Story Behind the Image

Narrated by Tom Smerlingtom-smerling 

Here's the back story to this news photo by Beverly Orr. This is Tom Smerling. At the time, I was the Executive Director of Project Nishma, a small Jewish peace organization. It was September 28, 1995. Israeli Prime Minister Rabin and PLO Chairman Arafat were headed to the White House to sign with President Clinton the second Oslo Peace Agreement. Meanwhile, back in Israel, the Israeli right was going crazy staging loud demonstrations branding Rabin a nazi and a traitor. Part of their strategy was to isolate Rabin by making it seem that not just Jews in Israel but most Jews everywhere were against him. So, they mobilized their American Jewish allies here in the U.S.

Now, the vast majority of American Jews supported Rabin's effort, but two years earlier at the signing of the first Oslo agreement, while hundreds of Jewish leaders from all the organizations were inside applauding Rabin, outside the White House gates, just two anti-peace demonstrators with a large sign sat condemning Rabin and they made it into many, many TV and news stories making it seem that American Jews were much more divided than we really were.

So, what could we do to make sure this didn't happen at the second signing? We only had a few days to plan, and when you're a small organization without tons of money or thousands of members, you have to be creative like Saul Alinksy. So, we set two goals. First, to try to get some visual publicity showing Jewish support for Oslo and second, to preempt the anti-peace demonstrators from capturing the media again.

The Monday after the announcement that the signing would take place happened to be Rosh Hashanah. So my colleague Gene Burger rushed out of shul early to get to the National Park Reservation Office before anybody else could to preempt the right wingers by reserving LaFayette Park, the premier demonstration site across from the White House, for a pro-peace demonstration that we hadn't even planned yet. But we knew we'd come up with something . 

We decided to pursue two goals. We created a photo op with some huge banners large that could be seen from the White House lawn where the TV cameras would be likely be set up to film Arafat and Rabin as they entered. One of those banners that you can see in the photo is a giant blow-up of a full page New York Times ad we had run with other Jewish organizations in support of Rabin a week or so earlier. Then we rounded up a dozen or so rabbis to show up in rabbinical garb with large shofarim. The tactic was that while the cameraman were sitting around for something to happen that they might hear the shofarim, look across the street, see the banners and take some camera shots.

It was a bit of a longshot and, in fact, it didn't work very well. We got some print media but nothing on TV. However, the second strategy of preempting the anti-peace demonstrators by reserving the park, creating facts on the ground so to speak, that worked great. The right wing demonstration was relegated to an obscure park a few blocks away where few journalists would see them. So you win some, you lose some.

We figured we accomplished the most important of our two goals. Tragically just six weeks later, Yitzahk Rabin was assassinated by a right wing extremist and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process never fully recovered from the loss of his leadership.