After Prime Minister Sharon was interrupted by a handful of hecklers Sunday during a speech in New York, one of his high-profile hosts felt the need to apologize.
“The noisy minority does not reflect the view of the vast majority,” said host James Tisch, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
True, but it helps to have connections. Two of the hecklers — David and Syndi Romanoff, a married couple from Elizabeth, N.J. — had been waved into the VIP seats at the rally, giving them better access to the prime minister, by Tisch’s chief lieutenant, Malcolm Hoenlein.
Hoenlein, who has headed the Presidents Conference for 19 years, has often found himself fending off claims from critics who say he uses the relative lack of process within the loose but influential coalition to steer it to the right.
In this case, however, Hoenlein insisted it was all a misunderstanding. He said that when he vouched for the Romanoffs at the rally, he simply was helping out two familiar faces in search of better seats.
“You would be out of your mind to think that I allowed them in knowing what they would do,” Hoenlein told the Forward. He added that the Romanoffs, who are prominent figures in the Orthodox community in Elizabeth, “took advantage of the hospitality of the organizers. Their behavior is despicable and so counterproductive.”
David Romanoff defended his actions in an interview, but he said that there had been no reason for Hoenlein to know what was going to happen.
At the same time, Romanoff acknowledged that he had taken a public role in anti-disengagement activities in the past, at one point traveling all the way to Crawford, Texas, to protest the plan.
Hoenlein noted that in the end the 1,000-person crowd included just five or so protesters: “Not a bad filtering effort on the whole, I would say.” Other observers estimated seven to 10 hecklers, in three separate groups.
The event was Sharon’s first visit in four years to New York, the metropolitan area with the largest concentration of Jews in the world. It was his first major meeting with Jewish communal leaders here since he announced his Gaza withdrawal plan. The rally, held in Manhattan at Baruch College, was sponsored by a coalition of local and national Jewish organizations, including the Presidents Conference, United Jewish Communities and UJA-Federation of New York.
During his talk, Sharon won repeated cheers from the religiously diverse crowd as he defended his withdrawal plan. Leaders of the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements offered prayers of support for the plan.
The mood was exactly the opposite outside the auditorium, where the plan was rallied against by a mostly Orthodox crowd, in particular Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidim. The protest appeared to get off to a sluggish start, but picked up steam after the arrival of about 10 busloads of Lubavitch Hasidim from Brooklyn. Organizers said that several thousand people attended, but the New York City Police Department declined to give an estimate. Several news organizations gave estimates of 500 to 1,000.
Several groups that oppose the disengagement plan, including Americans for a Safe Israel and the Zionist Organization of America, organized Sunday’s protest.
The makeup of the crowd seemed to echo a string of Israeli news reports in recent months describing the growing role of Chabad-Lubavitch, particularly its so-called messianic wing, in organizing and funding anti-disengagement activities. The messianic wing of Lubavitch is a faction that believes its late rabbi, Menachem Schneerson, who died in 1994, is still alive and will return as the messiah.
Many of the demonstrators wore orange, the color adopted by Gaza anti-disengagement activists. They chanted, “Not one inch. Shame on you.” One sign compared Sharon’s plan to the Nazis reign and to the Spanish Inquisition. It read: “Spain 1492, Germany 1933, Israel 2005.” Another sign declared, “Gush Katif is Not Anatevka!” invoking the fictional Jewish shtetl driven into exile in the Sholom Aleichem-inspired musical, “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Among the speakers at the rally was Dov Hikind, a New York State Assembly member who represents the heavily Orthodox Boro Park section of Brooklyn.
David Romanoff said that after being ejected from the speech inside, he and his wife addressed the demonstration. Other ejected hecklers reportedly also addressed the rally.
Speaking afterward, Romanoff told the Forward that he had not gone to the event with the intention of disrupting Sharon’s speech. But, Romanoff added, another audience member who stood up, showed his orange shirt and declared, “Jews do not deport Jews,” was his inspiration.
After that, Romanoff said, “I could not help myself.”
Romanoff said that he had not heard from Hoenlein.
“I respect him,” Romanoff said. “I wish that it had not been such one-sided event. The other side should have been represented.”
Hoenlein was not as diplomatic. “I will not talk to the couple, but they will hear from me,” he said.
Hoenlein told the Forward that he had personally instructed security personnel to search everyone heading into the event, and to be on the lookout for people wearing orange shirts under their jackets.
Romanoff confirmed that his wife was wearing an orange shirt under her top when the couple stood up to challenge Sharon, but he did not confirm witnesses’ claims that she revealed it by removing an outer garment during the commotion.
This is not the first time Romanoff has publicly proved his bona fides as a critic of the Gaza pullout plan. In April, according to a report in New Jersey Jewish News, he traveled to Crawford, Texas, to take part in an anti-disengagement rally as Sharon met with President Bush at the American leader’s ranch.
Hoenlein said he was completely shocked by the Romanoffs’ behavior during the Sharon speech Sunday.
“I had no idea they could act in such a way. They never did such things before,” Hoenlein said. “I spoke at a dinner for them in Elizabeth, New Jersey.”
The Presidents Conference had come under fire last year from some of its members, most vocally by the Anti-Defamation League, for failing to issue a clear statement of support for Sharon after he announced his plan to withdraw from Gaza and the northern West Bank.
But even ADL National Director Abraham Foxman, one of Hoenlein’s main critics, said it was unfair to blame him for the disruption at Sunday’s rally.
“People use any means to get into those kind of events,” Foxman said. “I know people who disagree with the prime minister, and I assume they would behave, but you never know. So I don’t see this as a big deal.”
Foxman has led calls for the Presidents Conference to be out front in rallying support for Sharon and his plan. The conference has endorsed the plan, but in apparent deference to its hawkish minority, its most public pronouncements — including the Sunday rally and an advertisement in The New York Times — have been framed more generally as support for Sharon.
At the rally, however, Tisch pledged that the Conference of Presidents would work “to build even greater understanding for the disengagement plan” with a Web site and by submitting editorials to newspapers.