Reporter's notebook

Determination and grit at a somber NYC Israel Day parade, led by families of hostages

45,000-strong show of Jewish unity down Fifth Ave., normally a jubilant affair, reflects eight months of war, 120 hostages still held by Hamas, and skyrocketing global antisemitism

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Scenes from the annual Israel Day Parade on Fifth Avenue in New York City, June 2, 2024. (Celine Gesret/AFPTV/AFP)

NEW YORK — While the banners and political messages of the estimated 45,000 participants who marched in New York’s Israel Day on Fifth Parade on Sunday may have differed wildly, all seemed united in their determination to show up for Israel and the Jewish people as a whole.

Spectators holding Israeli flags ran five rows deep along one side of Fifth Avenue. The other side, closed to the public, was lined with fences bearing photos of hostages who were abducted from southern Israel by terrorists on October 7 and taken to Gaza, where 120 of them are still being held.

Usually a jubilant affair, the annual parade now in its 59th year — dubbed “Celebrate Israel” in the past — was markedly more somber this year in the wake of the October 7 atrocities, when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists stormed over the border with Israel and butchered 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and kidnapped 252. The unprecedented onslaught is the deadliest in Israel’s history and likely the bloodiest day for the Jewish people since the Holocaust.

Mark Treyger, CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council, said earlier this week that the event would focus on solidarity, strength and resilience.

“This is not a mood of confetti and music,” Treyger said. “This is more of a mood of unwavering, ironclad solidarity with hostages to bring them home, and also our unwavering love and pride in our Jewish identity.”

There was never a thought of canceling the parade this year, Treyger said, despite what he termed an astronomical rise in antisemitism across the United States.

“This is a moment that we have to meet,” he said.

People holding signs calling for the release of hostages gather ahead of the annual Israel Day Parade on Sunday, June 2, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)

The conflicting emotions behind the event were evidenced by the smiling faces of bystanders who burst into tears upon seeing families of hostages march by and moments when peppy Israeli pop music was drowned out by cries of “Bring Them Home Now,” a slogan calling for the immediate release of the hostages.

And while the overall mood was one of great pride for Israel, the fissures of a people under tremendous pressure for nearly 240 days were also readily evident.

Some parade participants screamed angrily in Hebrew at passing Israeli officials, who were accompanied by heavy security and ushered past quickly. US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who while strongly supporting Israel in Congress has also called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu an “obstacle to peace,” was met with audible boos at the pre-parade press conference.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks during the annual Israel Day Parade on Fifth Avenue on Sunday, June 2, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and Mayor Eric Adams were also among the elected officials in attendance as the parade kicked off late Sunday morning. Spectators came from around the New York City region and as far as Israel.

Over 70 family members of the hostages headed up a contingent of roughly 2,500 marchers representing the Hostages and Missing Families Forum, a group advocating in Israel on behalf of the kidnapped, while almost every marching group, which included the Israeli Tzofim scouts and contingents from numerous Jewish day schools, wore “Bring Them Home Now” dog tag necklaces, and led chants calling for the same.

When asked about what motivated her to attend the march, local Jodi Sokol gestured to her black “Bring Them Home Now” t-shirt.

“Why am I here?” she asked rhetorically. “There’s been too much silence.”

People gather for the annual Israel Day Parade on Fifth Avenue on Sunday, June 2, 2024, in New York. (Jordana Horn)

“I came here to support the families — to show solidarity and love and care for them,” said Israeli-born New Yorker Carmelit Zosnat. “I have an obligation — I must be here to show solidarity. If I don’t show solidarity, tomorrow it could be me or it could be someone else.”

Yotam Cohen, the older brother of hostage Nimrod Cohen, told The Times of Israel as he was marching with the Hostages and Missing Families Forum that the parade “is a small light in this hell we’ve been living in for eight months.”

Gilad Korngold, father of hostage Tal Shoham, holds a posted of his captive son at the annual Israel Day Parade on Fifth Avenue on Sunday, June 2, 2024, in New York. (Jordana Horn)

“It’s been more than a living hell for us,” Cohen said, surrounded by chanting marchers. “The Biden administration has been very helpful putting the deal on the table. It’s been a roller coaster because every few months there’s a new deal.”

He stopped to let this reporter take a photo of his shirt showing a picture of his brother. When asked to say something about Nimrod, he sighed, his pace flagging slightly.

“My brother is 19. He graduated high school less than a year ago. He loves video games and Rubik’s cubes, like any other boy,” Cohen said.

From a passing float bearing the emblem of the States of Israel, singer Noam Buskila entreated the crowd, “How about you sing with us?” leading a round of the classic “Hineh Ma Tov.”

Regardless of mood, the importance of attendance this year in particular resonated with participants as the Israel-Hamas war rages on and waves of rabid anti-Israel protests are seen by many as crossing the line into antisemitism.

“What’s happening in the United States over the past eight months has been very upsetting and very distressing,” Debbie Morris, a marcher with a group from Westchester, said as she marched by East 73rd Street. “In my entire life, I never felt as threatened as a Jew as I do now.”

Calling the wider American public’s response to the October 7 Hamas-led massacre “very disappointing, to say the least,” Morris said she felt it was very important to show up today.

People gather for the annual Israel Day Parade on Fifth Avenue on Sunday, June 2, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)

“I feel happy that I can be a part of this to show my support and my concern,” Morris said. “And to show that we as Jews aren’t going anywhere — that we are here to stay, and we’re very strong as a people.”

But the event boasted significant security. New York Police Department officials employed measures typically used for high-profile events such as New Year’s Eve and July 4. That included drones, K-9 units, bike patrols, fencing and barriers and designated entry points for spectators all along the parade route. Backpacks, large bags and coolers were prohibited, and spectators had to pass through metal detectors.

City officials stressed Friday there were no specific or credible threats to either the parade or the city, and any protestors have the right to demonstrate so long as it is done peacefully.

Dina and Sam Markind, a couple marching with the Westchester group, said they felt participation in the parade was “a very important statement.”

Participants march during the annual Israel Day Parade on Fifth Avenue on Sunday, June 2, 2024, in New York. (Jordana Horn)

Indeed, all participants interviewed by The Times of Israel stressed the importance in this moment of American Jews standing up to be counted and to show solidarity with Israel and, on a larger level, the Jewish people.

New York City resident Tatyana Morton, marching with Mothers Against College Antisemitism — a Facebook group with over 50,000 members, mostly parents and caregivers of Jewish American college students — said that even though she lives in the city, she has never participated in the parade before.

Despite the rise in antisemitism globally necessitating the higher than usual security measures — or because of it — Morton felt an imperative to show up and march.

“Many people said it would be risky or scary [to come to the parade], but that’s precisely the reason to show up and be seen,” Morton said. “Imagine if there weren’t any supporters, if these streets were empty.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Most Popular
read more: