Protesters await Ahmadinejad at UN

Protesters await Ahmadin

A broad cross-section of Jewish and human rights groups are mounting demonstrations and rallies this week to protest Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to the UN General Assembly. The Iranian leader - set to address the assembly on Wednesday afternoon - will be met by an abundance of protesters outside the UN headquarters on First Avenue. Organizers of several events taking place this week said protesters were appalled by Ahmadinejad's anti-Israel rhetoric, his recent reiteration that the Holocaust was a "lie," his country's nuclear program, and the gross human rights violations and violence following June's presidential election. "There's a real sense that this has become a global human rights issue, not just an issue of the Holocaust-denying threats to Israel that we in the Jewish community have been familiar with," said David Mallach, managing director of the Commission on the Jewish People at UJA-Federation of New York, who is helping to plan a massive rally in New York on Thursday. "The veneer of a democratic election has been shown to be a sham," Mallach said. Inside the GA hall, member-states may also boycott the Iranian leader's speech. Ambassador Gabriela Shalev, Israel's permanent representative to the UN, told The Jerusalem Post that the Israeli delegation would not attend the address. "Prime Minister [Binyamin] Netanyahu will not be there," she said, "because he does not want to be in the same hall as Ahmadinejad." When Ahmadinejad speaks, "we will not be there," she asserted. The American Jewish community is planning the major demonstration on Thursday in conjunction with a broad group that includes labor unions, ethnic and religious groups, and Iranian-Americans. The "Stand for Freedom in Iran Rally," set to take place at noon at New York's Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, is expected to mobilize protesters - including Iranian students who marched in Teheran following the elections - to push for the cessation of human rights abuses and an end to genocide and terrorism. "It's a broad coalition with a broad, inclusive message," said Michael Miller, executive vice president and CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, which helped organize the event. "As central as the threat to Israel is, the threat from Iran encompasses that and beyond," Miller said. Indeed, members of the Iranian American community in New York plan to protest on Wednesday, just as Ahmadinejad addresses the General Assembly. The Association of Iranian Americans has appealed to member-states to boycott the speech. "We condemn his recent comments," said Moe Alafchi, the association's director. "We definitely never believed there was any real election in Iran. Iranian people want freedom and a democratic government." Human rights groups are also calling for the UN to demand accountability from Ahmadinejad. On Monday, Human Rights Watch and the International Campaign for Human Rights called on UN member-states to appoint a special UN envoy to investigate the human rights crisis in Iran. The groups released a 14-page report documenting murder, torture and rape of detainees, as well as arrests, "disappearances" and other abuses in the wake of June's election. "UN member-states, meeting as the General Assembly, have a responsibility to uphold UN human rights principles and demand that Iran stop these grave violations," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at HRW. Meanwhile, as Ahmadinejad plans to touch down in New York, the group United Against a Nuclear Iran has put pressure on New York hotels and conference facilities to boycott him. The Helmsley Hotel, where Ahmadinejad was to address a banquet, turned him away after being contacted by UANI. Gotham Hall, a catering hall that was to host a speech on September 25, similarly shut down the event. "Once we learned of the nature of this event and the attendance of President Ahmadinejad, we took steps to cancel the event," David Miller, a representative of Apple Core Holdings, the parent company of Gotham Hall, said in a statement. UANI president Mark Wallace applauded both actions. "Gotham Hall made a decision to align itself with the international community to isolate Iran and its thuggish theocracy," he said. "We thank our supporters for helping us in our mission to disrupt Iran's ability to do business as long as it continues to finance an illegal nuclear weapons program." Demonstrations will not be limited to New York. A group of pro-Israel students at Brown University in Rhode Island and Brandeis, Boston, Harvard and Tufts universities in Massachusetts organized a grassroots response to Ahmadinejad's appearance at the GA. They plan to deliver hundreds of letters to local lawmakers, protesting the Iranian government's nuclear program and urging legislators to support the US Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act of 2009. "Much of our conversation with students on campus has had to do with the policies of the Iranian government, including their attempts to gain nuclear weapons, but also the brutal repression following the elections," said Harry Reis, a Brown University student and the political affairs coordinator for Brown Students for Israel. Reis said Brown students had traveled to New York to protest the Iranian leader's speech at the GA, but they felt this year's campaign could yield more concrete results. "We want to tie our activities to a tangible outcome," he said. Meanwhile, the Young World Labor Zionist Movement, a movement of young Israeli activists affiliated with the Labor Party, is using online social networks, outreach to Israel-based foreign journalists, and participation in an anti-Ahmadinejad rally in New York on Wednesday to tell the world "that young Israelis show solidarity for young people and students in another country who want to live a free and democratic life like ours and take responsibility for their future," in the words of YWLZM chairman Yoni Itzhak. "The Iranian regime is arresting and raping young women, torturing young dissenters. We're protesting for Iranian youth," explained Daphne Cohen, a volunteer spokeswoman for the effort. On Wednesday, YWLZM activists will join members of Ameinu, the successor to the Labor Zionist Alliance, at a rally against Ahmadinejad's speech. The group is encouraging thousands of its members to change their statuses on social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to "Young Israelis for young Iranians" for the day. Finally, the group is reaching out to foreign reporters in Israel to get the word out in support of the Iranian protesters. Asked whether the Iranian youth would do the same for young Israelis, Cohen replied earnestly that it didn't matter. "Maybe the Iranian people don't want the best for us, but the Jewish people needs to do these things for Iranian youth, even if it's doing it for the sake of Zionism and Judaism," she said. Haviv Rettig Gur contributed to this report.