Sounding the alarm
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Sounding the alarm

You don't have to be Jewish to rally against Iran

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People from this community joined the thousands at an anti-Iran rally last week outside the U.N. Josh Lipowsky

Thousands gathered outside the United Nations last week to protest Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit, his belligerent attitude toward Israel and the West, his country’s growing number of human rights abuses, and its expanding nuclear program.

Led by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the 40-member Stand for Freedom in Iran Coalition organized the Stand for Freedom in Iran Rally at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza outside the UN on Sept. 24, coinciding with the start of the General Assembly. Though Jewish groups have taken the lead in pressing for tougher action on Iran, the rally seemingly marked a turning point in gaining wider attention for the issue.

“Clearly (work to curb Iran has) gone far beyond the efforts of the Jewish community,” said Joy Kurland, director of the new Regional Community Relations Council, made up of the CRCs of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, United Jewish Communities of Metrowest, and the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey. “The message was very, very clear and it was resounding throughout this whole metropolitan area that [Ahmadinejad] was not welcome.”

The Iranian leader had addressed the General Assembly the day before, and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave an impassioned speech to the G.A. the day of the rally, applauding those who walked out on Ahmadinejad and saying those who did not should be ashamed.

Various estimates placed attendance at the rally somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000. Flanking the stage were people holding signs declaring, “I’m gay and in Iran I’m killed,” “I’m a woman and in Iran I’m stoned,” “I’m a minor and in Iran I’m persecuted,” and “I’m a Baha’i and in Iran I’m persecuted.” Among the speakers were former Canadian Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, representatives of Jewish advocacy organizations and Christian religious groups, Iranian women who spoke of the oppression they face in their home country, and New York City and state politicians.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani called the Iranian regime “an affront to the civilized world.”

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The West must stay resolute against Iran, said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

“It’s a disgrace and, of course, it’s a terrible menace not only to its own citizens but a terrible menace to all of us,” he said. “All decent people should stand up against the Iranian regime.”

One speaker, Ambassador Dore Gold, a former adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, told The Jewish Standard after the rally that the American Jewish community is “in the process of being galvanized. It’s not there yet because there are a lot of voices in the West that want to put you to sleep. They want to tell you to be preoccupied with your own internal affairs.

“This enormous threat is about to emerge on the world stage and people don’t understand the gravity of the moment.”

He pointed to the number of Iranians participating in the rally, both on stage and in the crowds, as well as black Christian religious leaders and politicians from both sides of the aisle as evidence that the Jewish community is not alone in trumpeting the alarm on Iran.

President Obama, Gold said, has been torn on how to proceed. The administration began with the idea of diplomatic engagement but “they’re understanding the hard pavement of reality [means] that there’s nobody to talk to over there.”

With the 30th anniversary of the 1979 hostage situation fast approaching, Americans have to realize they have a responsibility to stand up against the Iranian regime, said Rabbi Neal Borovitz, spiritual leader of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge and vice chair of UJA-NNJ’s Jewish Community Relations Council. He was one of the many protestors who made the trip from northern New Jersey. UJA-NNJ sent one community bus carrying some 20 people from its Paramus headquarters, while the neighboring Frisch School sent four buses and one bus each came from Ma’ayanot and Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck.

“We have to keep pressure on them,” Borovitz said of the Iranians.

“I want a peaceful future for my children,” said Rabbi Claire Ginsburg-Goldstein, rabbinic intern at Cong. B’nai Israel in Emerson, who rode UJA-NNJ’s bus to the rally. “Peace is worth fighting for. We have to show that we mean business.”

While Rabbi Kenneth Stern of Cong. Gesher Shalom Jewish Community Center of Fort Lee attended the rally in New York, a handful of his congregants held their own mini-rally at the synagogue. The shul holds a recurring Thursday program called Coffee, Cards, Conversation, and More, and dedicated last week’s session to discussing Iran. During his sermon on the second day of Rosh HaShanah, Stern said, he encouraged his congregants to speak up on the issue.

Last month, more than 300 Jewish advocates from around the country traveled to Washington to push for tougher sanctions on Iran during meetings on Capitol Hill. During those meetings, Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman warned that “we do not have the luxury to not lead” on Iran, but that “we have to lead even though it will be perceived as a Jewish issue.”

Foxman told the Standard earlier this week that he hopes the revelation of Iran’s secret nuclear facility and missile test will be “a wake-up call to other groups.” (See related story.)

“The Jewish community was still the organizer of the rally here, and we still need to continue to ring the bell,” he said.

Ahmadinejad has made his country’s quest for nuclear power more than just a Jewish issue, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told the Standard last Friday.

He pointed to the number of representatives who walked out of Ahmadinejad’s U.N. speech last Wednesday as proof that the danger Iran represents is more widely understood.

“This has to be a sustained effort,” Hoenlein said, “and we are committed to doing whatever is necessary so at least when future generations ask us, ‘What did you do?’ we will have a good answer.”

Many of America’s enemies, from Ahmadinejad to Osama bin Laden, talk about the West’s lack of resolve, Hoenlein said.

“It’s something that our enemy counts on,” he said. “What we have to show is we’re committed to a course of action that will be effective.”

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