Zionists not welcome at this Manhattan peace rally

On Friday, Aug. 27, I read in a newspaper that a group called the Middle East Peace Coalition would be holding a rally the next day in Manhattan’s Union Square Park. It was one of many street events of all political stripes timed to coincide with the Republican National Convention.

I want peace in the Middle East. So I decided to attend the demonstration. I had never heard of the Middle East Peace Coalition, but figured it would be nice for me, a Zionist Jew, to stand in solidarity with a coalition of folks wanting peace between Israel and her Arab neighbors.

I scrawled a handwritten sign stating, simply, “Zionists for Peace,” and drew an Israeli flag with 1960s-era peace signs.

I attended the rally with a friend, Polina Valis. She is a survivor of the Dolphinarium Disco suicide bombing in Tel Aviv of June 1, 2001, in which five of her friends were among the 21 teenagers killed, Jewish and Christian. She spent two months in the hospital, underwent five operations (and needs another), carries nails and metal fragments from the bomb in her legs, back and arm, and is permanently missing several chunks of her body.

She is also a Zionist, and she is also for peace.

As Polina and I waded into the crowd to draw nearer to the speaker, I realized that this peace rally might be not as advertised when I spotted a man I had once seen selling insignia pins of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

The PFLP is a Marxist-Leninist gang specializing in wholesale civilian murder. The U.S. Department of State properly classifies it as a foreign terrorist organization.

The speaker at the rally was holding forth on the Zionist cabal controlling America.

“Who is running American foreign policy in the Middle East? Who is in charge? [Paul] Wolfowitz, [Donald] Rumsfeld, [Douglas] Feith, [Richard] Perle, [Elliott] Abrams: right-wing Jews who work for the Israelis.”

Calling Rumsfeld a Jew was a minor flub compared with his later peroration on “Zionist death camps.”

Polina and I had scant time to listen. When my fellow demonstrators read my innocuous sign, they accosted me. Zionists hate peace, they insisted. Someone called me a Nazi. Plucky Polina stood by me, trying to make sense of bellicose peaceniks.

Hovering journalists, sensing story potential, scribbled down bits of conversation and snapped photos as the Middle East Peace Coalition formed a circle around Polina and me.

A woman demanded that I put down my “Zionists for Peace” sign.

“This is a peace demonstration,” I objected. “Who told you it was a peace demonstration, huh?” she said.

Alarmingly, she then yelled, “No justice, no peace!” Hoping not to be on the receiving end of “no peace,” I pathetically stuttered: “Middle East Peace Coalition. It [the paper] says a ‘peace demonstration.’ It says ‘peace’ on my sign.”

A dialogue of the deaf ensued. I asked why Jews can’t have a state like every other nation, just like the Palestinians want. Or why Zionism is racism if fully 20 percent of Israel’s population is Palestinian, while Arabs insist that all Jews leave the West Bank and Gaza so they can have a state without Jews.

Someone demanded to know why I had cited the status of the West Bank and Gaza as the sticking points rather than “the whole occupation.” Then a guy wrapped in a Palestinian flag asserted that since all Israel is occupied territory and Israel’s existence is therefore a crime against peace, a Zionist like me was, by definition, an intruder at a peace rally.

Someone added that the overwhelming majority of U.N.-accredited non governmental organizations at the 2001 U.N. World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, had declared Zionism a racist, outlaw movement. I agreed that the United Nations, in the main, and the Middle East Peace Coalition held the same view of Israel.

Sensing checkmate, the man who seemed to be in charge of the event shouted, “Go back to your country!”

I guess he meant Israel, though I was born and raised in America. But how could Israel ever be my country if, according to them, Israel should not be?

Eventually they called the cops on me. A very nice policeman named Robert Chico asked me to leave. Although I did not want to give officer Chico a hard time, I pleaded my case:

A Zionist for peace is a legitimate part of a Middle East peace coalition, and this is billed as a rally for Middle East peace; New York City granted the group a permit to demonstrate based on this premise, and either their permit should be revoked for being filed under false pretenses (I suggested in frustration that it should have been filed on behalf of the “Middle East Genocide Coalition”), or I should be allowed to stay and these agitators against peace be made to leave.

Observing the taunts and epithets hurled at me as I conversed with him, Chico said he understood my position, but had to remove me for my own protection.

Polina, with me throughout the peace rally, is an intrepid soul.

In July, she consented to a proposal by filmmaker Pierre Rehov that she meet the father of the Dolphinarium suicide bomber. (The father refused to meet her, and Jordan — where he lives — refused to grant her a visa.)

A double major in political science and history at the City University of New York, she has debated Muslim classmates here who advocate suicide bombings against Israeli Jews, and never revealed that she herself was a victim of such an atrocity.

After Chico removed us from the peace rally, brave Polina commented that she had thought nothing could frighten her anymore, “but the Middle East Peace Coalition did.”

Robert Jancu is managing attorney of the American Legal Response Team for Democracy in New York.