Orderly Protest Lacks Anti-Israel Vitriol

By Nathaniel Popper

Published September 03, 2004, issue of September 03, 2004.
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The massive protest against the Republican National Convention in New York on Sunday made for big surprises of the quietest kind: The media prepped the city for chaos and violence that never materialized.

Jewish groups taking part in the demonstration were braced for additional tensions, but these, too, were largely absent at the end of the day.

The vigorous anti-Israel rhetoric that has marked recent protests against the Bush administration gave many progressive Jewish groups pause before they took part this week. Sunday’s march was sprinkled with signs taking issue with Israeli policy. But this theme remained a minor one, and wholly lacking in the vitriol that has caused schisms with Jewish groups in the past — a change that some observers attributed to a growing awareness among non-Jewish activist groups of the concerns of Jewish organizations.

“Did I see signs I was not comfortable with? Absolutely,” said Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service and a veteran of Democratic activism. “[But] most of the protest really stayed on message about Bush. I was impressed.”

The first days of the convention were marked by as many protests outside as speeches inside. The most visible Jewish protest was a gathering on Monday outside an event sponsored by the Republican Jewish Coalition at the Plaza hotel.

A few of the smaller demonstrations were marked by physical confrontations and arrests, but the main marches on Sunday and Monday went off without much disturbance. Sunday’s main protest included about 500,000 people, according to organizer estimates confirmed by police — more than twice the number expected by the organizers — slowly winding from Greenwich Village past Madison Square Garden and back downtown to Union Square under a blazing sun.

Among many elderly marchers in a Jewish contingent were Lilian Lifflander, 85, and Anne May, 86, who had met during Lower East Side protests during the 1960s. Their major concern was not the politics.

“I’m worried about the cops getting rough,” May said.

The police made their presence known. In addition to the rows of police lining Seventh Avenue, at one point there were five helicopters and a green blimp keeping a watchful eye. But the tone seemed to be set by the blazing sun, which lent a languorous air to the proceedings.

Sunday’s march was organized by United for Peace and Justice, a coalition of close to 800 member groups ranging from Grandmothers for Peace International to a group called The Ruckus Society. UPJ filled the role that the controversial Answer coalition played in coordinating recent major anti-war protests. Answer leaders — who planned their own, smaller protests this convention week, including one starting Thursday at the Israeli embassy — became infamous in some Jewish circles for publicly denying Israel’s right to exist. The group’s rallies were frequently marked with defaced Israeli flags and signs linking the Nazis and the Israeli government.

UPJ is far from a supporter of the current Israeli government; one of the many baby-blue posters the group handed out read: “Occupation: Wrong in Iraq, Wrong in Palestine.” But under the leadership of its Jewish co-chair, Leslie Cagan, UPJ has built a reputation for avoiding particularly thorny questions in favor of stating broader opposition to President Bush.

“We’re different from some of the other coalitions who bring to those demonstrations a more strident tone,” Cagan said after the rally. “We purposely framed this day as saying no to the Bush agenda. You don’t have to do that in a shrill rhetorical way. You certainly don’t have to do that by threatening people.”

Cagan’s group also has reached out to more moderate Democratic Jewish leaders to help with guidance. On Sunday, UPJ invited Messinger — a former Manhattan borough president — to march in the lead contingent.

“This march is a lot more mainstream than the other ones I’ve been to,” said Miriam Steinberg, 23, an activist with the Boston Jewish group Tekiah, who said she had grown increasingly uncomfortable with the anti-Israel message of marches she attended during the past year. But, she said, “once UPJ took over, they seemed like a real big-tent group,”

UPJ’s ascent to the leadership of the biggest protest this year was seen by many Jewish observers as connected to a larger sensitivity among progressive groups toward the concerns of Jewish groups in their coalition. Just two weeks ago, a non-Jewish academic hosted a three-day conference for progressive activists in Oakland, Calif., to address the issue of antisemitism among leftist activists.

“It’s something the progressive groups are really beginning to deal with,” said Martin Schwartz, who helped organize the participation of the Workmen’s Circle, a Jewish labor organization, in both the Oakland event and Sunday’s march.

These efforts have not assuaged all the fears of Jewish progressive groups. Even though the San Francisco-based Tikkun is a part of UPJ’s steering committee and sent a delegation to march Sunday, the group’s president, Rabbi Michael Lerner, sent out an e-mail to marchers in advance, saying: “If you see anyone carrying antisemitic signs, please confront them. It is not OK for people to use this occasion of mass mobilization for peace to discredit the whole enterprise by bringing a message of hate.”

The Tikkun delegation was part of a broader coalition organized by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. At a pre-march breakfast, protesters were outfitted with pink shirts with the message “Elephants Aren’t Kosher” on the back. A number of people at the breakfast, like 55-year-old Bobbie Sackman, said they chose to march with a Jewish group to be insulated from the potential anti-Israel sentiments of the larger march.

“I want to know if I walk, that I’m walking with people who are aware of my concerns about Israel, and are able to talk about it,” Sackman said.

The group of Jewish protesters that started at the Workmen’s Circle was itself driven by the propriety of protesting Israel. When the 300 or so protesters went outside after bagels to join the march, a small pack of people from the organization Jews Against the Occupation split off to march with Palestinian solidarity organizations.

There were a few contingents marching in the parade with Palestinian flags, and one of them shouted “Long live the intifada” to the beat of a drum, causing discomfort among some nearby Jewish marchers.

“The fact that I have to march with people who stupidly carry signs about ending the occupation and who misunderstand the settler movement saddens me,” said Yori Hanover, 50, who fought for Israel in the Yom Kippur War. “But I’m driven to cooperate with whoever is out there to help me to get rid of Bush, this stain on America.”

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