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Jewish Journal

‘We Knew We Had to Come’

More than 100,000 Israel supporters from around the country rally in Washington.


by Michael J. Jordan

April 18, 2002 | 8:00 pm

An estimated 100,000 people demonstrate in front of the U.S. Capitol in support of Israel on April 15 in Washington. Photo by JTA

An estimated 100,000 people demonstrate in front of the U.S. Capitol in support of Israel on April 15 in Washington. Photo by JTA

It was 90 minutes into the community's largest public mobilization in 15 years, and Jews from around the country continued to stream toward the U.S. Capitol, clamoring to get into the pro-Israel rally.

Within the Jewish family out on the Capitol lawn -- organizers put the number at more than 100,000 -- emotions ran high. Criticized by both Israeli officials and the Jewish grass-roots for a perceived lack of visibility, the Jewish communal leadership received an overwhelming response to a rally organized only a week earlier.

It drew Jews of all ages, seemingly from all political and religious stripes, with impressive delegations arriving from the East Coast, Midwest and South.

Some 150 Jews from Toronto even made the sojourn south.

"When I grow up and have kids and tell them about the intifada," said Daniella English, 19, of Toronto, "I can tell them I did everything I could to support Israel. I went to Washington."

There had been talk beforehand about what sort of unified message the rally should send Washington and Jerusalem: support for Israel itself or support for the government of Israel.

But even without the relentless heat -- which several demonstrators succumbed to -- temperatures were elevated. Indeed, after 19 months of the intifada, a spate of suicide bombings, an Israeli military incursion into the West Bank and the killing of at least 450 Jews, the gathering in Washington seemed almost cathartic for some.

"When I read about the rally, I told my wife, 'I gotta go; it'll be good for my soul,'" said Alan Geller of Elmwood Park, N.J.

"And she said, 'Al, you're 71. You're too old.' But 10 minutes later -- she always does this -- she says, 'Al, you're right. Go.'"

The sentiment was echoed across the Capitol lawn.

"We've felt frustrated and helpless in trying to show our support for Israel," said Debby Weinstein of Memphis, Tenn. "We knew we had to come here to take a stand, and to say we're so proud of the support President Bush and his administration are showing for Israel, and for standing up to the rest of the world."

The thousands of placards on display ran the gamut.

They expressed solidarity with Israel -- "Wherever We Are, We Stand With Israel" and "Self-defense Is Not Murder" -- to denunciations of Yasser Arafat -- "Terrorist Bastard" and "Arafat: How Much More Blood Do You Hunger For?" -- and of suicide bombers -- "Murderers Not Martyrs" and "Palestinians Danced on 9-11."

Some equated the Israeli and American wars on terrorism and urged Washington to support Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "Finish the Job" and "Destroy Arab Terrorism," the posters read.

Many rally participants were in no mood for talk of a "cease-fire" or a "return to negotiations."

Many in the crowd roared their approval when Christian radio commentator Janet Parshall boomed, "We will never give up the Golan; we will never divide Jerusalem. And we will call Yasser Arafat what Yasser Arafat is -- a terrorist!" Many in the crowd then booed when Paul Wolfowitz, the U.S. deputy defense secretary, referred to "innocent Palestinian victims" and the "future Palestinian state." A lone placard, stating "We Have Faith in Coexistence," up near the front caused an altercation.

An Israeli at the rally said he was sure the messages of solidarity would be well-received back in the Holy Land. "I'm pretty sure the citizens of Israel will appreciate this; it's coming from the heart," said Jacob, who lives in New York and asked that his last name not be used. He said he "had to" attend this rally after missing a smaller one in the city two weeks ago. "With the terrorism that Israel is facing every day, the least Jews can do over here is to give up one day to show their support," he said.

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