging from the speeches from Netanyahu and Sharansky, and the crowd's reaction to those speeches, it was clear that this crowd had little interest in dealing with Arafat, or ending Israeli military movements in the West Bank.
Isaac Cohen, a 24-year-old student from Boston, drove 17 hours with friends to attend the rally, and said he was not disappointed by Netanyahu's speech. Wearing a yarmulke, and holding a "Bibi" sign (Netanyahu's nickname), Cohen said, "He speaks the truth. Arafat is just like bin Laden. We would not let anyone tell us how to fight in Afghanistan, why should we tell Israel how to fight?"
Protesters came from across the country to attend Monday's event. There were T-shirts boasting "Hoosiers for Israel," signs representing "Texans for Israel," dozens of Israeli and American flags, placards calling for revoking Arafat's Nobel Peace Prize, and signs showing Israeli calendars with every day listed as Sept. 11.
One of those signs was held by Rebecca Myer, who took her two children out of school and drove from Pennsylvania to attend the rally. "We are always told to teach our children, 'Never again,'" she said, referring to the Holocaust. "I want my kids to understand what that means."
Did that mean she thought the acts of terrorism against Israeli civilians were comparable to the Holocaust? She shook her head vigorously. "Yes," she said. "They're being killed because they're Jews."
Other speakers who espoused a more moderate line than Netanyahu -- like AFL/CIO president John Sweeney and Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Melchior, spoke after Netanyahu. But by then, most of the crowd was headed for the train station.