Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue was awash in blue and white last Sunday as participants marched and watched the Celebrate Israel Parade. The event kicked off promptly at 11 a.m., but instead of elected officials, the procession was led by uniformed officers and veterans groups. “I was called by a stranger and told to meet someone on Lexington Avenue and East 53rd Street. If he drops a newspaper, I must follow him,” said Bayside resident Paul Kaye, 92. “The call ended with the line, ‘If you want to help your people.’”

Kaye’s contribution towards Israel took place more than 71 years ago, a couple of blocks from the parade route, where clandestine agents of the underground Haganah militia recruited young American Jewish veterans to fight in Israel’s War of Independence. “I was a navy veteran of the Pacific theater. I was planning on going to college for engineering. But I had to help Israel.” Kaye saw action as one of Israel’s first “Navy SEALs,” looking out for Egyptian warships and assisting Jewish refugees. He described his encounter with the Haganah agent in Midtown Manhattan as “not that different” from Kirk Douglas’ portrayal of Mickey Marcus in the 1966 film, Cast a Giant Shadow.

Kaye rode up Fifth Avenue on a trolley-style bus with two other veterans. As the number of World War II and Israel War of Independence veterans dwindles, it felt special to meet Kaye and hear his account of both wars.

Governor Andrew Cuomo led New York’s political leaders a half hour after the parade began. He promised to visit Israel this year and remain vigilant against anti-Semitism. Assemblyman David Weprin marched behind Cuomo and spoke of the 55th annual parade as a family tradition. “I marched here as a student, with my father, as a Councilman, and now as an Assemblyman. This parade demonstrates the strong bond between New York and Israel.”

State Senator Anna Kaplan of Great Neck also spoke of marching as an elementary school student, and coming back each year with gratitude for America and its support of Israel. “My family arrived as refugees fleeing anti-Semitism, and I can speak of the Governor’s and the legislature’s efforts to strengthen this relationship.”

The Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, which organizes the event, estimated nearly 40,000 participants, including schools from beyond the New York metropolitan area. Demonstrating international support for the Jewish state, Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon was joined by his counterparts from Australia, Germany, Ukraine, Norway, and Nigeria, among other countries. “It is wonderful to celebrate Israel today here in New York, to have the city full of blue and white flags, to have so many of the international community demonstrate their support for Israel,” said German Ambassador to the United Nations Christoph Heusgen. “It’s wonderful to be here.”

Like no other Jewish event in the country, the parade represents the full political and religious spectrum of American Jewry, as well as many gentiles supportive of Israel. The contingent of anti-Zionist protesters was small in comparison to previous years, as Satmar chasidim held a competing rally outside of the city, where Satmar Rebbe Aron Teitelbaum called Israel the “head of impurity” and urged his followers to “feel a hatred in the heart, a hatred for Zionism.”

The exile of Bavel lasted for seven decades, and those who returned to Zion represented a minority of those sent into exile. More than 70 years after the founding of Israel, veterans like Paul Kaye can speak of miraculous events, such as the rescue of Holocaust survivors on barely functioning vessels, and the sinking of the Egyptian battleship King Farouk by the first Jewish army in 2,000 years. These are the heroes of our time, taking their deserved place at the head of the parade.

 By Sergey Kadinsky