Human rights luminaries lead rally against Ahmadinejad

Thousands of protesters filled the Dag Hammarskjold Plaza opposite the United Nations on Sept. 22 for a rally against Iran’s president, who came to New York to address the General Assembly.

“The message to him is please go home,” Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel said at the demonstration. “Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, go home and stay home. We don’t want you here.”

The rally, sponsored by an array of Jewish groups, was meant to highlight the Iranian regime’s threats to Israel and the rest of the world with its pursuit of nuclear weapons, as well as its Holocaust denial, and to send a message to Ahmadinejad, organizers said.

The day after the rally, Iran’s president delivered a scathing attack on Zionism in his address at the General Assembly.

In a speech replete with classical anti-Semitic motifs, Ahmadinejad said Zionists are criminals and murderers, are “acquisitive” and “deceitful,” and dominate global finance despite their “minuscule” number.

“It is deeply disastrous to witness that some presidential nominees have to visit these people, take part in their gatherings and swear their allegiance and commitment to their interests in order to win financial or media support,” Ahmadinejad said.

“These nations are spending their dignity and resources on the crimes and threats of the Zionist network against their will,” he added.

Ahmadinejad said the “Zionist regime” is on the path to collapse.

The Iranian president also sounded a defiant note with respect to his country’s nuclear program, which he described as peaceful. Ahmadinejad described nuclear power as his country’s “inalienable” right and accused “a few bullying powers” of opposing Iran’s progress.

“It is very natural that the great Iranian people, with their trust in God and with determination and steadfastness and with the support of its friends, will resist the bullying and will continue to defend its rights,” he said. “Will not accept illegal demands.”

Rally speakers slammed Ahmadinejad and warned of the threat a nuclear Iran would pose to the United States, Israel and the world.

There was little sign of the political controversy that enveloped the event last week, when an invitation to the Republican vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, was withdrawn two days after Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) canceled her longstanding plans to address the rally.

With thousands of participants chanting “Stop Iran now!” and waving Israeli flags, speakers from Israel’s Knesset to Canada’s parliament issued admonitions to Ahmadinejad and urged the international community to oppose the regime in Tehran.

Irwin Cotler, a noted human rights lawyer and former Canadian justice minister who has been part of an effort to charge Ahmadinejad with incitement to genocide, said the Iranian leader’s visit to New York “made a mockery of history, law and the United Nations itself.”

Natan Sharansky, a former Israeli Cabinet minister and Soviet dissident, recalled his own struggle against the Soviet “evil empire” and urged the crowd to keep faith even when challenging a great power. He also called for “moral clarity” that distinguishes between proponents of peace and extremists who “believe you must kill people to go to the next world.”

“Never lose heart,” Sharansky said. “This is the fight we can win. This is the fight we must win. This is the fight we will win.”

Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik also spoke.

“Our experience tells us to take this man seriously,” Itzik said of Ahmadinejad’s threats against Israel and Iran’s pursuit of nuclear capability. “Iran is not just Israel’s problem, but he is a threat to the entire world.”

Ben Harris

Ben Harris is a JTA correspondent.