Galvanized By Their Love Of Israel


Far from letting recent events in Israel dampen his mood or keep him away from this year’s Salute to Israel Parade, Marc Fein, a senior at Yeshiva University, suggested that now was an especially important time to show his love and support for the Jewish state.

Standing in front of the General Motors Building at Fifth Avenue and 59th Street, near the start of the parade route, Fein said that, if anything, he believed that concerns over Israeli security “galvanized support to a certain degree. People have realized the existential threat to Israel.”

The number of people involved in the parade — more than 100,000 marchers, organizers said, and tens of thousands more lining Fifth Avenue to watch and cheer — gave credence to Fein’s view.

The parade, now in its 43rd year, featured 19 marching bands and more than 40 floats, including those sponsored by El Al Israel Airlines; Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization that promotes and helps facilitate aliyah, and JDate, the online Jewish dating site.

Led by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and actress Tovah Feldshuh, this year’s grand marshals, the event also drew a legion of elected officials. Among them were Gov. Eliot Spitzer; Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski, who walked alongside Bloomberg, and U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Queens), who shouted “Am Yisrael Chai” — “Long Live Israel” — through a bullhorn.

In some ways, the enthusiasm stood in marked contrast to the concern and despair that have gripped many Israelis in the past year. The mood, which has also affected supporters of Israel in the United States, stems from the raft of sexual and financial scandals involving Israeli leaders; threats to Israel’s existence from Iran, which many believe is trying to develop nuclear arms, and the possibility of another war with the Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, or both.

Only three days before the parade, an estimated 120,000 Israelis from the left, right and center rallied in Tel Aviv for the resignation of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who was accused by a government commission of mishandling the war in Lebanon last summer.

Some news reports and commentators in the Israeli press before and after Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day, said many Israelis this year were in no mood to celebrate.

But none of that swayed Eddie Sherman, a resident of Kew Gardens Hills in his 50s, against boarding a subway train in Queens Sunday morning with his wife and father to cheer the marchers.

“I separate the state from the government,” said Sherman, whose 26-year-old son attends a yeshiva in Bnei Brak. “We might be disappointed by the government for a number of reasons, but we support the State of Israel.”

His father is a Holocaust survivor from Poland, Sherman added, making Israel “so much more meaningful” to his family.

Similar comments came from John Ruskay, CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York, who noted in a phone interview before the parade that he had just returned from a mission to Israel celebrating his organization’s 90th anniversary.

“Although the papers were filled with accounts of scandal and with anticipation of the Winograd report,” Ruskay said, “people were out celebrating.” Here in the United States, “whether one agrees with the [Israeli] government or not, the least we can do is to come together once a year to express our abiding ties to the state and people of Israel.”

Indeed, many of the spectators lining the parade route, which stretched along Fifth Avenue from 57th to 79th Streets, had driven, flown or rode several hours to express those ties.

Noah Zivan, 16, and Avi Holtzman, 18, traveled in a van last Friday from Rochester, N.Y., with a dozen other members of the National Council of Synagogue Youth to take part in the event. The group spent Shabbat in Riverdale, The Bronx, where they stayed with Fein, an NCSY adviser, and his parents.

Sam Sonenberg, 44, rose at 4 a.m. Sunday to catch an Amtrak train from Albany with his two daughters, 14 and 18. “It’s important to show that we stick to Israel,” said Sonenberg, who added that he and his family have come to the event nearly every year — “as often as we can.”

The parade, organized by the independent Israel Tribute Committee, is scrupulously nonpolitical, with marchers barred from carrying any sign or banner expressing an overtly political message.

Meanwhile, a few dozen pro-Palestinian protesters chanted anti-Israel slogans near the start of the parade. The protesters, including members of the anti-Zionist, Orthodox sect Neturei Karta and Jews Against the Occupation, a group on the far left, stood behind a double row of police barricades, where they seemed to be ignored by most of the marchers.

Politics also played a role in the Israel Day Concert, an annual event, unrelated to the parade, organized and funded by supporters of Israel’s religious right. The concert, which took place inside Central Park, just off Fifth Avenue, as the parade was winding down, featured a keynote speech by Knesset Member Effie Eitam, a retired general and a leader of the National Union-National Religious Party, and music by a variety of religious rock bands. The concert, which two years ago protested Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, is a rally for “the whole land of Israel,” said Joseph Frager, the physician who organized the event. It also backed the release of all “Jewish captives,” including Israeli soldiers kidnapped by Hamas and Hezbollah, and Jonathan Pollard, the convicted American spy.

Modern Orthodox and fervently Orthodox Jews made up most of the audience, which appeared to attract a mix of people drawn by the concert’s message and, some said, simply by the music. One concertgoer, Joelle Levine, 37, said that although she didn’t know about the event’s politics beforehand, she certainly supports it.

The only dissenting voice among more than a half-dozen people interviewed came from Yosef Goldman, 28, a former Orthodox rabbinical student and now a cantorial student at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

“You can believe in the messiah and you can be pro-Israel,” said Goldman while distributing flyers for a group of Jewish musicians. “But mixing messianism and politics is sloppy thinking” with potentially disastrous results. “Politics should be about pragmatism,” he added, “based on facts on the ground, not facts in the heavens.”