NEW YORK — Thousands of protesters filled Dag Hammarskjold Plaza opposite the United Nations for a rally against Iran’s president, who came to town to address the General Assembly.
“The message to him is please go home,” Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel said at Monday’s demonstration. “Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, go home and stay home. We don’t want you here.”
Wiesel called for U.N. members to declare Ahmadinejad persona non grata and to exit the General Assembly hall in protest when he speaks Tuesday
“In truth, the proper place of Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is not in the U.N.,” Wiesel said. “His place is before an international tribunal which will charge him with inciting crimes against humanity.”
The Jewish-sponsored rally was meant to highlight the Iranian regime’s threats to Israel and the rest of the world with its pursuit of nuclear weapons, as well as its Holocaust denial, and to send a message to Ahmadinejad, organizers said.
Rally speakers stayed on message, slamming the visiting Iranian leader and warning of the threat a nuclear Iran would pose to the United States, Israel and the world.
There was little sign of the political controversy that enveloped the event last week, when an invitation to the Republican vice-presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, was withdrawn two days after U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) canceled her longstanding plans to address the rally.
With thousands of participants chanting “Stop Iran now!” and waving Israeli flags, speakers from Israel’s Knesset to Canada’s Parliament issued admonitions to Ahmadinejad and urged the international community to oppose the regime in Tehran.
Irwin Cotler, a noted human rights lawyer and former Canadian justice minister who has been part of an effort to charge Ahmadinejad with incitement to genocide, said the Iranian leader’s visit to New York “made a mockery of history, law and the United Nations itself.”
Natan Sharansky, a former Israeli Cabinet minister and Soviet dissident, recalled his own struggle against the Soviet “evil empire” and urged the crowd to keep faith even when challenging a great power. He also called for “moral clarity” that distinguishes between proponents of peace and extremists who “believe you must kill people to go to the next world.”
“Never lose heart,” Sharansky said. “This is the fight we can win. This is the fight we must win. This is the fight we will win.”
Attendance at the rally was made up primarily of students bused in from Jewish day schools in the greater New York area, though some traveled from as far as Canada to attend.
“It’s a really important cause,” said Cara Stern, 19, a second-year student at Carleton University in Ottawa who traveled to the rally with 130 Canadian students. “It’s something that I think we should be fighting for.”
While the participation of American political personalities was scrapped for the New York rally, elected officials did show up for a like-minded rally in downtown Washington.
(JTA Washington correspondent Eric Fingerhut contributed to this report from Washington.)