Hopes for unity prove elusive at memorial, peace rally in New York

NEW YORK — A Madison Square Garden rally this week marked for some the awakening of America's "silent Jewish majority" that has supported the Arab-Israeli peace process, but lay quiet until the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Some 14,000 people attended the rally, as Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Rabin's widow Leah Rabin, Vice President Al Gore, and more than 40 members of Congress paid tribute to the slain prime minister.

Peres drew the loudest applause when he called for broadening the circle of peace to include Syria and Lebanon and appealed for Jewish unity.

"When you have two views, you don't have to become two people," Peres said.

"We do recognize the right of the opposition to oppose us," he said. But Jews should "be united against murder, against violence, against curses. Let's argue, not hate."

Israeli Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yisrael Lau called on Jews to draw on their tradition of love, respect for human life, solidarity and brotherhood.

Religious Jews "know what it means to appreciate human life" and now must think about "our failure," said Lau, a highly esteemed figure in Orthodox circles.

Confessed killer Yigal Amir was a product of an Orthodox Zionist education and said he killed Rabin to save the Jewish people from the territorial concessions that are part of the peace process.

Organizing the rally were the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, the United Jewish Appeal-Federation of New York, the State of Israel Bonds and the World Jewish Congress.

Some estimated that observant Jews, mostly modern Orthodox, comprised about one-third of the ralliers.

Organizers feared that if Orthodox Jews boycotted the rally, it might be viewed as a political event. The Orthodox Union, after debating whether to participate, became a co-sponsor.

Yet the rally also became a lightning rod for community strife.

Critics of the peace process demanded the inclusion of speakers from the Israeli government opposition to show that Jews are not monolithic about how peace should be achieved.

The religious Jewish Press newspaper ran an editorial saying, "No Jew who cherishes democracy and freedom of expression should attend a rally that countenances the principle that `unity' can be achieved by excluding all opposition."

Neither Israeli President Ezer Weizman nor Likud opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu were invited to the event.

Outside the arena, protesters shouted, blew whistles and distributed anti-Rabin flyers. Some carried signs that said "Rabin Is A Traitor." One sign showed Rabin and Prime Minister Shimon Peres — both giving the straight-armed Nazi salute — at the center of two targets.

The group was led by Rabbi Mordechai Friedman of the Boro Park section of Brooklyn, president of a group calling itself the American Board of Rabbis.

Friedman said Yigal Amir, Rabin's confessed assassin, was justified to kill under Jewish law, and distributed flyers that said, "Rabin desecrated Judaism publicly and maliciously by violating the Sabbath, eating dog flesh in Japan, pork in New York."

Rally organizers maintained the event was strictly nonpartisan and made some concessions to prove it, they said. They dropped references to "the peace process" in rally advertisements, billing it a show of support for "the pursuit of peace."

The change infuriated leftist peace process advocates. But David Gershov, an Orthodox attorney in New York City, said many he knew did not attend because they thought the rally supported Israeli policies.

"I might not have come had it been billed as supporting the peace process rather than the pursuit of peace," he said.

Likud member Zalman Shoval, former Israeli ambassador to the United States, refused an invitation to attend — because he was not scheduled to speak.

"I thought it was a wonderful occasion to have a unity rally and for someone very senior in Likud to have said a few words in memory of Yitzhak Rabin for the sake of unity," Shoval said.

But he thought it was inappropriate for him to "be a decoration" at the rally, he added.

Across the political spectrum, some said the compromises by the organizers only heightened tensions.

"Unity is an inappropriate goal at this historic moment," said Michael Lerner, publisher of the liberal Tikkun magazine.

"To ask Jews to assemble but to not specifically endorse the peace process would be like asking Americans to assemble after the murder of Martin Luther King but not mention civil rights."

Before the rally, The New York Times ran a full-page ad by the Zionist Organization of America and the National Council of Young Israel that opposed the event as partisan.

But the show of disunity angered Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

"It's distressing and disturbing that after we've gone through the tragedy, we're unable to come together if only for the sake of memory and unity," Foxman said. "Everybody's still playing their games and trying to make a point."

Letty Cottin Pogrebin, an author and former president of Americans for Peace Now, said she felt the rally "was a healing experience…The `peace process' words were banished, but the sentiments were clear."

WJC president Edgar Bronfman, one of the main rally organizers, urged "everyone here to carry on a commitment to Yitzhak Rabin's vision of peace."

Leah Rabin called for unity. "Nothing could be more important" in this time of Jewish "crisis," she said. Yet she added, "We do not want to forget who killed and who was killed."

Recalling the climate of violence and hostility by opponents of her husband in the months leading up to his death, she said, "The voice of the silent majority was not heard."

The turning point, she said, was the Nov. 4 peace rally where he was killed.

"The state of Israel is crying, the world is crying, but friends, beyond all the tears, I see he bequested peace, he bequested solidarity, he bequested Jewish unity."

Gore addressed each Rabin family member personally and said Americans "have been and are attempting to lift you up and say to you, `We respect you and we love you.'"

Noting the approach of Chanukah, Gore said, "The ancient light of the Maccabees will guide the house of Israel [toward] light over darkness, faith over cynicism, reason over arms."

Beforehand, Peres also met with Orthodox rabbis and pro-peace process groups, including the American Jewish Committee, the American Zionist Movement, the Israel Policy Forum and Americans for Peace Now.

The Orthodox rabbis came primarily from the centrist Orthodox community, and included several of Yeshiva University's top administrators, notably Rabbi Norman Lamm.