Jewish Protesters Counter Anti-Israel Groups at D.C. Anti-war Rally

By Jennifer Siegel

Published September 30, 2005, issue of September 30, 2005.
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WASHINGTON — Dara Silverman was determined to take part in last weekend’s massive anti-war rally in Washington, D.C. But the longtime liberal activist dreaded the idea of feeling “isolated and alone,” as she had at past rallies when encountering pro-Palestinian supporters brandishing antisemitic slogans.

So this time around, Silverman, a leader of the New York-based Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, decided to hook up with some new allies.

“I’m planning on marching with the Buddhist contingent,” Silverman told the Forward during a pre-march breakfast for Jewish protesters. “Buddhists can help make a container where there can be a little bit of a safer space.”

For Jews like Silverman — who oppose the war in Iraq and often criticize Israel, but also are committed to the existence of a Jewish state — participating in the September 24 demonstration required compromise. The rally, which drew more than 100,000 people according to The Associated Press, was cosponsored by International Answer (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), a left-wing coalition dominated by a fringe Marxist group. Answer has raised Jewish ire by injecting vehemently anti-Israel sentiment into past anti-war demonstrations.

The rally’s original sponsor, United for Peace and Justice, a coalition including more mainstream groups such as, had promised Jewish activists that it would not join forces with Answer. But, several weeks before the event, leaders of United for Peace and Justice decided to share the bill with Answer, rather than have two separate, competing rallies.

The decision drew protests from left-wing Jewish organizations and upset some Jewish anti-war activists. But, as they marched at the September 24 event, many Jewish protesters argued that the importance of the anti-war message prevented them from sitting out the day — and said that skipping the rally would have felt like a defeat.

“The worst thing is to be marginalized and be out of the process,” said Manette Berlinger, an assistant professor at New York’s Queensborough Community College who marched with the local chapter of her union, the American Federation of Teachers. “It creates more understanding to be here, than to stay away.”

Still, Berlinger — who called herself a longtime Zionist — said the decision to march had been difficult. A close friend, who is also Jewish and against the war, stayed home, Berlinger said.

In response to Answer’s involvement, Jewish groups organized several events designed both to create a sense of community and to serve as a counter-voice to the anti-Israel factions taking part in the main rally preceding the march.

Before the march, Silverman, of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, helped organize an informal breakfast of bagels and coffee in a Washington park that she estimated was attended by 150 Jewish protesters. Some attendees — including members of Jewish Voice for Peace and the Labor Zionist youth group Habonim Dror — left together to join up with the Buddhist marchers.

Across the street, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a prominent leader of the Jewish Renewal movement and head of the Philadelphia-based Shalom Center, led a Shabbat morning service at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue that was organized as an alternative to an Answer-organized program of speakers near the National Mall. The Sabbath service drew several hundred people, most wearing sneakers and carrying backpacks. Waskow, who was dressed in purple with a rainbow-colored prayer shawl and matching yarmulke, bellowed out the Hebrew word for peace — shalom — each time it came up in the liturgy.

The keynote speaker at the prayer service, Rabbi Sid Schwarz, founder and president of Panim: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, opened by declaring that the Sabbath service “represents Jews of conscience who refuse to sacrifice Israel or their Jewish self-respect on the altar of political correctness.”

“We believe that the war being waged in Iraq is built on a pack of lies and half-truths, playing on the fears of Americans about international terrorism,” Schwarz said. “But, at the same time, we cannot participate in a demonstration whose organizers perpetuate lies and accusations, just as outrageous, about the state of Israel.”

By the time Waskow’s service at the synagogue finished, the main march to the White House was underway. Participants trickled out to take part. Waskow was accompanied on the march by Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of the left-wing journal Tikkun, and nearly a dozen residents of Elat Chayyim, a Jewish spiritual retreat center near Woodstock, N.Y. Before the group set out, they formed a tight circle and sang the word “shalom.”

“We feel so much that there are so many groups on the left that are cultivating an atmosphere of negativity and hostility and anger,” said Jonathan Moss, a project coordinator at Elat Chayyim. “A spiritual perspective and a Jewish perspective can allow us to stand for what we believe in without demonizing the other. We’re for peace, we’re not against anything.”

Others were less sanguine.

Paul Surovell, a member of the New Jersey-based South Mountain Peace Action, said he was “extremely resentful” that Answer had been allowed to cosponsor the main gathering. He spent the morning at a table he set up, selling anti-war T-shirts and distributing about 400 fliers outlining his organization’s support for a two-state solution and its opposition to the Palestinian right of return to Israel. Surovell, who is Jewish, said the New Jersey peace group only recently decided to adopt a position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — after learning of Answer’s involvement in the march. Without such a statement, Surovell said, it would have been hard for many members of his group to take part in a rally co-organized by a vehemently anti-Israel group like Answer.

“Our main purpose for being there was to protest the war in Iraq,” Surovell said. The Israel issue “was a secondary concern, but it was an important one.”

To be sure, some Jews who attended the march were among those making public criticisms of Israel. Allen Meyers, a veteran of Vietnam and Contra-era anti-war protests from the 1970s and 1980s, said that he was one of about 25 Jews who marched with a 200-person pro-Palestinian contingent. He took along several other members of his group, the Cambridge, Mass.-based group Visions for Peace and Justice in Israel/Palestine. Meyers said that the Jewish participants included those who support a Jewish state, as well as anti-Zionists. He said he was motivated to work for peace in the Middle East out of a sense of personal responsibility.

“What’s happening in Darfur is the worst thing on the planet, but I don’t feel personally responsible for it,” Meyers said. “The United States is holding up the Israeli economy.”

At the same time, he said, he supports the existence of a Jewish state, and had been upset by chants he had heard decrying Israel as a racist country.

Abby Okrent, 25, a law student who chairs the American University chapter of the Society for Justice in Palestine/Israel, also joined the Palestinian contingent and was less concerned about Israel’s image at the rally. “If you get pissed off at Israel, you have a reason for it,” she said. When asked if she supports the existence of a Jewish state, Okrent answered, “I don’t have feelings about Israel one way or the other. It’s on the ground reality.”

Several of the speakers at the main rally condemned Israel and voiced support for the Palestinian cause. But in the wake of last weekend’s march, even some of the protesters who had expressed concern about Answer’s involvement said that pro-Palestinian activists proved to be less of a factor on the ground than they had been at previous anti-war rallies. Among those expressing relief was Silverman, who ended up marching with several labor unions after failing to find the Buddhist contingent.

“I definitely did not see as many” pro-Palestinian signs, Silverman said. “I didn’t see any antisemitic signs.”

In the end, she added, “a lot of the people were really supportive.”

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