Imagine for a moment witnessing the horrors of Holocaust, surviving and living decades with their terrifying memories, and then, in the first decade of the 21st century, hearing the head of a foreign country deny that the Holocaust ever occurred. Imagine the feelings that such a survivor might experience upon learning that the very same leader was invited to speak at Columbia University and address the United Nations. That is exactly what one Holocaust survivor was confronted with when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to New York to speak at Columbia on Sept. 24.
"I took the train to New York to this rally because I am living proof that the Holocaust definitely happened," said an elderly woman with a deep Eastern European accent. "I survived the Holocaust, and I want the president of Iran to know that we will not let it happen ever again."
The Sept. 24 "Rally to End the Iranian Threat" was sponsored by the Ad Hoc Coalition for Justice with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, in cooperation with the United Jewish Communities, UJA Federation of New York and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
The Iranian threat is one that should concern Americans and Israelis alike. Iran continues to pursue nuclear technology and to intensify its actions and provocations against Israel and the United States, including its repeated call for Israel to be wiped off the face of the map. Accordingly, the Israel Advocacy Task Force of the Center for Israel and Overseas of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia -- with its mission to educate the community at large on Israel and its neighbors -- has embarked on an important new initiative: understanding and communicating the Iranian threat.
As members of the Task Force and as first-year members of UJC's National Young Leadership Cabinet from Philadelphia, we traveled to New York to attend the rally with fellow Task Force member and fifth-year Philadelphia National Cabinet member Matt Handel, who had urged us to attend. We were joined by a contingency from the Philadelphia community riding on buses sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia with support from the Zionist Organization of America and altogether made a strong showing from the Philadelphia community. In total, four Philadelphia Cabinet members met up with those from New York, including National Young Leadership Cabinet co-chair Amy Warshaw.
As a veteran of a number of rallies, Handel said that "this one was impressive. It was well-organized, in the best setting at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza right by the U.N., and it had an excellent group of speakers. There were politicians, Jewish leaders, Christian preachers and, most movingly, Karnit Goldwasser, the wife of one of three Israeli soldiers being held hostage by Hezbollah and Hamas.
The crowd outside the United Nations, estimated between 10,000 to 25,000 strong, was a mix of professionals, high school and day-school students, haredim, Christians United for Israel and others.
"We are all gathered here with one voice -- one voice of people of many different colors and different religious traditions -- to stand up against the one thing that could collapse all of humanity. We shall not, we cannot, we will not, allow the venom of lies and hatred to go unchallenged. Together, we will not allow the destruction of Israel," declared Deacon Arthur Miller, director of the Office of Black Catholic Ministries in Hartford, Conn., one of the featured speakers.
The speakers faced a sea of people who held posters and signs that read: "No More Terrorism in New York," "Don't Let Iran Get the Bomb," and "America Stands With Israel."
It's Up to Each of Us!
We took a taxi uptown with sixth-year Philadelphia National Cabinet member Francine Lipstein and fellow Philadelphian Betsy Rentz to the rally at Columbia University, which had a more diverse crowd and a more vocal counter-rally than the one at the United Nations.
While acknowledging the evidence that Ahmadinejad has supplied weapons used to combat U.S. troops in Iraq, President Lee C. Bollinger of Columbia University argued that the invitation to the Iranian was consistent with the First Amendment's freedom of speech.
My reaction was to let Ahmadinejad "speak from a jail cell while he stands trial for conspiracy to commit murder."
My friend, Neil Cooper, a 1995 graduate of Columbia Law School, said in a letter to Columbia Law School Dean David M. Schizer: "Given Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial, stated intention to wipe Israel off the map, and Iran's sponsoring of international terrorism and involvement in targeting and killing American soldiers in Iraq (among many other acts and stated intentions), the invitation and hosting of his speech, and President Bollinger's support for it, is a disgrace and a stain on Columbia that will never be erased."
He asked the dean to solicit an apology from Bollinger for providing a "distinguished American platform to the Hitler of our time." As of the time of this publication, no apology has been issued.
"I am so proud to be on the front lines with such great leaders of our Cabinet," said Lipstein. "Years from now, if I am asked by my children, 'Where were you when the Iranian president came to New York?' I will be able to say: 'I was standing with Israel, I was standing for the freedoms of the United States, and I was doing everything I could to fight terror.' "
Handel explained in an e-mail to the members of the Philadelphia Men's Cabinet that as "a law-abiding country, it is our obligation to allow Ahmadinejad to travel to the U.S. to address the U.N., but as a moral group, it is also our obligation to register our shame and horror and what he has said, threatened, and done."
Cooper responded by saying that the event was "too important" not to go.
As a community that has seen many unbelievable threats realized in recent history, the Jewish people does not have the luxury to wait and see whether Ahmadinejad follows through on his words -- that he wants Israel and America attacked and destroyed.
As a community, we cannot not sit idly by and ignore such statements. By participating and speaking out, each individual member of our Jewish community, like the members of the Task Force, the National Young Leadership Cabinet and of the local community at the rally, can do our part to prevent Ahmadinejad's words from becoming a reality.
Jeffrey A. Barrack, a partner in the law firm of Barrack, Rodos & Bacine and Neil A. Cooper, a managing member of the Cooper Law Group, LLC, are members of the Israel Advocacy Task Force of the Center for Israel and Overseas of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.