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.”
Gal Beckerman was a staff writer and then the Forward’s opinion editor until 2014. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Follow Gal on Twitter at @galbeckerman