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Speakers Stick to Consensus Theme at National Solidarity Rally for Israel
Sharon Samber and Matthew E. Berger

JTA Focus StoryWASHINGTON, April 15 (JTA) -- More than 100,000 Jews from across America converged on the U.S. Capitol for a rally expressing solidarity with Israel this week, and by and large they got what they came for.

Participants' political opinions spanned the spectrum of American Jewish life, but most speakers at Monday's event kept to the central -- and consensus -- theme of standing with Israel and fighting terrorism.

Security was tight as local police officers searched the bags of all guests as they crossed through two major checkpoints leading to the front of the Capitol, where the program was held beneath a sweltering sun.

Access was tightly controlled once the program began. Many people who arrived late to the 1 p.m. event because of delayed bus arrivals were not admitted to the central site.

Less strictly controlled was the rhetoric of speakers at the podium.

Mortimer Zuckerman, chairman of the Conference of Presidents, said there was a deliberate effort to allow all voices to be heard.

"We were happy to invite people from the Labor Party and Likud," he told JTA. "We're not going to censor their message."

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the United Jewish Communities threw the rally together in less than a week, as the Bush administration began pressuring Israel to end its military incursion into the West Bank and try again to strike a deal with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Audience members were reminded again and again of the terrorist threat Israel faces.

Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel condemned suicide bombings, warning that terrorism knows no boundaries.

"There is no sacred cause that justifies suicide bombings," Wiesel said.

Some called for more American engagement as a way to move out of the present impasse.

"We cannot stand on the sideline as the prospects for peace are undermined," said House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.). Gephardt said the United States must work to preserve and strengthen Israel's security, and the Palestinian Authority must turn "unequivocally" against terrorism.

The crowd responded loudly.

Official signs included "I Stand with Israel for Peace," "U.S. and Israel -- United Against Terror," and Israel's Fight = America's Fight."

The familiar speech ending of "God Bless America" was changed a number of times to "God Bless America and Israel."

The audience was less receptive when reminded of the Palestinians' plight.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, the sole representative of the Bush administration at the rally, told the crowd that "innocent Palestinians are suffering and dying as well. It is critical that we recognize and acknowledge that fact."

Wolfowitz was booed and drowned out by chants of "No More Arafat."

Conservative views were better received. Mention of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon -- criticized by some left-wing groups for Israel's military operation in the West Bank -- brought cheers from the crowd.

A Christian radio talk show host received roars of approval when she said, "We will never give up the Golan! We will never divide Jerusalem!"

A number of Christian groups sounded their support for the Jewish state.

"We stand with you," said Sister Rose Theiring, the founder of the National Christian Leadership Council for Israel. "Never again can we abandon Jews."

Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Arafat the "quintessential terrorist" and said Israel could not make peace with Arafat because the Palestinian leader doesn't want real peace.

"Arafat does not want a Palestinian state next to Israel, he wants a Palestinian state instead of Israel," Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu called for the dismantling of Arafat's regime and said other Palestinians will rise up to take leadership positions "once terrorism is defeated."

The charismatic Netanyahu had the crowd shouting and cheering.

"Americans know Yasser Arafat is nothing more than Osama bin Laden with good public relations," he said.

William Bennett, a well-known conservative and chairman of Americans for Victory Over Terrorism, said Israel should be allowed to fight its war against terror, and Americans will benefit.

House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) said attacks on innocent civilians were terrorism whether "it happens in New York, the Pentagon" or "the heart of Jerusalem." He rejected any kind of moral equivalency between Palestinian terror attacks and Israeli retaliation.

Monday's rally was believed to be the largest gathering of Jews in Washington since the rally for Soviet Jewry in December 1987, which drew more than 200,000.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents, told the audience at one point that Monday's crowd was approaching 200,000 people, but other organizers said a more realistic estimate was more than 100,000 people.

The precise number of participants may never be known, since Capitol Police and other law enforcement groups stopped counting the number of visitors for large events several years ago.

The swarm of visitors created havoc not only for Washington commuters, but for travelers throughout the Northeast Corridor. Congestion resulted in long lines on Metro trains and delays on major roads.

Dan Nichols, spokesman for the Capitol Police, said major backups were reported on New York Avenue, a major entranceway to Washington from the Northeast.

The Metro subway lines had more than 50,000 riders above normal Monday. The Metro station closest to the Capitol building had to be closed to all people trying to exit trains at around 3:15, spokesman Steven Taubenkibel said.

The number of buses entering RFK Stadium exceeded the 1,100 capacity, so Abe Pollin, owner of the Washington Wizards and Capitals and a Jewish philanthropist, allowed overflow buses to go to U.S. Airways Arena, which he owns.

Given the short planning time and the multiplicity of views in the Jewish community, advocates for dovish and hawkish viewpoints both had expressed apprehension about the message before the event.

Groups like Americans for Peace Now wanted the rally to focus on support for the Israeli state and people, but not the policies of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

The Zionist Organization of America was concerned that the message would not be supportive enough of Israel's military incursions.

In the end, leaders for both groups said they were satisfied with the results.

"It seems like people stuck to what the guideposts were for the event," said Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now.

"The message of the rally is very clear, standing with Israel," said Richard Heideman, president of B'nai B'rith International. "People can choose however they want to stand with Israel by themselves."

Israel's Minister of Housing Natan Sharansky glossed over the differences in message from the speakers or the crowd.

"We are not fighting for one or another political solution," Sharansky told JTA. "We are fighting for our existence."

© JTA (Reproduction or redistribution of these stories without permission is prohibited.)