JWR Wandering Jews

Jewish World Review April 16, 2002 / 5 Iyar, 5762


A moment at the Mall: When "Jewish unity" was more than a slogan

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | At half past eleven, it was just a few knowing glances. But by noontime, the streets and subways of downtown Washington, D.C. were a carnival of Jewish humanity. Flags, signs, and shirts, yarmulkes and black hats marked the crowd for any with eyes to see. An enterprising street musician outside Union Station blew a few spirited chords of "Hava Negilah" over and over.

If it was not the largest rally for Israel in national history, estimated at least 100,000 strong by local police, certainly the National Mall had never seen more ankle-length denim skirts at once.

Moving past rows of buses, port-o-sans, media, EMTs from the Orthodox Hatzolah Ambulence Corps, and security personnel, we arrived. Jews from all over North America, punctuated by Israeli expats and sympathetic Christians. Streaming onto the the Capitol grounds, they overflowed the West Lawn and the sides of the Reflecting Pool.

The cause of solidarity with Israel produced, first of all, an unaccustomed sense of solidarity among ourselves.

"When I grow up and have kids and tell them about the intifada," Daniella English, 19, of Toronto told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. "I can tell them I did everything I could to support Israel. I went to Washington."

Shortly after one o'clock, Dudu Fisher belted out Hatikva and the Star-Spangled Banner --- and the speeches proceeded. And proceeded, and proceeded, running well beyond the scheduled two hours. American and Israeli politicians, communal and religious figures, labor and civil rights leaders, and survivors of terrorist attacks all lined up to put in their two bits.

Superficially, at least, each speech sounded not too different from the other. Each rejected moral equivalency between terrorists and their victims, dwelling on the horrors of terrorism, on the values long shared by Americans and Israelis, and on the new and awful commonalities of national experiences after September 11. The speakers differed from one another mostly in a few areas: good speakers versus indifferent, brief versus long-winded, religious versus secular, and Right versus Left.

The political dimension was expressed in their assessments of Israel's neighbors and their leader. Where some offered conciliatory thoughts about the Palestinians and held out some scant hope that Yasser Arafat might finally embrace peace and reject terrorism, others did not, and it was the latter who stirred the crowd.

Among the former was Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, the highest-ranking Jewish appointee in the Administration, normally scorned -- or celebrated -- as a hawk, who addressed the crowd not in his own voice, but on behalf of President Bush. Taking a suitably diplomatic line, he won far less applause than those who demanded nothing more or less than moral clarity.

But few things stirred the crowd as much as the verbal gestures, small or large, with which some speakers introduced themselves. "I'm Bill Bennett," said Bill Bennett, "and I'm from Brooklyn, New York." "Dear friends," Natan Sharansky said, "I'm sure you remember that sunny day in December 1987," when the same Capitol grounds hosted a rally for Soviet Jewry.

What moved so many to gather was, after all, probably not the opportunity to risk heatstroke for the sake of the words of Elie Wiesel, Rudy Giuliani, Bibi Netanyahu, or Rabbi Michael Melchior. Instead, it seemed to be the need for an answer to a sense of embattlement and isolation in the face of a rising worldwide tide of anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic sentiment.

Some in attendance may have felt the need to show Israelis that they are not alone. Others, may have wanted to show the same thing to themselves. Togetherness was the order of the day, even if this meant overlooking a broad range of political and religious differences. The speeches, by cultural and political icons -- both American and Israeli -- were the least meaningful element of the event.

Or so I would guess, judging by what I felt, heard, and saw.

My wife and I had spent the previous evening making signs and t-shirts, which we passed out upon arrival to friends, fellow congregants from our Conservative synagogue in Rockville, Maryland and total strangers alike. "We stand with Israel." "Israel will never stand alone." "Yes to peace, no to terror." "Yisrael, anachnu nitzavim itchem (Israel, we stand with you)." "United we stand." We had not planned it, but a friend and I spent most of the rally holding up a pair of US and Israeli flags, tied together at the corners. The united flags became a backdrop for dozens of snapsnots (One can be viewed above.). A pair of press photographers discovered us, and used the flags as a frame for the Capitol building.

As the original concluding time of three o'clock rolled around, with the line of speechmakers still reaching back a good way, many in attendance began to filter out to catch their buses, trains, and planes. More green spaces opened up, and people began to move about.

Back at the office, a web search immediately turned up a photograph of the Capitol, hovering over a pair of US and Israeli flags, tied together at the corners. In the short time it took to return, our spontaneous gesture had disseminated across the globe. The day had failed to provide any greater hope for peace in the Middle East. But a sense of connectedness lingered, and that consolation, perhaps, is the most that can be expected.

  —   Josh Pollack

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© 2002, Josh Pollack