Waving Israeli and U.S. flags and posters of Gilad Shalit, hundreds of Jewish activists on eight ships sailed up the East River to the United Nations on Thursday to call for action on behalf of the Israeli soldier held captive by Hamas for four years.
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations organized two large passenger boats and several groups joined the flotilla on sailboats and other pleasure craft as it rounded lower Manhattan from the West Side. The flotilla set sail on the eve of the fourth anniversary of Shalit’s capture.
The protestors sang “Od Gilad Chai” — Gilad is still alive — and other Hebrew songs, accompanied on one boat by music from singer and guitarist Gershon Veroba.
“Hopefully the world is watching and they will understand that there is a young man whose life is in jeopardy that we can’t forget about,” said Liora Saba of Manhattan as the Queen of Hearts, the second ship in the flotilla, approached the UN.
Two U.S. Coast Guard speedboats, machine gunners in place at the bow, maintained a buffer between the world body’s headquarters and the flotilla as it circled in the river for about 10 minutes. During that time, Rabbi Basil Herring, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, recited aloud a prayer for Shalit's release on the Queen of Hearts.
Dubbed the “real freedom flotilla,” the mission was a response to the ill-fated May 30 armada that tried to bust Israel’s blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. When Israeli commandos were attacked as they boarded one of the vessels, the Mavi Marmara, they killed eight Turkish activists and one Turkish American in the ensuing struggle, prompting an international firestorm of criticism. Seven Israeli commandos were injured.
The activists said they were bringing humanitarian supplies for Gaza’s residents.
The New York flotilla set sail as more ships challenging the blockade are due to depart from Lebanon and Libya in the next few days in an attempt to force more international pressure on Israel to end the sea blockade. Israel has already loosened its land restrictions on goods entering Gaza.
“This is the true freedom flotilla,” said Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents prior to setting sail. “The real siege in Gaza is not against the people of Gaza but against Gilad Shalit who for four years has been held without even the Red Cross having access to him. Today, we declare, no more!”
Hoenlein presented a box of supplies, including food and fresh underwear, for Shalit to Rosemary Mackey, chief of external affairs for the American Red Cross. Mackey noted that while the International Red Cross is a separate organization, the U.S. group encouraged the worldwide group’s efforts to visit Shalit and assess his condition and treatment.
Organizers said the flotilla drew about 700 people. Several small groups of people waving flags and holding posters observed the flotilla from the East Side near the promenade along the FDR Drive.
Seeing off the fleet was Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Gabriela Shalev, and the Rev. Michael Faulkner of the New Horizon Church Ministry in Harlem.
“It’s important that you know that we stand together with Israel, that the Christian community stands strong with Israel,” said the reverend. “You have no better friend than the Evangelical Christian community.”
Shalev said the continued imprisonment of Shalit was “contrary to international law and it is outrageous that we do not hear the voice of the international community” to call for his release.
Use of the two passenger ships, the Queen of Hearts and Star of Palm Beach, was donated by their owners, Steve and Orly Salsberg.
On board the two craft were representatives of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the New York Board of Rabbis, the National Council of Young Israel, State of Israel Bonds, the World Jewish Congress and Stand With Us, a grassroots pro-Israel group, and others.
Ani Brieger, who traveled on the Queen of Hearts, said she came to show solidarity with Shalit’s family as the mother of a former Israeli soldier.
“My son went to Lebanon and fought for Israel, so I sympathize very much with the family of Gilad Shalit,” said Brieger. “My heart goes out to them. I’m grateful that my son is back and raising his children. I wish every American mother and every Israeli mother will have their sons back.”
Jeff Stier, chairman of the Jewish International Connection of New York, said the event was “an opportunity for the Jewish community to explain to New York and the United Nations what a true freedom flotilla looks like. This is a very strong contrast with the one the UN falsely believes was a freedom flotilla.”
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