The pro-Shalit Freedom Flotilla yesterday.(All photographs from the author.)

As you may remember, there was this thing a couple weeks ago in which a bunch of boats sailed from Turkey to Gaza in the name of bringing humanitarian aid to Palestinians living behind Israel’s blockade of the Hamas-controlled territory. The effort ended in a disastrous, and fatal, assault on one of the ships, the Mavi Marmara, and in the weeks since, the Netanyahu government, under heavy international pressure, agreed to relax the terms of its embargo without extracting anything in return—such as, for example, a commitment to release captive IDF soldier Gilad Shalit.

Today is the fourth anniversary of Shalit’s capture, and yesterday the New York-based Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations commemorated it by staging its own Freedom Flotilla. This one featured a pleasure boat called the Queen of Hearts, and it left from Pier 40 in lower Manhattan, sailed around the island, and traveled up the East River to the United Nations. It bore a humanitarian aid package, addressed to Shalit.

As the ship prepared for voyage, I stood aboard, sweating with everyone else, some of whom waved posters at the trickle of midday passersby along the Hudson waterfront. “If we can talk to one, two, three people, that’s the least we can do,” explained Rabbi Janise Poticha, who was there representing a small Reform synagogue in the Long Island hamlet of Massapequa.

On deck, Asaf Shariv, Israel’s consul-general in New York, moved through the crowd. “I can assure you that no one on this ship will be attacked by knives or guns,” he told me, referring to video that showed the original flotilla activists brandishing weapons as Israeli commandos rappelled onto the ships.

The heat was ferocious. About 60 people packed into the top tier of the boat, swaying with the tide. Many carried tiny American and Israeli flags; they were equipped with “Free Shalit” signs, stickers, and shirts. But everything doubled as a fan. Eventually, Malcolm Hoenlein, the head of the Conference, stepped up to a microphone. He read a statement in absentia from Elie Weisel, and he quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. “This is the true freedom flotilla!” he proclaimed. He presented a Red Cross representative with the goods for Shalit: Food, underwear, glasses.

Then Hoenlein introduced some singers, who joined a guitarist on stage at the boat’s rear and led a chorus of Od Gilad Chai—“Gilad is still alive”—more joyous than somber. The organizers encouraged travelers to grab some signs and move toward the deck to pose for the press, most of which was still on the boat. The Queen of Hearts finally pushed off at around 1 PM, followed by another rented boat and eight smaller vessels full of supporters.

The sudden breeze revived the wilting passengers, a group that included young mothers who kept their children below deck, twirling flags. On deck, there was more flag waving and singing. A line of men, arms wrapped around shoulders, led the chorus. Hoenlein jumped in for a few bars. After the final note, the song-leader stopped and suggested, “Let’s save something for the front of the U.N.” He gestured assertively and repeated: “The front of the U.N.”

As we approached Turtle Bay, three U.S. Coast Guard boats circled between the ship and the dock. The men in front held large guns. People aboard clattered around with cell phone cameras, competing with the press photographers for the best shot. The passengers began chants of “Free Gilad Now!” Rabbi Basil Herring, of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, read a prayer for Shalit. Across the water, about nine people watched.

Then the prayer ended, the ship slowly turned, and the Coast Guard sped off without incident. More singing resumed. Ani, a small woman from the Upper West Side with a thick Hungarian accent, was all smiles as she disembarked. “I don’t think the U.N. is sensitive to our needs,” she said. “I don’t know if it made a dent or anything, honestly.”

Jewish Activists Sail Flotilla for Shalit to UN’s Backyard [Jewish Week]
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