Outrage fueled the thousands of protesters gathered Monday in New York’s Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, across from the United Nations. They had come from across the country and Canada to demonstrate against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s appearance at the U.N.’s General Assembly – and to shout, “Stop Iran now!”
The National Rally to Stop Iran Now, organized by the National Coalition to Stop Iran Now, drew between 3,000 and 4,000 people, according to organizers’ estimates. More than a dozen busloads came from northern New Jersey alone. The rally’s purpose, organizers said, was to highlight the Iranian president’s rhetoric and the danger he poses to the world. The coalition includes the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and United Jewish Communities, the Jewish federations’ umbrella group.
Ahmadinejad’s presence at the United Nations makes “a mockery of history, law, and the United Nations itself,” said Irwin Cotler, a former Canadian justice minister and human rights who has urged that the Iranian leader be charged with incitement to genocide.
Ahmadinejad, Cotler declared, “incites to a new Holocaust as he denies the old one” and is “complicit in crimes against humanity committed by terrorists like Hamas and Hezbollah.”
|Elie Wiesel on Monday said Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s proper place was before the International Criminal Court. PHOTos by josh lipowsky|
A group of Jewish day school students from the New York/New Jersey area, including 17-year-old Doniel Sherman of Highland Park, a senior at Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck, drew attention to the treatment of Iran’s younger citizens.
“We are here today to talk about the persecution of young people in Iran,” Doniel said. “The situation of juvenile offenders facing execution in Iran has reached crisis proportions.”
At least 132 juvenile offenders are known to be on death row in Iran, he continued. And Human Rights Watch has declared Iran the world leader in executing juvenile defenders.
TABC sent 70 students to the rally, the school’s principal for general studies, Arthur Poleyeff, said after the rally.
“We supported the call to protest opposite the United Nations the arrival of a dictator from Iran who spews forth hatred toward Israel and toward the United States,” said Poleyeff. “We are outraged that he was given the forum again and again here at the United Nation to deliver his hate-filled speech.”
Noticeably absent from this year’s rally was the presence of U.S. politicians. Sen. Hillary Clinton pulled out of the rally last week when she learned that vice presidential candidate Gov. Sarah Palin had also been invited to speak. The Conference of Presidents un-invited all political speakers from the rally after it became the target of accusations that it was promoting partisanship. (See page 24.)
The lack of political speakers did not stop some protestors from showing up with signs linking Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama with Ahmadinejad.
“What worries some of us is that the key message of the rally will have been obliterated by a small percentage of the attendees,” said Frieda Huberman, School Services director of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Jewish Educational Services. “The rally wasn’t about who was asked to speak, it was about the danger of the Iranian president.”
While UJA-NNJ organized 12 other buses from the area’s day schools, its own bus included only about a dozen protesters, in contrast to the busload the organization brought last year. Joy Kurland, director of the federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council, said many people canceled Sunday night, saying they were going in to the city on their own. She was uncertain if the Palin controversy had kept anybody away but she hoped that people focused on the main reason for the rally.
“We’re here to demonstrate against a vicious dictator,” Kurland said. “He’s not welcome in this country and he doesn’t belong here.”
At the podium, Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel flatly said where Ahmadinejad does belong: “The proper place for Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is not in the United Nations, nor at university events, nor at social diplomatic dinners,” Wiesel said. “His place is before an international tribunal, which will charge him with inciting crimes against humanity.”
Ahmadinejad is not Hitler, Wiesel said, but he wants to follow in Hitler’s footsteps.
“Our experience tells us to take this man seriously,” Israeli Knesset Speaker Dalia 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.”
“The free world cannot allow Iran to continue developing its nuclear capabilities, to sponsor terrorism, and to export its own extreme ideology,” Itzik continued. “We cannot live with nuclear-armed Iran.”
Natan Sharansky, a former Israeli cabinet minister and Soviet dissident, drew a parallel between the Iranian protest and the Jewish community’s calls 20 years ago to the former Soviet Union to allow Jewish emigration.
“And today Soviet Jews are free,” he said. “I believe that the fight to prevent the Iranian regime from having nuclear weapons can be as successful.”
On Tuesday, the day after the rally, Ahmadinejad delivered a scathing attack on Zionism in his U.N. address. 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, and “will not accept illegal demands.”
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Ahmadinejad said Israel “resembles an airplane that has lost its engine and is kind of going down. And no one can help it.” Israel’s demise, he said, “will benefit everyone.”
JTA’s Ben Harris contributed to this report.