During Rosh HaShanah, Rabbi (Gordon) Tucker, in speaking about Jewish particularism at the expense of universalism (not an issue that I think is of any concern to the TIC community, but more on that another time), urged those at shul to attend the "Stand For Freedom in Iran" rally which was held yesterday at the UN. I had seen flyers for the rally but had Yeshivat Hadar so figured I wouldn't bother; however, given that I can take 1.5 days per month and it was the last day of Elul Zman before break, I figured, why not go?
And so yesterday afternoon, after chevruta, I headed down over to the East Side. I knew that East Midtown and the UN area would be in a high-security zone and was intrigued by what that might look like. I was also hoping to finally catch a glimpse of the Obama presidential motorcade. Sure enough, exiting Grand Central and walking east on 42nd Street, half the street lanes were closed as NYPD vehicles and mysterious black cars with sirens encircled the area.
As I came to the corner of 2nd Ave & E. 42nd Street-at that point, 2nd Ave to the north is called "Yitzhak Rabin Way" and on the south is "Nelson R. Mandela Corner"-I hit a point where only those with UN access were allowed to continue. I asked a UN Security Guard where "civilians" should go and he told me I could come down 43rd St. I followed his instructions and headed up 2nd Ave, then down 43rd St. As I came toward where I thought 1st Ave was going to be, I realize that there was a small street in between called Tudor City Place. I then walked down a staircase and came upon a lovely new discovery, the Isaiah Wall and Ralph Bunche Park which are on the other side of 1st Ave from the UN headquarters. There I witnessed a total shutdown of 1st Ave except to NYPD and other vehicles, and occasional small groups of cars pulling in to the UN HQ. I walked over to a bunch of cops and asked if they knew if the Obama motorcade would be appearing (in retrospect, a silly question, since I later learned they never answer the question honestly). I was told I had missed it by 10 minutes and let out a groan, then turned around and headed toward 47th and 2nd where the rally was to be held.
The rally was essentially what I expected, basically, a giant Jew party, though there were some other non-Jewish groups mixed in. Freedom in Iran is certainly an important cause, both in terms of the human rights of the Iranian people, and for the security of the US/Israel/Western Europe/everyone else. But I'm not really sure what the effect of a few thousand people gathered at Dag Hammerskjold Plaza will have in terms of this issue. Clearly the Obama administration would like greater freedom in Iran, but not exactly that can be done at this moment-no occupying and nation-building in Iran at this point, or for a long time.
I think the most positive effect will be for those courageous Iranians who stand up to the despotic regime they live under; knowing that there are Americans far away who stand with them could definitely be a confidence boost in face of the enormously powerful government forces against them.
As I commented to a few people at the rally, I wonder how long the topic of Iranian freedom will remain on political agendas. Iran has never been a free country in the way that we Americans/Westerners define freedom, not under the regime of the Islamic Republic (1979-present), not under the Pahlavi dynasty, and not before then. And while there has been (legitimate) worry about an Iranian nuclear program for a few years, there hasn't been popular talk of the oppression under which Iranians live until this past summer, with the riots that followed the rigged election of June 12 that were brutally put down by the Revolutionary Guards and other security forces. So, if the Iranian nuclear program is stopped by diplomacy and/or force, will anyone still be calling for freedom in Iran? It would be imperative not to, lest the popular furor aroused this summer against Ahmadenijad and the Guardian Council fade into memory. Allowing the Islamic Republic regime to escape unscathed with what it perpetrated last summer also strengthens it and makes it harder to delay its nuclear weapons program.
Lastly, I had a brief but interesting conversation with a guy from the State Dept. named Teddy, just after the rally finished. He started off by asking me if I was Israeli, and when I answered "No, just a Jew," he responded with, "Well then I'm just a guinea." It became clear that he was not much of an Obama fan, apparently because he thought that the President should focus on domestic issues and not get tangled up in foreign policy. I told him that while I didn't always like the way Obama has approached Israel, I think his tackling of issues home and abroad-simulatneously attempting health care reform and chairing the U.N. security council, for example-is a refreshing change from a Bush administration that was consumed by foreign policy. I then asked him how he found it working under an administration he clearly disagreed with. Teddy said he just had to learn to seperate the personal and the political. A fascinating convo I would have enjoyed continuing.
Teddy also explained that when you ask security officials whether the Presidential motorcade has passed by, the answer is always "10 minutes ago," which is what I had been told. I should have realized I would not get a real answer to the question. However, as I came back down 1st Ave, the same police officer who has previously told me that said, without my even asking, that I had "just missed" the Obamacade. That would have meant it rolled by at about 1:30, however politico.com says Obama did not leave New York until 2:20 PM. Guess I'll never know who told the truth-it seems likely that noone did.
Finally, on the walk back toward Grand Central, I saw a small motorcade ferrying some individual up Park Avenue. 3 black cars with men inside wearing suits and dark sunglasses and leaning out windows sped by me, though they kept getting stuck in traffic. Reminded once more that this was no ordinary day, I headed back to Hadar, my head swimming in thoughts about politics and foreign policy.