NEW YORK—A large group of Canadian students showed their disapproval of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at a Sept. 22 rally in New York City.
The Canadians were among thousands protesting at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza against Ahmadinejad’s presence at the United Nations, where the Iranian leader was scheduled to speak the following day.
The trip was organized by the Canadian Federation of Jewish Students (CFJS), National Jewish Campus Life (NJCL), and Students Helping Others Understand Tolerance (SHOUT).
Dan Schloss, advocacy co-ordinator for Hillel Ottawa, estimated that 150 students from Ottawa, Toronto, Kingston and Montreal travelled to New York to take part in the rally against Ahmadinejad, who has repeatedly called for Israel’s destruction and whose country is said to be developing nuclear weapons.
The students had various reasons why they thought the protest was important.
“There were a lot of issues, but primarily we were concerned with protesting the plight of other human beings,” said Shima Vigodda, a third-year student at the University of Ottawa.
“This isn’t just an Israeli-Iranian issue. There are larger dimensions and larger implications.”
“There’s the possibility that [Canadian values] can be shifted silently without anybody knowing it,” said Amy Gill, a second-year master’s student at the University of Ottawa.
“If you don’t participate… things can change around you without your control.”
Stand With Us, an Israeli advocacy group, invited Micah Halpern, an analyst and expert on terrorism, to speak to the Canadian students. He explained the current situation in Iran, and why the rally was an important step.
“The reality is that [the rally is] not going to have a huge impact on Iran,” he said. “It’s going to have a huge impact on the nations which you’re coming from, western nations, which need to always stand up against evil.”
The rally began with Hebrew music, though many people in the crowd were not Jewish or Israeli. People danced and sang along, while countless people filled the plaza.
The speakers constantly led chants, urging the United Nations to “stop Iran now.”
Many of the speakers discussed the importance of separating Ahmadinejad from the Iranian people, insisting that the protest was against the president and the Iranian regime, not the country and its citizens.
Across the street, outside of the plaza, a group of Iranians were protesting the living conditions for Iranian citizens as a result of Ahmadinejad’s rule.
Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel spoke at the rally, urging “all the delegations at the United Nations across the street to leave the hall the moment he appears on stage.”
Wiesel said that Ahmadinejad is an “arch-criminal” who wants to follow Adolf Hitler’s footsteps by planning a nuclear Holocaust.
“Civilized people everywhere must join forces to oppose his visions of destruction,” he said.
“His place is not here [in New York], but in Europe, in Holland, in a UN prison cell.”
Ilana Chriqui, a first-year law student at the University of Montreal who is also co-president of Centre Hillel, the Montreal association for French Jewish students, spoke of a group of 20 Iranian students who are being held in prison for their association with an organization called Students for Freedom and Equality.
“All these students are now in prison, where they might be tortured or otherwise ill treated,” she said, concluding with a list of names of 10 of the prisoners.
A small group from Neturei Karta International, an organization of haredi Jews who oppose Zionism, also protested near the rally. The messages on their signs said Jews should not support Israel, because the group believes that Zionism contradicts Jewish tenets about the coming of the Messiah.
They held signs with messages such as, “The Iranian president respects Judaism, disrespects Zionism.”
Although the organized parts of the rally were non-partisan, some protesters were unhappy that Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton of New York and Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin were not present.
The previous week, an invitation to Palin to appear was withdrawn two days after Clinton cancelled longstanding plans to address the rally after she learned that Palin was invited.
Many signs showed support for the Republican party, while others focused on Clinton’s decision not to attend.
“It was a little disappointing that politics got dragged into it,” said Joshua Zelikovitz, president of Hillel at Queen’s University, “but I was very impressed with the rest of it.”
Yakov Fruchter, the director of Jewish leadership development for NJCL, said the educational aspect of the trip “ultimately will lead young people to have the knowledge and information to stand up and speak up more often.”
He said he hopes students will be inspired by their experience in New York, and continue to be active in trying to end the situation in Iran.
“My expectation is that nobody takes this as an isolated event,” he said, adding that often people need one experience to motivate them to become active and involved in the Jewish community.