On the Hudson River, Hoenlein Launches a ‘Flotilla’ for Gilad Shalit

Reporter's Notebook

By Gal Beckerman

Published June 25, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Of all the things I never expected I’d hear coming out of the mouth of Malcolm Hoenlein, the powerful executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, “It’s time to set sail!” was certainly near the top of the list. But there he was, jacket and tie removed, a blue captain’s hat with the words “Israeli Navy” stitched in gold replacing the yarmulke he usually wears. He was standing at the bow of a rickety boat called the “Queen of Hearts,” which was about to make its way around the tip of Manhattan on a swelteringly hot June 24.

This was, as Hoenlein emphatically repeated, “the true Freedom Flotilla,” a reference to that earlier, now infamous flotilla that tried with deadly results to break the blockade of Gaza. This one had slightly less ambitious aims and there were no menacing helicopters looking to board (though the Coast Guard stationed with machine guns at the front of their boats and accompanying us for part of the journey did look scary).

This flotilla was being launched in honor of the fourth anniversary of the captivity of Gilad Shalit, the young Israeli army corporal abducted by Hamas guerillas from the Israeli side of Gaza’s border with the Jewish state in June 2006. The pro-Israel activists had even prepared a humanitarian package — mimicking the thousands of tons of goods that activists had been trying to deliver to Gaza last month — though the one for Shalit sounded more like something Jewish parents would send to their children at summer camp. “We packed underwear and a new pair of glasses,” Hoenlein proclaimed before he handed it over to a Red Cross representative.

There were six boats in all. In addition to the few dozen people aboard the “Queen of Hearts,” an old riverboat called the “Star of Palm Beach” carried about 150 passengers, and then four other private speed boats and yachts trailed along. We left from Pier 40 on the Hudson River, swung around the tip of Manhattan and then up the East River with the United Nations as our destination.

Before the launch, a hurried and sweaty press conference took place on the boat. In addition to Hoenlein, a few Israeli officials spoke, including Gabriela Shalev, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations and the General Consul to New York, Asaf Shariv. It was Shariv who set the defiant tone, and explained why this flotilla was being referred to as the “true” one.

“The only person in Gaza being denied their human rights is Gilad Shalit,” Shariv said.

This declaration came in the same month the World Health Organization issued a public warning that in Gaza it was “impossible to maintain a safe and effective healthcare system under the conditions of siege” Israel initiated in June 2007.

In addition to the Israeli dignitaries, Michael Faulkner, an evangelical reverend from the New Horizons Church in Harlem was also aboard the “Queen of Hearts. He roused the crowd with a speech in which he declared, “Israel is God’s chosen people, entitled to all the land.” Evangelicals, he said, “were personally willing to lay down our lives, our freedom and our resources for Israel.”

When we finally left the dock, bumping along on the choppy waves of the Hudson, I approached Hoenlein and asked why he wanted to use the word “flotilla” — and if doing so didn’t undermine the cause of Shalit by drawing a parallel with that of the activists who had been trying to land in Gaza.

“Why should we not point out the hypocrisy of the term they use?” Hoenlein said. “We can’t let them appropriate the English language. We are showing that the true freedom flotilla is one that really seeks to achieve a humanitarian end. Theirs does not.”

Hoenlein seemed at ease on the boat, his captain’s hat on and standing with his face to the wind. “God came through,” he told one fellow passenger, smiling. “They said it was supposed to storm.” As the United Nations building finally came into sight after a very slow-moving ride, people began waving gigantic American and Israeli flags and vigorously singing “Am Yisrael Chai” (though replacing the song’s refrain with “Od Gilad Chai,” meaning Gilad is still alive). Hoenlein wanted everyone to save their energy for when we got closer.

“Wait till we pass the Tisch hospital,” he said, as we sailed by the medical center funded by the family of Jewish philanthropists. “We don’t want them to think we’re protesting the Tisches.”

We had been promised that a big crowd was waiting ashore by the UN building. “Al Jazeera is even there,” Hoenlein said. But when we got close, I counted no more than a dozen people — and there was no sign of al Jazeera. Still the singing got very loud, overcoming the whipping wind. The students on board — members of the group Stand With Us — lifted signs and chanted that Shalit should be freed. A few people tried to dance to the guitar strumming without falling over. There were many children.

I heard a few people express heartfelt pain about Shalit’s condition. One young woman with large tinted glasses and bubblegum colored toenails and fingernails stared wistfully out at the water as the boat began to turn around. “I really wonder if he knows we’re here for him,” she said aloud, speaking to another woman. “They claim they brought him a cake for his birthday. Big deal. A cake. Thanks very much.”

On the way back, I asked a few other people what they thought about using the word “flotilla” to describe this action, whether it was appropriate.

At one point, I posed the question to Helen Freedman, the executive director of Americans For A Safe Israel, an organization that, she said, “doesn’t believe in giving up any of the land, doesn’t believe in reconciliation or appeasement.”

“It’s a possibility it will be taken the wrong way,” she said. “Probably we should have come up with our own gimmick. But this is the language that people understand now.”

Contact Gal Beckerman at beckerman@forward.com. Follow him on Twitter @galbeckerman.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.