Monday, April 22, 2002

The Great Rally

The great rally in Washington was a remarkable event because it primarily arose out of the intense feeling among many American Jews that at this time of crisis they had to be with Israel. They had to show the depths of their passion and their fears. People had to be there, no matter the cost or difficulty or their work and professional responsibilities. Schoolchildren traveled through the night, businessmen cancelled appointments and lawyers court appearances. Jews who had never gone to a demonstration were determined to be at this one.

If the body count was all that counted, the rally was a spectacular success because there were perhaps 250,000 participants. Of course, no more than the next person or the media do I know how many actually came, although the commonly cited figure of 100,000 is ridiculously low. My estimate is based on this formula: Our beloved New York Times put the crowd at more than 100,000. We know that the newspaper of record is prone to tell half-truths about Israel and so I doubled its estimate.

We need to thank the Presidents Conference for organizing the event and all who worked on the many details, yet it remains that this was essentially a spontaneous outpouring of sentiment. However, the participants – nearly all of whom traveled considerable distances, stood in the sun and were exhausted – deserved a better program. What they got were platitudinous politicians, meaningless machers and the suppression of their exuberance.

This was an event that deserved, maybe required, a great speech, words that would resonate years from now. Binyamin Netanyahu’s keynote was fine because he is a good speaker, but it wasn’t close to being memorable. The best of the considerable lot was Bill Bennett’s because he had passion and eloquence and a certain spiritual dignity. There were also the brief remarks of a woman from Christian Broadcasting who concluded with the words, “Am Yisrael Chai.”

This should have been the signal for joining in song, for 200,000 voices singing Am Yisrael Chai to express our commitment to Israel and the Jewish nation in the way that the Civil Rights Movement was energized through We Shall Overcome. It wasn’t to be, for to borrow from Robert Frost:

The crowd was lovely, large and deep
but the machers had promises to keep
and this was not a time for us to sing or weep
and it would be many hours before we would sleep.

Isn’t there a personality in Jewish life whose voice and words are imbued with poetry and music? And if there isn’t, let us allow the masses to compensate for this deficit with their exuberance and feelings. The week before the Washington rally, Avi Weiss organized a demonstration in New York that was full of spirit and music – and it was moving. Why can’t our leadership understand the need to convey our inner feelings about Israel?

The suggestion that we need a parade of politicians and organization people to mobilize congressional and public support for Israel is bunk. The overlong and uninspiring program satisfied the truncated vision of macherdom. I recognize that our leadership faces tremendous pressures on occasions like these from senators and assorted VIPs who want to speak. That is all the more reason why discipline must be maintained by severely limiting the number of such speakers, else those who are not included on the program are certain to be upset.

There were special moments, which much of the crowd (and I) missed. After more than three hours of speeches, Seth Mandell of Tekoah in Israel was introduced. He asked the crowd to join him in reciting aloud Shema Yisrael because he did not have the opportunity to say this most fundamental prayer with his 14-year old son Koby before he was brutally murdered by terrorists. He should have opened the program.

Israel’s future will not be decided on the battlefield of public relations, yet the shaping of opinion is important. Sadly, we have stories to tell of terror and loss, of widows and orphans, of parents of murdered children, of thousands who are badly maimed. We relegate these stories to a secondary position.

A year ago, I attended a memorable dinner on the Intrepid sponsored by the Hebron Fund. All of the speeches were touching and there was a remarkable talk given by a young mother. The event had an impact, even a year later. Nearly always we showcase spokesmen and politicians with their predictable messages, words that mask our tears and fears. The truth is that so many Jews went to Washington because being there was an outlet for their pain and fear.

The rally also fell short in its failure to give anything close to sufficient attention to the religious dimension, to the linking of our support for Israel to our faith. By comparison, Christian speakers made the case for Israel precisely in such terms. For us, a religious message was largely off-limits, perhaps to reflect the growing secularization of our leadership and, sadly, of our masses. The little of a religious nature that was included in the program, such as a Reconstructionist Rabbi reading a passage from Psalms, was not effective and it probably was inappropriate.

The omission of a religious dimension was especially disturbing because the Orthodox constituted at least two-thirds of the rally’s participants. The dayschoolers should have experienced something of a religious event. It is also noteworthy that many came from the yeshiva-world segment of Orthodoxy.

It has been said – I believe rightly – that this was as important a rally as we have had in half a century. We have been told often enough that the Orthodox constitute no more than ten percent of American Jews. When ten percent of American Jews provide more than two-thirds of those who made it to Washington, there is an additional reason to be concerned about Israel – and, of course, the future of American Jewry.