Despite the furor among Jews surrounding the Palestinians’ plan to push for statehood recognition at the United Nations, the Jewish establishment has no plans to protest when the U.N. General Assembly convenes in mid-September.
For mainstream Jewish groups, that is a significant shift from recent years. Moved by the threat to Israel that they see from Iran, Jewish groups have regularly used the occasion of the opening of the G.A. as a platform for protest. But though Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad plans once again to address the G.A., no such events are planned this year.
“It’s one thing to protest Ahmadinejad and the venom he annually spews at the U.N. That’s clear-cut,” said Martin Raffel, senior vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and project director of the Israel Action Network. But the Palestinian statehood vote “seemed more nuanced and required a more sophisticated response. It didn’t lend itself to a mass rally.”
So far, supporters of Palestinian statehood also have yet to announce a rally in New York to coincide with the introduction of the U.N. statehood bid. The only major pro-Palestinian protest announced so far calls for an end of U.S. aid to Israel, but not for immediate U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state.
Last year, the American Jewish Committee and other Jewish groups collaborated with non-Jewish groups on a press conference with New York political leaders, warning of the threat posed by Iran. A separate event sponsored by the groups featured a massive Ahmadinejad puppet. In previous years, Jewish establishment groups have sponsored major protests against Iran at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, which is across the street from the U.N. Not this year. “There was just a general sentiment among the usual sponsors that, this year, we’re going to take a pass on a big public rally and pursue other avenues for sending our messages,” Raffel said. Raffel also said that security concerns around the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks had contributed to the decision to forgo a major public event.
Instead of a rally, Raffel said that the Israel Action Network, in collaboration with the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, is collecting signatures for a petition against a unilateral Palestinian declaration of statehood and supporting negotiations toward a two-state solution. He said that the group had already collected 70,000 signatures and expects to have 100,000 by the time the petitions are delivered to the U.N. on September 20.
But some Jewish activists haven’t gotten the Jewish establishment’s memo that the statehood bid isn’t an appropriate target for a rally.
Rabbi Avi Weiss, the activist rabbi who serves as spiritual leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, in the Bronx, plans to block traffic near the U.N. on September 20 in an act of protest.
“The message of the protest is two-fold,” said Glenn Richter, a onetime leader in the Soviet Jewry campaign and spokesman for AMCHA: The Coalition for Jewish Concerns, the Weiss-led activist group organizing the protest. “One, that the U.N. can’t have business as usual if business as usual is condemning, demonizing and delegitimizing Israel. And also that we oppose a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state.”
Weiss and others plan to block the intersection of 40th Street and First Avenue at 10 a.m. Richter said that he expects some protesters to be arrested.
“It would be nice to chain yourself to the gates of the U.N., but you can’t get that close, so you go as close as you can and you make an important statement,” Richter said.
On the pro-Palestinian side, a coalition of more than 50 activist organizations has called a rally for September 15 that will begin in Times Square and end at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza. The demonstration will support Palestinian rights and oppose American aid to Israel, but it will not support the P.A.’s bid for statehood.
“The current Palestinian Authority is unelected, and a number of international law experts question if the bid will have negative ramifications,” said Remi Kanazi, a Palestinian-American poet who was speaking for the coalition of activist groups. “We’re here to insist that what we need to do is focus on rights of Palestinian people.”
Kanazi said that the coalition behind the protest — which includes groups like Adalah-NY, Al Awda-NY and local chapters of Code Pink and Jewish Voice for Peace — consists of members who support both one-state and two-state solutions.
Sources said that a rally explicitly supporting the Palestinian statehood bid was being planned for September 23, but permits had yet to be secured and organizers were waiting to make a formal announcement.
Separately, the World Zionist Organization and the American Zionist Movement had planned to hold a rally near the U.N. in mid-September to protest a September 22 U.N. meeting to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the World Conference Against Racism in Durban. Jewish groups have long criticized the conference as anti-Israel and anti-Semitic. But here, too, the Jewish establishment stepped in. The anti-Durban rally was canceled after the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations suggested to the American Zionist Movement that a rally would be counterproductive.
AZM President William Hess said that the Presidents Conference, of which AZM is a member, urged AZM not to draw unneeded attention to the anniversary meeting, which the U.S. and several other governments have already announced they will boycott. Hess said that he, in turn, advised the WZO to cancel the rally. Instead, the two groups are holding a seminar on anti-Semitism and on efforts to question Israel’s legitimacy in the international arena.
But StandWithUs, a more militant pro-Israel group, has announced a rally at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza on September 22 in opposition to the Durban anniversary meeting. On its website, the group advertises the protest as a “Circus Rally & Clown Parade.”
“The theme of this one is strictly that Durban III and the United Nations are a complete joke,” StandWithUs CEO Roz Rothstein said.
Rothstein said she didn’t mind that Jewish establishment groups had decided not to protest the anniversary meeting over fears that protests could be counterproductive.
“To me, sometimes it doesn’t matter,” Rothstein said. “We’re willing to stand alone.
Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @joshnathankazis
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.