A LETTER FROM THE WALDORF-ASTORIA
For defenders of Israel, danger is everywhere — even in New York City, even on Park Avenue, even once they’ve passed a metal detector on the second story of the Waldorf Astoria hotel.
Such was the conceit of the organizers of the Friends of the IDF gala, who posted two additional layers of security between the cocktail room and the ballroom at their March 12 event.
The dubious security precautions didn’t end there.
As the 1,400 attendees settled down in front of their $1,000 plates of chicken and short ribs, an announcer warned that “reasons of security” precluded the taking of photos. Those reasons were not further explained.
Later, Fox News contributor and event MC Monica Crowley repeated the warning in more stark terms: “Do not even think about uploading anything, anywhere, at any time,” she threatened, as a live satellite feed from what was said to be a secure Israeli intelligence facility in Jerusalem appeared on screens throughout the ballroom. On the screen, a bald, bespectacled soldier described how his unit eavesdrops on Palestinian phone calls, though this practice was hardly a state secret.
As he spoke, a young female Arabic expert walked on-screen next to the intelligence officer. “You’re so adorable,” Crowley told her.
The black tie affair had started nearly two hours earlier with an extended cocktail hour. There were lamb chops and sushi and turkey slices and wine, and a waiter circulating with smoked salmon. Young uniformed Israeli officers worked the crowd, taking pictures with donors in suits and gowns.
The FIDF had flown the whole passel of young soldiers over from Israel by the FIDF for a five-day visit. Their official tour of New York, conducted earlier on Tuesday, had taken them to Ground Zero and the Museum of Jewish Heritage, a Holocaust memorial.
“They wanted a representative from the Golani brigade,” explained Adi Zarka, a 21-year-old operations officer, explaining why she had been chosen for the trip.
As a ringing bell announced dinner, the soldiers scrambled to get their photo taken with Gabi Ashkenazi, former Chief of the General Staff of the IDF.
In the ballroom, Crowley, in her role as MC, talked with a young drone operator identified as Major Yair, who stood in a spotlight on an upper balcony. “Flying these kind of remote vehicles sounds really fun,” Crowley told Major Yair, referring to the rocket-equipped unmanned warplanes.
“Yeah, it is,” Yair affirmed.
Yair grew up in a town near Israel’s southern border. His own home was hit with a rocket launched from Gaza while he was away serving in the IDF, he told the rapt audience. Yair spoke about how he identifies targets while piloting his drone, showing side-by-side infrared images of a man in a stretcher and a man preparing to launch a rocket. The blobs in the middle of the images looked similar, but Yair showed how he could carefully distinguish between them.
“If someone dropped a rocket on my family I wouldn’t spend so much time deciding which one was which,” Crowley said. The crowd applauded.
Soon after, they started pledging. Attractive women with paddles carried microphones to donors who stood up to announce their gifts. Donors were notably diverse. Besides the usual American Ashkenazim were Israelis, Iranian Jews and Russians. A $5 million pledge came from Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which raises money for Israel from American Evangelicals.
There were no notable celebrities in the room, but there were plenty of Jewish world big shots. Conference of Presidents Executive Vice Chairman Malcolm Hoenlein was there, as was FIDF National Chairman Nily Falic, whose family is one of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s largest political donors.. Daily News owner Mort Zuckerman and sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer were also in attendance, according to organizers. The gala chair was Arthur Stark, president of Bed Bath & Beyond. But Yityish “Titi” Aynaw, the Ethiopian-born 21-year-old who was just crowned the first black Miss Israel, was nowhere to be seen; this, despite the American Jewish website Tablet’s report that she would be addressing the crowd.
“God bless you,” Stark said, as donors announced their gifts. The event raised $27 million for the organization, which provides support services for Israeli soldiers.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.