Jews, activists unite ahead of UN parley

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. (photo credit: AP)
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
(photo credit: AP)

When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad enters the United Nations to give his General Assembly address in New York this week, he will face an unprecedented coalition of Jewish, Iranian, labor, African-American and other activists demonstrating against his regime.

Ahmadinejad himself played a role in bringing all these groups together for Thursday's rally, as his government's brutal crackdown on dissidents following June's flawed presidential elections has led many progressive Jews to take a more aggressive stance on Iran and helped ally non-Jewish groups with campaigns against the Iranian regime, according to Jewish leaders across the political spectrum.

Mainstream Jewish leaders are seizing on that shift to emphasize the consensus in the Jewish community to greater effect when seeking sanctions as Iran's nuclear clock ticks down. Some are also pointing out that the wide agreement marginalizes those Jewish groups who have not endorsed the same approach.

"Obviously the events in June have had a great impact on Americans and in the minds of people in America, and I think that's what you're seeing in terms of the numbers of groups that have joined us," said one of the rally's organizers, Steve Gutow of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, who pointed to an unprecedented coalition with nearly 50 non-Jewish groups - including the NAACP, AFL-CIO and the Progressive American Iranian Committee.

A similar number of Jewish groups, mostly under the aegis of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, has also signed on.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Presidents' Conference, said that while "the nuclear issue doesn't necessarily resonate as it does with us," the broader theme of human rights has been "a way to bring other groups into this outside of the Jewish community."

Gutow said the Jewish organizers had consciously chosen the theme "Stand for Freedom in Iran" to cast as wide a net as possible, whereas previous years' demonstrations against Ahmadinejad at the UN had focused less on human rights issues.

"Any time you name a rally you think about, 'How is it going to play? What will draw people?'" Gutow said.

The unions, for instance, have been drawn by the focus on labor conditions in Iran.

"Our concern is the suppression of workers' rights in Iran and the suppression of democracy," explained Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which will be participating in the rally for the first time this year.

"I think we've had long-standing concerns and the coalition that came together on Iran gave us the opportunity to express those concerns."

Appelbaum also heads another organization, the Jewish Labor Committee, which played an unusually prominent role in a connected event, Iran Advocacy Day, which brought more than 300 Jewish activists to Washington last week to urge stepped-up sanctions against Iran.

Ahead of the advocacy day, Judaism's various religious streams took the rare step of penning a joint letter urging greater action against Iran, including calls for tightening sanctions.

Gutow, himself a rabbi from the progressive Reconstructionist Movement, said the Iranian human rights violations following the elections struck chords with religious leaders.

"I certainly think June 12 had a huge impact on all of us, myself included," Gutow said, and added that the same was true for the progressive Jewish community in general.

"Progressive Jews, while they're very, very concerned about the nuclear weapons issue, are very deeply engaged with human rights issues and issues of democracy, and I'd argue that really stoked the fires of many progressive Jews."

He described a change in the reaction he gets from this constituency. They tell him, "'Yeah, we really have to do something!' There's a different feeling in the air," he said.

The Reform Religious Action Center played a more prominent role in last week's gathering as well.

Though the movement has long supported action on Iran, "we made it a point to play a different kind of role and a more visible kind of role," Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center, noted. "That better reflects where we've been."

He pointed particularly to the signs that Congress is ready to start pressing for increased sanctions as a turning point in the RAC's advocacy. US House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman told the Jewish groups in Washington that he planned to move his sanctions bill in October unless Iran got serious about negotiations over its nuclear capabilities.

Since then, the US and Iran have agreed to meet for talks on October 1, but Teheran has so far ruled out discussions on its nuclear program.

Several leaders of major Jewish organizations welcomed the increased involvement.

"To bolster the point that we can't have complacency [on Iran], we have to show that unanimity in our community," said B'nai B'rith International Executive Vice President Dan Mariaschin. "It's important when we're going to the Europeans" to call on them to take a stronger sanctions stance.

Another Jewish organizational official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the importance of including a significant segment of Jewish progressives within the coalition's approach on Iran was also important because of the message it sent about which liberal groups don't agree with its program.

"There is a deliberate effort by the more mainstream groups … to ensure that the left flank of the mainstream groups feels represented and feels like its voice is being heard as a way of keeping them inside the tent and keep them from jumping ship and joining the J Street flotilla," as well as to make the case that J Street doesn't represent a significant chunk of Jewish opinion, he said.

J Street and Americans for Peace Now (APN) were among the few national Jewish groups that did not participate in the advocacy day or sign on to the demand for immediately tightening sanctions against Iran.

J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami rejected the notion that his organization's positions were far outside the consensus of those who participated in the advocacy day, though he objected to their call for immediately imposing additional sanctions.

"We're not opposed to sanctions," Ben-Ami said, explaining that the group opposed new sanctions before the US and Iran had even held their first meeting. "We would support the imposition of sanctions at the right time."

APN put out a lengthy position paper on Iran shortly before the advocacy day, which also opposed sanctions in the short term. The group specifically pushed back against the proposed new sanctions, arguing that only more targeted sanctions, put in place once engagement had more time to work, should be contemplated.

"The difference is in using a magnifying glass to look at this situation in a more detailed, nuanced, studied fashion," said APN spokesman Ori Nir of the group's Iran policy, adding that the organization didn't participate in the advocacy day, because "we wanted to avoid the adoption of sloganeering and inflammatory language."

In terms of how other Jewish groups viewed the decision, he said that "when we were formulating the positions of our policy, we didn't look left or right to see what other groups are saying. We put out the policy that we think represents the right approach."

Even if some Jewish groups haven't joined in the advocacy effort or rally planned for next week, Jennifer Mizrahi of The Israel Project is still glad to see how many have.

"It's very good to see the community unity and see that a lot of other organizations that previously weren't as focused on Iran are now focusing on Iran," said Mizrahi, whose organization has for years worked for harsher Iran sanctions.

"When you're dealing with an existential threat to Israel, we need all the support that we can get."