May 23, 2005

Protesters fail to mar PM's NYC welcome


Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was greeted in New York on Sunday with a warm welcome from American Jewry's major communal organizations at a speech in Manhattan and an angry demonstration of Jews outside protesting the Gaza withdrawal plan.

In his first visit to New York's Jewish community since 2001, Sharon talked about the strong bond between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, the need for combating assimilation through Zionist Jewish education and making aliya the No. 1 priority of his government. Everything went smoothly until Sharon began talking about the disengagement plan, at which point hecklers clad in orange T-shirts with "Gush Katif forever" printed on the back interrupted the prime minister's speech, shouting, "Jews do not expel other Jews!"

They quickly were ushered out of the packed auditorium while Sharon quipped, "Thank you so much for your help; usually I handle these things myself."

After finishing his speech, the prime minister unexpectedly returned to the podium to offer an impromptu observation. "It's impossible to defeat Jews, and we had a sign of that today," he said with a chuckle.

Sharon was in town for several meetings with US Jews, first in New York and later in the week in Washington, where he is slated to address the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Before delivering his speech at Baruch College, of the City University of New York, the prime minister had to sit through two national anthems, four prayers, three divrei Torah, one a cappella performance and too many speeches to count by U.S. Jewish organizational officials.

"Arik Sharon has been a warrior on behalf of the defense of Israel and the Jewish people; he is now a peacemaker on behalf of his efforts to reach peace with his neighbors," said Mortimer Zuckerman, a past chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, introducing Sharon. "We are blessed to have him as the leader of Israel at this crucial time."

"If there is one thing I can assure the prime minister and his representatives," Zuckerman said, "the overwhelming majority of the Jewish community in America supports his overwhelming efforts to be a peacemaker. The Jews will never be unanimous about anything, but what we must do is unite in every way we can out of concern for Israel in its time of need."

Meanwhile, a steady drizzle did little to dampen the spirits of a crowd of demonstrators outside chanting, "Shame on you!"

Several hundred people gathered on a crowded sidewalk to hold aloft orange placards condemning the Gaza withdrawal. One read, "PM Sharon: Gush-Katif not Anatevka," a reference to the fictitious Eastern European shtetl in "Fiddler on the Roof." Standing shoulder to shoulder with protesters from Kach, which is outlawed in Israel, and dozens of Chabad Hasidim, the protestors listened to rabbis and Orthodox leaders denounce the prime minister's plan.

"The people of Gush Katif-these are the heroes of the Jewish people, these are the best that we have," blared Dov Hikind, a New York State Assemblyman and Orthodox Jew from Brooklyn who has said that he has put his staff to work to gin up opposition to Sharon's withdrawal plan. "Have we done everything possible to show Hashem that we care?"

Inside, Sharon spoke under a huge banner reading, "We Stand with Israel NOW and Forever." In the audience, a group of students wearing T-shirts that read, "For Israel's sake end the occupation" filled an entire row.

"I am willing to make painful compromises for peace," Sharon said. "I think that the entire world can now see how hard such compromises are."

He said, "The decision about the disengagement was a very hard decision for me. I know the settlers in Gaza well. As a farmer, I followed with appreciation their agricultural achievements. As a soldier I followed with admiration their bravery."

Sharon added, "When it comes to the sucrity of the Israeli citizens, there are not going to be any compromises, not now, not in the future-never!"

About 1,200 people turned out for the Baruch College speech, which was hosted jointly by the UJA-Federation of New York, the Conference of Presidents and the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella group. Israel's ambassadors to the United States and United Nations, Daniel Ayalon and Dan Gillerman, respectively, and Israel's consul general in New York, Arye Mekel, sat on the podium along with Sharon and the U.S. Jewish organizational leaders.

During his tenure in office, Sharon has been notoriously reticent to visit New York, which several American speakers took pains to point out was the world's largest Jewish city.

"Mr. Prime Minister, New York is proud to welcome you on your first visit in four years to the largest Jewish community in the world," said Morris Offit, the president of UJA-Federation of New York.

When it finally came time for Sharon to speak, he was welcomed by an extended standing ovation complete with whoops and whistles.

Sharon was scheduled to meet with Jewish leaders in New York on Sunday night, and with Israel Bonds and UJA-Federation on Monday before traveling to Washington.