Tens of thousands rally for Israel at U.S. Capitol

Busloads from Baltimore join Jews from across country, top officials

April 16, 2002|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - Tens of thousands of supporters of Israel poured onto the U.S. Capitol lawn yesterday, to pray for peace and to assert that nation's right to defend its people and strike back against Palestinian attacks.

By car, bus, train and chartered plane, demonstrators descended upon Washington and made their way by 1:30 p.m. to the sun-splashed West Front of the Capitol with Israeli and American flags, anti-terror signs and a forceful message that Israel will not be defeated and will not go away.

Among the crowd were schoolchildren, their parents and grandparents from Baltimore-area synagogues. They packed about 100 buses, which joined hundreds of others on the clogged roads into Washington.

"We will win this war, we will secure our state, and we will preserve our liberty," former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the cheering crowd, as members of Congress and their staffs watched from balconies behind him.

Netanyahu and other speakers denounced Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as a terrorist on a par with Osama bin Laden.

"Do you negotiate with him?" he asked the crowd.

"No!" they responded.

"Do you make peace with him?"

"No!" they shouted back.

"You do the same thing with him that the United States just did to the Taliban," Netanyahu said. "You defeat him."

He called the three-hour rally the largest gathering in support of Israel since its creation in 1948. The Capitol lawn was packed with demonstrators who spilled onto nearby streets and created traffic snarls for blocks.

Buses that were supposed to park at RFK Stadium were diverted when the parking lots filled up, and hundreds of demonstrators abandoned the buses on Interstate 295 and hiked the 32 blocks to the Capitol under a blistering midday sun.

U.S. Capitol police declined to estimate the size of the crowd. Officials with Washington's subway system reported that by 4 p.m. the subway had carried 440,160 passengers, or 80,276 more than it did by the same time the previous Monday.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and United Jewish Communities sponsored the rally.

It came together in just a week, as Jewish leaders across the United States decided to make a strong, visible statement of solidarity with friends, family and fellow Jews living in Israel.

"Because of the distance, the Jews in Israel don't know how much we care, but this is tearing our guts out," said Rabbi Moshe Hauer of the Bnai Jacob synagogue in Northwest Baltimore, which filled seven buses for the rally.

As the buses idled on I-295, Hauer led congregants in chanting psalms and called his parents in Jerusalem on his cell phone. "The road is filled with buses," he told them. "We're rallying for Israel sitting in traffic."

Some people said they were motivated to attend the rally by the frequent pro-Palestinian rallies in Washington and around the world.

"It seems like it's the world against Israel," said Andy Tarr, 34, a Miami lawyer who held a blue sign that read, "Miami Stands with Israel." Others signs let it be known that New Jersey, Ohio, Atlanta and Chicago stood with Israel, too.

Besides Netanyahu, the speakers included House Majority Leader Dick Armey, House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryalnd, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, author Elie Wiesel and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz.

Wolfowitz was drowned out by chants of "no more Arafat" and booed as he told the crowd that "innocent Palestinians are suffering and dying as well. It is critical that we recognize and acknowledge that fact."

There were few counter-protests, and police officials described the demonstration as peaceful and well-organized.

Abba David Poliakoff, a Baltimore lawyer, sat with his family in the shade by the Capitol Reflecting Pool, listening to the speeches. They had come down on the bus with Bnai Jacob.

"We have to take active steps. It's not enough to be passively for Israel," said Poliakoff, 50, who has a son studying in Israel.

"During the Holocaust, millions of American felt they could do nothing. I don't want to be guilty of that same charge - that while Israel was dying, I sat at home and did nothing about it. This is vitally important."

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