Pro-Israel Demonstration Draws Tens of Thousands to Washington
Likening Israel’s offensive in the West Bank to the U.S. war on terror, tens of thousands of demonstrators converged on the Capitol on Monday in what organizers proclaimed the largest pro-Israel rally in U.S. history.
Speakers and demonstrators alike praised President Bush for standing with Israel in the Middle East conflict, but they also raised pressure on his administration to avoid making deals with Palestinian leaders until terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians cease.
Bush sent his deputy defense secretary, Paul D. Wolfowitz, to the rally as a sign of support.
But Wolfowitz, while reiterating Bush’s commitment to support Israel and stamp out global terrorism, drew scattered boos when he declared: “Innocent Palestinians are suffering and dying in great numbers as well. It is critical that we recognize and acknowledge that fact.”
Congressional leaders from both parties also addressed the crowd from a podium decked with American and Israeli flags. One demonstrator even planted a blue and white Israeli banner atop a Civil War monument on the National Mall.
“This is a message to the American government and to the world that the support for Israel in the American Jewish community and among friends of Israel in the non-Jewish community is wall-to-wall, from left to right,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.
Organizers claimed that more than 100,000 people came to the event on less than a week’s notice.
Federal and District of Columbia authorities do not give crowd estimates, in an effort to avoid political controversy. But Monday’s gathering was clearly substantial. The crowd spilled from the front of the Capitol toward the Reflecting Pool on the Mall, packing the area between Constitution and Independence avenues.
It was the largest demonstration in Washington by the American Jewish community and supporters since a 1987 rally for Soviet Jewry. Hier and others said it was the largest in this country specifically aimed at supporting Israel.
The crowd heard fiery anti-terrorist speeches from former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel and Israeli Cabinet member Natan Sharansky.
Other speakers included former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.).
Though many in the crowd were from the Northeast, the event drew people from around the country.
Michael Goller, 34, a software programmer from Cincinnati, said he came to show that “support for Israel isn’t something that’s confined to a few congressmen or a couple thousand Jews in New York.”
Goller said he supported the Israeli military drive against Palestinian targets in the West Bank, despite civilian casualties. Comparing the action to the recent U.S. campaign that toppled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, he said: “Wars are messy, and ground wars are particularly messy. Civilians are never out of the cross-fire. But I don’t think the Israelis have a choice.”
Comparisons to U.S. War in Afghanistan
Only a few people in the crowd voiced questions about an aggressive Israeli military operation that the Bush administration is seeking to restrain.
Asked by a reporter whether they support the Israeli government’s actions, some boisterous university students from Pittsburgh shouted, “One hundred percent!” and “One thousand percent!”
But one woman in the group ventured: “I’m not going to say 100%. It’s a hard choice to know what to do in times of war.”
Most demonstrators insisted that Israel had as much right to pursue suicide-bombing terrorists as the United States had to launch its military campaign against Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks by suicide hijackers.
Many in the crowd were particularly irate at European criticism of the Israeli offensive.
“The world has a double standard when it comes to fighting terrorism, especially the European community,” said Benji Kessler, 30, of Queens, New York, a high school teacher who brought his students to the rally. He added that the European reaction brought back “awful memories” of the Holocaust. “If anything, they should have learned from what happened 60 years ago and should stand by the Israelis.”
Among those interviewed, there was little criticism of Bush’s demand for the Israeli military to pull back from positions it has taken in the West Bank.
“I’m supporting both countries--the United States and Israel,” said Regina Barker-Barzel, 54, a Jew who escaped from the Soviet Union in the 1970s and now lives in Virginia. “We have to be hand-in-hand.”
Speakers Careful Not to Criticize Bush
Speakers at the rally also were careful not to criticize Bush as Secretary of State Colin L. Powell travels the Middle East in an effort to defuse tensions.
Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, said part of the demonstration’s goal was to voice “our fervent support for President Bush’s war on terrorism.”
But some speakers offered the administration blunt advice.
Said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.): “We say to Secretary Powell, as you move around the Middle East, you must insist to the Arab nations that they stop . . . legitimizing homicide bombings.”
Referring to Sept. 11, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told the crowd: “Americans do not want to be victims again. Nor can we expect Israel to stand idle while its citizens are being slaughtered.”
Those sentiments, shared by many leading Republicans, could lead Congress in coming days to take up legislation in support of Israel--even if only a symbolic resolution.
One demonstrator held up a sign that compared Bush’s choices to those faced by leaders of Western democracies during the years before World War II. It read: “President Bush: Be America’s Churchill, not our Neville Chamberlain.”