Israelis living in New York have started to make themselves heard. During Operation Protective Edge, they took to the streets – not all of them, not even most of them – but at pro-Israel rallies in various places in the United States, they were out in greater numbers than ever, participating in and even initiating the events.
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Last Friday afternoon, after the attempted abduction of 2nd Lt. Hadar Goldin in Gaza, several Israelis gathered at Union Square in New York. Among them was Oren Heiman, chairman of the Moatza Mekomit New York – a group that is seeking to coalesce and lead the local Israeli community – and several well-known names like Ran Eliran, Zamira Hen, Amichai Lau-Lavie and Adi Ezroni.
They laid a blanket on the sidewalk, put out bottles of water and wine, and lit candles. Someone brought a huge challah. They came to commune with each other, to remember and to hope. Blue, white and black balloons floated in the air. There were no placards. All around was the usual tumult of street performances, skateboarders and soccer games.
It was a rather surreal image. Union Square has seen many memorial events. For example, in the days after the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center, a makeshift memorial site sprung up spontaneously in Union Square Park. Now it was the Israelis’ turn for an assembly of memory and hope, Heiman said.
Several weeks ago, after the bodies of the three teens kidnapped at Gush Etzion were discovered, Heiman and his friends had also gathered at Union Square.
“There was a feeling that the Israeli community wanted to express solidarity with what was happening in Israel,” Heiman said. “Some 400 people came to that gathering; we sang songs and made speeches. It was sad, but there was something special in the air about being together during trying moments.”
Heiman said that the Moatza is involved in other activities related to the Gaza operation. On August 12, for example, a memorial evening for the Israel Defense Forces soldiers who fell during Operation Protective Edge is scheduled at the Jewish Community Center on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The schedule includes reading stories about the fallen.
“We’ve been sending packages to soldiers from New York,” Heiman said. “We will offer emotional support to anyone who needs it in Israel via an Internet platform. And yes, we will offer group therapy to Israelis living here who feel emotionally affected.
“The Israelis who live here are not cut off from what’s happening in Israel. There’s concern over what’s going to happen in Israel, and many have relatives in Israel, including soldiers in the army. There are lots of people who say they have a hard time functioning during times like this. You’d be surprised, but you can get shell-shocked even though you’re 6,000 miles from Tel Aviv.”
Ido Aharoni, the Israeli consul-general in New York, said the level of support for Israel among Israelis living in North America has always been high.
What’s different this time is the level of organization among the Israeli communities living in the large urban areas. Another positive change, he said, is that there’s closer cooperation with the organized Jewish community and more joint initiatives.
It should be clear that there have been plenty of anti-Israel demonstrations in New York. Only a few days ago, your correspondent passed one outside the CNN studios in Manhattan, and others have been held elsewhere in the city. But none of them have looked anything like the demonstrations in Europe.
On the other hand, Israeli participation in pro-Israel activities is growing. There are cafes in New York where one can always get the latest news from Israel. For example, only a few hours after Goldin’s kidnapping, I had already heard that Goldin’s family and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon were related, though at the time it wasn’t clear if it was fact or merely a rumor.
An important player in pro-Israel activism is the Israeli American Council, a national body of Israeli organizations in the United States that recently opened a branch in New York. Yehudit Feinstein, the local branch director, says this has been a tough period for Israelis in New York.
“At times like these, the distance from home is difficult,” she said. “You feel like you want to do something. The fact that there are organizations in New York enables people to meet other Israelis that feel the same way and also to do things – to donate money, to volunteer to do public diplomacy and social-media work. People are doing things for free. We, for our part, have found two Israeli organizations that we’ll be assisting financially.”
The highlight of the IAC’s activities in New York was an Israel solidarity event of songs and speeches, held July 20 at the 92nd Street Y, another major Jewish community center. A number of organizations, including the UJA Federation of New York and the Jewish Community Relations Council, collaborated on this event.
I arrived late and the place was packed; I was able to enter only because I’m a journalist. An estimated 1,000 people attended and many others were turned away. For an Israeli group to organize such an event and attract so many Israelis was rather unusual.
Since Operation Protective Edge began, the IAC has held a number of events all over the United States. The largest one was in Miami, which attracted 3,000 people, while one in Los Angeles, which was attended by some 2,500, was confronted by a parallel pro-Palestinian demonstration. An event in Boston attracted 1,200 people.
Israelis also participated in a large demonstration organized by other Jewish groups at the UN headquarters in New York. That rally drew some 15,000 people.
But those who managed to impress most of all were Nachi Yavo – a Jewish musician from Brooklyn who speaks Hebrew well – and Assaf Shiloni, formerly of Givatayim, who is active in real estate, primarily in Brooklyn and Queens. With the help of the social networks, they organized a demonstration of several thousand Jews and Israelis in Times Square, the same weekend as the IAC’s event at the 92nd Street Y.
“I’ve lived in New York for 13 years and never saw such a thing,” said Shiloni. “There was wall-to-wall participation, Israelis and American Jews. Everyone we turned to was prepared to help.”
“The whole thing happened in four days, said Yavo. “Since the beginning of the operation in Gaza, there were demonstrations of support for the Palestinians in New York. And I thought there weren’t enough Israel solidarity activities and said to myself that I had to do something.
"Assaf Shiloni contacted me and we started working on this demonstration, with several others joining us. At first we thought there would be 200 people, then the number jumped to a thousand, and then to 2,000. I never imagined that something like this could happen, and so fast.”
Now the military operation looks like it's winding down, but criticism of Israel for the civilian deaths in Gaza is increasing, and the Israeli and Jewish organizations are weighing their next moves. Another pro-Israel event seems likely to take place in Boston next week, and another a week after that in Los Angeles.