In rallies across U.S., Jews pledge support for Israel

With a big smile, 9-year old Martin Stillman revealed his desire to go to Jerusalem. And although "we love Israel and want to support the Jewish people" said his mother, Lin, "we can't take him until it's safer."

With the Palestinians carrying out daily terror attacks against Israel, the Jewish state facing pressure and denunciation in nearly every world forum and anti-Semitism increasing around the globe, many diaspora Jews like the Stillmans are desperately searching for ways to stand behind the Jewish state.

As thousands of Jews in more than 100 communities across North America gathered for pro-Israel rallies on Sunday, the Stillmans and more than 200 others showed up at the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation building. The rallies were accompanied by a live simulcast called "We Stand with Israel."

It was standing room only at the local event, co-sponsored by the S.F.-based JCF and the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay. National sponsors were the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the United Jewish Communities and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

Those spilling out of the meeting room at the JCF cited their concerns about Israel and desires for peace as the forces that compelled them to attend the 8:45 a.m. event.

Apart from the simulcast, local federation leaders said they were encouraged by the large turnout and urged the crowd to reach out to Israel by actually going there. They pointed out that about a dozen of the 43 people who had joined the early March UJC-JCF solidarity mission to Israel were at Sunday's gathering, lauding them as heroic.

During the simulcast the crowd shared moments of applause, laughter and suffering as speakers from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) addressed thousands watching across North America.

When the camera focused on a sign left by San Franciscans during the solidarity mission at the site of the recently bombed Moment Cafe in Jerusalem, the local crowd cheered with excitement.

"It's very easy to let our differences separate us," Ami Nahshon, executive vice president of the East Bay federation, said following the simulcast. "But we cannot afford for those differences to overwhelm our unity" on the issue of bringing "peace, justice, freedom and security" to Israel.

Sharon, in the simulcast, described Israel's long struggle for deliverance from its enemies and offered hope for renewed freedom through Jewish unity.

"Israel is a peace-seeking nation," he said. "My government and I are committed to achieving a lasting, durable peace with security, but our neighbors must recognize our right to live peacefully in our homeland."

More strident attacks on the Palestinians came from New York's two Democratic U.S. senators, Clinton and Charles Schumer, who addressed the nearly 1,000 attendants at the main gathering in Manhattan, which was broadcast to the other communities. Another 2,000 showed up in nearby Queens.

"I want to be very clear about this. The responsibility for the violence and the collapse of the Camp David and Taba discussions rests only with" Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, Clinton said, referring to peace efforts that came when her husband was president.

"He has failed as a leader, he has been unable and unwilling to reign in the forces of violence and terrorism, and he leaves a trail of violated vows and death along a path that could have and should have led to peace and life."

Linking Israel's war on terror to America's, Clinton said the United States should not "dictate" to Israel how to act in self-defense. She called on Europe to recognize the threat from the Palestinian Authority's alliance with Iran and said Arafat still could help end violence by condemning it forcefully in both English and Arabic.

"Jews and non-Jews alike understand that when we stand up for Israel, we're standing up for fundamental human rights, democracy and America," she concluded, to a standing ovation.

Clinton and Schumer were among 52 senators who wrote to President Bush last Friday asking that Vice President Dick Cheney not meet with Arafat until the Palestinian leader takes action against terrorism.

The live telecast linked the audience to Florida, where Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel took a hard line. The conflict is not about geography but history, he said.

The Palestinian goal, he said, is "to establish a Palestinian state, not like Israel, but instead of Israel."

Later, the simulcast switched to Jerusalem, where a CNN-style report moved between the Moment Cafe — whose proprietor said he would reopen the popular haunt destroyed by a recent attack — and the Hadassah Hospital bedside of a victim of that attack.

Cantor Dov Keren from the Sutton Place synagogue in New York chanted a memorial prayer while the screen flashed the faces of Israeli terror victims.

For the most part, the event met the crowd's expectations.

"I felt like there was a measure and a degree of unity that transcended" politics, and "that was refreshing, enlightening and a source of hope and inspiration," said Cheston Mizel in New York.