Thousands celebrate Yom Ha-Atzmaut in Montreal

A man celebrates Yom Ha-Atzmaut in Montreal. (Janice Arnold photo)

Federal Conservative party leader Andrew Scheer drew cheers when he affirmed that his party is the only one committed to recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, at a 70th Yom ha-Atmautz reception hosted by the Israeli consulate in Montreal.

He was a surprise speaker at the private function held at Le Windsor on April 19. Taking a dig at the current Liberal government, Scheer said a government he led would, “not just abstain from United Nations resolutions singling Israel out, but vote against them.” He also made known that his paternal grandfather was Jewish.

Anthony Housefather, the Liberal MP for Mount Royal, said, “support for Israel is a non-partisan issue in Canada. Whether it is fighting against stigmatizing Israel at the UN, fighting BDS or enhancing trade, we do it because it is in Canada’s interest, as well as Israel’s.”

Consul General David Levy stressed the growing economic and cultural ties between Quebec and Israel, noting that trade grew by 19 per cent in both directions in the past year.


He also announced that 2019 will mark the 70th anniversary since Israel opened its first diplomatic mission in Canada – not in Ottawa – but in Montreal. That apparently pleased Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante who was among the 250 guests.

Earlier in the day, snow showers did not dampen the spirits of the several thousand who took part in the annual Israel Day Rally, held downtown.

From the stage in Place du Canada, Levy, who was celebrating his first Yom ha-Atzmaut in Montreal, thanked everyone for coming despite the weather. “In Israel it’s 25 degrees and people are at the beach. I invite you all to visit us,” he said.

As usual, the rally began at Phillips Square, where a boisterous crowd of young and old waved Israeli flags to the recorded music, while a large number of police officers kept watch. Led by a half-dozen motorcyclists, the throng then walked along René Lévesque Boulevard, holding flags high and singing.

Rotem Segev, left, Israeli deputy consul, and Consul General David Levy greet Michael Goodman, chair of Jewish National Fund, and Sue Montgomery, Côte des Neiges-Notre Dame de Grâce borough mayor. (Janice Arnold photo)

At Place du Canada, cantors Adam Stotland and Daniel Benlolo put on a lively show, accompanied by the band Shtreiml, which kept the celebrants in a joyous mood.

MC Catherine Verdon-Diamond of Breakfast Television Montreal, who lived for four years in Israel in the 1990s when her engineer father was posted there, tried out some of the Hebrew she remembers to the delight of the cheering crowd.

The honour of lighting the first flame on a seven-branch menorah was given to a Christian friend of Israel  Rev. Dean Bye, founder and director of Return Ministries, who was followed by representatives of the Chinese, Greek and Filipino communities; U.S. Consul General Robert Thomas; 95-year-old Auschwitz survivor Margaret Newman; and Levy himself.

Videotaped messages from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Scheer, and Premier Philippe Couillard, were played on a jumbotron.

That morning, Birnbaum rose in the National Assembly to salute Israel on its 70th anniversary. “Today, Israel is a light onto the nations of the world. As it enters its eighth decade of existence, Israel is building its future on technological innovation, cultural and scientific creativity and an unwavering commitment to the rule of law. I am privileged to participate as our own government intensifies its growing relationship, in business and friendship, with Israel, a country so dear to our own Jewish community here in Quebec. Am Israel chai.”

The Filipino community was visible throughout the rally, holding the flag of Philippines and banners reading “The Ties that Bind.” This referred to a longstanding relationship between the Filipino and Jewish people. The Philippines was the only Asian country to vote for partition on Nov. 29, 1947, paving the way for the creation of the State of Israel.

This was more than a chance to show pride in Israel for Leo Dortort, a veteran of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. The 89-year-old native of Graz, Austria, witnessed the burning of the town’s synagogue on Kristallnacht in 1938.

He got out of Austria in March 1939, by being smuggled through the mountains to Yugoslavia. He remained there until 1941 when he joined an illegal transport to Palestine.

He served in the British Mandate’s Jewish settlement committee, which he described as a paramilitary group. “We were the only ones allowed to legally carry arms. We became the core of the Israeli army – we didn’t even change uniforms.

“Nobody remembers that now. It’s a funny feeling being here 70 years later, thinking about what I did then. But it was so natural at the time, we had no choice,” he said in an interview.

The community remembered Israel’s fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism in a solemn Yom ha-Zikaron ceremony held by the Israeli Consulate and Federation CJA on April 17.

Guest speaker Nir Caspi, a former Israeli Navy SEAL, planned and led more than 10 special operations before leaving the military in 2000. He was critically injured in the 1997 Hezbollah attack at Antsaria, deep in Lebanon, which killed 12 of his fellow commandos.

Six months earlier, Caspi lost his best friend and another teammate, who died accidentally in a diving drill at Haifa’s port.

“Fourteen of my friends lost their life at the age of 19…They died in our most important mission: to protect our only Jewish state, the State of Israel.

“I’m married and have three amazing boys. I think a lot about my buddies that didn’t make it to build a family, I think about their parents, I think about their unborn kids…It is sad, it is tough but this is our reality as Israelis…

“I feel that we have to be positive, we have to keep on and build our future.”

In 2004, Caspi co-founded and is today CEO of Café Landwer, a chain of more than 70 casual restaurants in Israel reviving the brand of a famous Jewish-owned establishment founded in Berlin in 1919. Last year, one opened in Toronto and this year another in Boston.

The crowd sings and dances at the party in Place du Canada. (Janice Arnold)