NEW YORK - Too much attention has been paid to the rhetoric of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and not enough to the policies of the ayatollahs who really run the country, according to a rabbi who attended a New York dinner reception for the Iranian leader last week.
"He's the mouthpiece - we spend way too much time focusing on him," Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, founder of the Shomer Shalom peace movement, told The Jerusalem Post
Gottlieb, who earlier this year became the first American rabbi to go to the Islamic Republic, joined about 300 people - including Mennonite pastors and a radical Muslim cleric - for a traditional breaking of the Ramadan fast on Thursday evening before he left New York.
It was the capstone on a whirlwind week for the Iranian leader, who on Tuesday told the US General Assembly that Israel was on its way to collapse and could not escape from the "cesspool" of violence "created by itself and supporters."
Outside on Thursday, several hundred people gathered along 42nd Street across from the Grand Hyatt Hotel, next to Grand Central Terminal, waving Israeli flags and signs reading "No feast for the beast."
Among those addressing the demonstrators - and the crush of evening commuters who paused outside the train station to listen - was MK Arye Eldad (National Union-National Religious Party), who exhorted his listeners not to "wait in vain" for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian threat.
"We know that we can trust no one but ourselves, and we will stop you, be sure, in whatever way we can," Eldad cried. "Your end, your end, Ahmadinejad, will serve as a lesson for any anti-Semite."
Inside, well-dressed guests lined up in the Hyatt's plush lobby and chatted amiably while waiting to go through tight security on the way into the ballroom, where Ahmadinejad appeared alongside the president of the United Nations General Assembly, Nicaraguan diplomat Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann.
Ahmadinejad delivered a brief speech in which he acknowledged that several million Jews had perished during World War II, according to Gottlieb. He did not take questions before leaving to catch a plane back to Teheran.
Gottlieb said she attended because it was important for religious groups to create a forum for engagement in the absence of formal diplomatic talks between the Iranian and the US governments.
"We were all there for the sake of pressuring the US government to engage in direct dialogue and conversation," she said.
"The emphasis shouldn't be on [Ahmadinejad] per se, he may not even be in office in June," Gottlieb added, referring to the upcoming Iranian elections.
The event - an Iftar meal to break the Ramadan fast, held at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Manhattan - was organized by a coalition of Mennonite, Quaker and other pacifist religious groups and billed as an interfaith dialogue on "the significance of religious contributions to peace." The Iranian mission to the UN was also a sponsor.
John Brademas, a former US Democratic congressman from Indiana and president emeritus of New York University, moderated.
"We ask you to find a way within your own country to allow for religious diversity, and to allow people to make their own choices as to which religion they will follow," Mennonite Central Committee Executive Director Arli Klassen told Ahmadinejad in his opening remarks, according to a press release from the Mennonite group.
One guest, Addie Banks, told the Post
she had participated in a similar gathering when Ahmadinejad was in New York for last year's UN powwow and felt it was important to keep "building bridges," though she acknowledged she was disappointed with the absence of progress toward peace over the past 12 months.
"We have to at least try," said Banks, a pastor and executive board member of the Mennonite Central Committee.
Others in the crowd included Imam Abdul Alim Musa, a black American Muslim cleric based in Washington who has long supported Iran's Islamist government and who founded the Sabiqun, or Vanguard, movement, described by the Anti-Defamation League as a "radical and anti-Semitic ideology."
Iranian media and wire services, including The Associated Press, were permitted inside the ballroom. Organizers denied repeated requests from the Post
to attend, at various points citing the desire to keep the media presence small.
Spokeswoman Andrea Louie of Religions for Peace told a Jerusalem Post
reporter at the ballroom entrance that only agencies that covered last year's interfaith gathering with Ahmadinejad were invited this year. She said she could not comment on why Israeli and Jewish press appeared to have been excluded.
Across the street from the hotel, a loose coalition of more than 60 groups - including evangelical Christians, Iranian dissidents, Jewish organizations and American political groups - tried to make their voices heard.
"The Hyatt hosts terrorists!" they chanted intermittently.
Ahmadinejad, in his UN speech and in meetings with the press this week, has repeatedly accused the US and the "Zionists," as he steadfastly refers to Jews and Israel, of serving "base, material" ends and claimed that he represents the godly path of the global oppressed.
Others invited to sit at the head table included the UN's d'Escoto Brockmann, a Roman Catholic priest and onetime publisher of liberation theology books who was once an official with the World Council of Churches, also an event sponsor.
Israel's ambassador to the UN, Gabriela Shalev, sharply criticized d'Escoto ahead of the dinner, accusing him of "tainting" his role at the UN by appearing alongside Ahmadinejad. D'Escoto had already drawn fire earlier in the week for hugging Ahmadinejad after the Iranian leader's address to the UN General Assembly, in which he described Israel as a "cesspool" of violence.
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