NEW YORK – There was scarce evidence of the global recession at a $1,000-a-plate fundraiser for the IDF in New York City on Tuesday night.
Even as protestors outside the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel decried the guest of honor – Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi – donors pledged six-figure sums, topping $20 million by the end of the night. Inside a glittering ballroom, Friends of the Israel Defense Forces staged a theatrical show that tugged on the heartstrings – and purse strings – of the nearly 1,400 in attendance.
On the heels of a trip to Washington, where he met with top US officials, Ashkenazi emphasized the threat of Iran’s nuclear program and called on the international community to stop the Islamic regime.
“All options should remain on the table,” he said.
But outside, a coalition of left-leaning groups led hundreds of protestors in a single-file march around the perimeter of the hotel. Clad in black, they hoisted signs emblazoned with the words, “War crime,” “End the siege on Gaza” and “Israeli war criminals feast at the Waldorf.”
“Everyone feels that Operation Cast Lead was an outrage,” said Dorothy Zellner, of Jews Say No!, which mobilized early. “As a Jew, I can’t tolerate that the country that did this claims it is doing it for me.”
But inside, Ashkenazi played up the humanity and moral compass of Israeli soldiers. He highlighted IDF success stories of the past year: its interception of the Francop, a ship carrying 650 tons of weapons and explosives, as well as Israel’s response to the earthquake in Haiti.
“But our soldiers do much more,” he said. “They demonstrate respect for human dignity and value human life, regardless of the enemy’s cruelty.”
Despite the relative calm of the past year, stemming from “deterrence” attained during Cast Lead and the second Lebanon war, he said, Israel faces complex threats.
“As commander of our soldiers, I tell you upon this stage: We will [overcome] those who seek our destruction,” he said. “We will win thanks to our soldiers’ courage and because of their moral compass.”
The rich program, which also featured an Ethopian-born soldier and a doctor who served in the Israeli field hospital in Haiti, struck a carefully orchestrated tone and stayed on message. In a video message, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said Iran threatens Israel openly and called for “sanctions with teeth.” Following Ashkenazi, 25-year-old Tal Shabbat, a soldier gravely injured three years ago, took the stage and said he fought to recover because “you live once.”
Via satellite from Israel, Navy officers explained their dangerous Francop mission. And many were moved to tears when Guy Banai, the deaf father of a fallen IDF soldier, addressed the audience through an interpreter, telling them that his son had been his connection to the outside world, his “right hand.” Exempt from combat duty, Liron Banai chose to serve in combat and died after his jeep was hit by a roadside bomb in Gaza. His father struggled to convey the “darkness” of the past two years without his son.
“I’m proud of Liron, I’m proud of our soldiers, I’m proud of our army and I’m proud of our country,” he said.
As dinner plates were cleared, speeches gave way to a main event: spirited, public pledges, earmarked for education, recreational facilities and other projects.
The first donor to step up offered $200,000. A cascade of dizzying sums followed: $500,000 from Iranian Jews in New York, $270,000 from a donor in honor of his 15 children and grandchildren, $1m. for education and $3.5m. from a fellowship of Evangelical Christians.
The crowd whooped when designer Elie Tahari donated $100,000, and people jumped to their feet to fete a US marine who made the relatively small donation of $1,000.
“I realize how important it is to defend a country and take care of your own,” the marine, Todd Bowers, said, donating his savings in memory of Liron Banai.
Still, critics outside the dinner were not happy about where the money was going.
“The idea that there’s a 501c3 non-profit that raises money for a foreign army seems a little odd,” said Nancy Kricorian, coordinator of CODEPINK in New York, who said “there was something about Cast Lead that was a turning point for us.”
Amid a strong police presence – including uniformed officers and
canine patrol – a smaller counter-protest gathered across the street
from the Waldorf. They carried their own signs, such as “Israel exists
and we are here to stay” and “Free Gilad.”
“I do feel sorry for
the innocent civilians,” said Rachel Shorr, a sophomore at Yeshiva
University who wrapped herself in an Israeli flag. But she indicated
the need for Israel to defend itself, and pointed out that civilians in
Sderot are assaulted by rocket attacks.
“It’s important to show my presence and support Israel any way I can,” she said.