US: Tens of thousands celebrate Israel's 60th

In New York, Ramon, Avraham and Vilna'i were joined by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York State Governor David Paterson and New Jersey Governor John Corzine.

israel 60 224 promo (photo credit: )
israel 60 224 promo
(photo credit: )
Tens of thousands celebrated Israel's 60th anniversary in New York City and Washington DC on Sunday. Vice Premier Haim Ramon, Kadima MK Ruhama Avraham and deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna'i joined scores of American Jews and Israelis to enjoy a show by the Israeli band Mashina, which reunited for the occasion. In New York, Ramon, Avraham and Vilna'i were joined by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York State Governor David Paterson and New Jersey Governor John Corzine, who all came to express their support of the Jewish state. The Washington festival in the outdoor Mall in front of the Capitol attracted crowds of Americans Jews, ex-pat Israelis, DC residents and foreign tourists who learned Israeli folk dancing, watched an Ethiopian tea ceremony, got free henna tattoos, searched for shards of pottery, and participated in scores of other family-friendly educational activities offering an apolitical take on Israel. Sunday's celebration of Israel's 60th birthday is followed, however, by an event where politics are poised to dominate: the massive three-day American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference beginning Monday. All three presidential candidates - Republican John McCain and Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama - as well as Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, House Republican Leader John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell are all set to address the record 7,000 expected participants. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will be addressing the conference Tuesday, followed by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's key note address that evening. The AIPAC sessions and lobbying activities will focus on American policy toward Iran as well as well as maintaining a strong US-Israel relationship, with panels also focusing on the threats posed by Hamas and Hizbullah, ties to Europe and the international community, and foreign policy formulation in the presidential campaigns. At the Mall Sunday, however, the challenges facing Israel were barely touched on, in line with the intention of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and the Israeli Embassy, which took the lead in arranging the event. Their message of Israel's other face was one well-received by Bobby Behanan and Merylene Thomas of North Carolina, who happened to be visiting Washington when they came upon the festival and sat down to listen to the music. Usually when Behanon thinks of Israel, he said, "the first thing is the conflict with the Palestinians." Here, Thomas said, "everyone looks peaceful and fun-loving." Originally from India, often depicted in its conflict with Pakistan, the couple said they realized Israelis weren't only focused on the violence, but that it was especially nice "to see a more open culture in Israel" as expressed on the Mall. Despite rumors of a anti-Israel protests, by mid-day only handfuls of quiet pro-Palestinian supporters had shown up. Waving large Palestinian flags as they wandered through the crowd, who mostly ignored them, they were escorted out by the few police there on horseback. The mounted police constituted some of the only visible signs of a security presence that was low-key for the open event. "This is really a celebration about Israeli culture and Israeli society and Israeli democracy - that's something that's pretty difficult to demonstrate against," said Israeli Embassy spokesman David Siegel, trying to keep track of his young children as they ran through the crowd. He described the folklife festival as "really an event beyond the headlines." "They [the protesters] have every right to be here. Everyone comes to the Mall," said Lilya, a federal worker who came to the festival with her family. "I don't think anybody's paying attention." One man shouted at couples lazing on the Mall grass and children chasing after each other to read a book by Israeli professor Ilan Pappe called The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, whose cover was reproduced on a large sign. But, eliciting only a few stares, he was drowned out by the music of popular Israeli rock band Machina, who were performing on the main stage. The crowd started cheering and singing along as the band, which avoids political messages in its music, then began playing, "So Why Do I Need Politics Now?" Shlomi Sudai, an Israeli who has lived in America for 13 years, said hearing the band made him miss home, and that he was happy to get a reminder of Israel out on the Mall. But, despite all the Israelis like him in the crowd, he said he could still tell that there were some things about Israel missing from the scenes of Israeli culture and life around him. "I don't hear people screaming, honking, pushing," he explained.