NEW YORK (JTA) – Some 100 to 200 passengers in all, they came as members of a self-described True Freedom Flotilla intent on promoting a Middle East-related humanitarian mission.
Instead of breaking the Israeli blockade of Gaza, however, as was the goal of the flotilla of ships that was intercepted May 31 by the Israeli Navy in the Mediterranean Sea, this flotilla sought to call attention to the plight of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held captive in Gaza.
Two ships set sail from Pier 40 on Manhattan’s West Side to the waters of the East River near the United Nations, on the other side of Manhattan Island. They were joined by several motorboats.
“We have to point it out in a dramatic way to get the message out,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which organized last week’s flotilla. “We can’t just write another letter to the president.”
The flotilla was one of several initiatives around the world over the last few days calling attention to the plight of Shalit, who was taken captive in a cross-border raid four years ago this month.
At a time when the world appears to be more focused on Israel’s blockade of Hamas-run Gaza and the Palestinian population inside Gaza, organizers of the Shalit events said they wanted to shift attention back to Hamas’ refusal to release Shalit or even allow him a visit by the International Red Cross.
Hamas and Israel have been unable to reach accord on a deal to free Shalit, who was taken captive on June 25, 2006 in a raid along the Israel-Gaza border.
Calling their ship the True Freedom Flotilla was one way the organizers of the Shalit events sought to recast the interpretation of events in the Middle East to portray Hamas as the true aggressor, not Israel.
The name True Freedom Flotilla was meant to “point out the exact hypocrisy of the terminology that they used,” Hoenlein said. “This is what the real flotilla is about.”
In Chicago, Jewish groups held a candlelight vigil for Shalit, drawing some 500 people, and called on users of the online social networking sites Facebook and Twitter to change their profile pictures to one of the captive Israeli soldier and to promote his release in status updates.
"It’s nice to express your views on things and not just be sitting at home and watching a movie all night,” 12-year-old Meital Hoffman, a student at the Solomon Schechter Day School in Skokie, Ill., said at the vigil, according to Chicago JUF News. “It’s good to do something and be noticed and make a difference."
In Rome, the floodlights illuminating the ancient Colosseum were turned off at 11 p.m. — midnight in Israel — on the day four years ago that Shalit was taken captive. Floodlights were turned off as well at the Castello Sforzesco in Milan and the Mole Antonelliano in Turin, a towering building that is the symbol of the city and originally was designed, but never used, as a synagogue.
In Paris, thousands who turned out for pro-Israel demonstrations called for the release of Shalit, who holds dual French-Israeli citizenship.
In Washington, the U.S. House of Representatives marked the anniversary of Shalit’s capture by unanimously passing a resolution calling for his release. U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) initiated the House bill.
"These allegedly religious militants are just thugs — nothing more," Ackerman said of Hamas in his floor speech introducing the nonbinding resolution. "They hold up all kinds of banners and they champion all sorts of causes and they claim all kinds of mandates. But their real goal is power, and their true intention is the destruction of Israel."
In Israel, Shalit’s family and at least 2,000 supporters were marching to Jerusalem from the family’s home in Mitzpe Hila, near the Israel-Lebanon border, to demand Shalit’s release. The 120-mile walk, under the slogan "Gilad is still alive," is expected to take 12 days and stop at sites significant to the family.
Once in Jerusalem — where on the anniversary of Shalit’s capture Mayor Nir Barkat ordered the lights around the walls of the Old City to be turned off in solidarity — the family will sit in a protest tent erected across from the Prime Minister’s Office.
The Jewish Community Relations Council of New York said it had collected more than 10,000 messages of support for Shalit to send to the Red Cross demanding that Hamas allow the Red Cross to visit him. The JCRC also encouraged rabbis to speak about Shalit in their Shabbat sermons, sending out a draft sermon by Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, the executive director of the New York Board of Rabbis, that could be adapted locally.
In Northern Ireland, Jim Clint, a Christian educator who spent almost a decade in Israel, wrote a song for Shalit calling for his release.
“I couldn’t help thinking that in all the waves of criticism which are engulfing Israel, at the moment no one was saying anything about a young Israeli in Gaza deprived of every human right,” Clint told the Northern Ireland Friends of Israel.
“A regular citizen feels powerless in this situation,” said Sara Just-Michael, 18, who participated in the flotilla to the United Nations. “The least you can do is show your support, so this is at least making us feel like we’re helping him.”
(JTA intern Lauren Greenberg contributed to this report.)