NEW YORK – The incongruities were numerous Tuesday night as the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces held its annual gala at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel here.
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The organization raised $24 million in a single evening, which will go to support the programs it runs for current members of the Israeli armed forces, as well as veterans and family members of those killed in the line of duty.
To get inside the Waldorf Astoria for the black-tie affair, guests had to negotiate a scrum of anti-Israel demonstrators. Carrying Palestinian and American flags under a late-winter drizzle, some of the three dozen or so demonstrators marching in a loop held up placards reading “Boycott Israeli Apartheid!” Well-heeled gala guests weaved through the demonstrators until police officers moved the soggy marchers to the side of the hotel entrance.
Nearly 1,200 guests in tuxedoes and sequined gowns gathered for the $1,000-a-plate dinner inside the Waldorf’s glittering ballroom. The glamorous garb and setting were in stark contrast to images of IDF commanders broadcast via satellite from what appeared to be their barracks, so that young officers could tell FIDF patrons about their experiences during last summer’s Operation Protective Edge.
Money raised by the FIDF provides recreational programs and treats for current soldiers, and education and treatment for IDF veterans. In 2013, the organization raised $73 million, according to its tax filing. This year, said spokesman Joe Berkofsky, it expects to raise $80 million.
At the banquet, which was MCed by conservative pundit and Fox News contributor Monica Crowley, attendees took turns standing up and pledging various amounts, ranging from $20 to $5 million. One benefactor made his or her $2 million gift anonymously, and the Genesis Philanthropy Group – the Russian-Jewish organization best known for its recent Genesis Prize award of $1 million to actor Michael Douglas and last year to New York City mayor and philanthropist Michael Bloomberg – pledged $1.3 million. Home Depot founder Bernie Marcus pledged $5 million to benefit lone soldiers.
In addition to the $24 million brought in at Tuesday’s gala, the FIDF brought in some $33 million last November from its Western Region gala dinner in Los Angeles. Oracle Corp. CEO Larry Ellison pledged $9 million at that event, which was chaired by Haim Saban and his wife.
According to the FIDF’s 2013 tax filing, that year it provided $13 million in university scholarships to 3,291 soldiers; advanced prosthetics, rehabilitation and training for nine amputee veterans at a cost of $1.7 million; and, for 2,500 “lone soldiers” who are serving in the IDF without family members in Israel, support and trips overseas to visit family at a cost of $5.8 million.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent in a prerecorded greeting Tuesday night, and several IDF officers and soldiers shared their stories.
Also at the banquet was the head of IDF military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Hertzl Halevi, who said that Israel must be “prepared” for new conflicts along its northern border with Syria, whose internal violence seems like “50 shades of black.”
Despite the incongruities – or perhaps because of them – a video tribute to the 67 IDF soldiers killed in combat during Operation Protective Edge was especially moving. It was hard not to be affected by the names and photographs of the stunningly young men as they slowly scrolled up a large screen at the front of the ballroom.
Outside the Waldorf Astoria after the banquet, Jayne, a hotel guest from Scotland, said that “seeing the protestors makes me feel sick.” Jayne, who declined to give her last name, is one of 5,000 Jews in Glasgow. “It’s terrible in Europe,” she said. The anti-Israel protestors “don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Howie Lebowitz attended the FIDF dinner with several family members. They have been supporting the organization since his young nephew enlisted in the IDF, Lebowitz said after the gala. Asked if this was a particularly difficult time to be unabashed about being supporters of the Israeli military, the Long Island resident said, “it’s always a difficult time to be pro-Israel. But we have to be proactive about it.”
Plus, he said, he used to be a member of the Jewish Defense League, adding that confronting anti-Israel protestors’ signs Tuesday night was easy compared to facing the billy clubs carried by police officers he faced back in his JDL days.