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Montrealers celebrate Yom ha-Atzmaut

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People celebrate Yom ha-Atzmaut in Place du Canada in Montreal on May 9. (Janice Arnold photo)

Several thousand Montrealers expressed their pride in the State of Israel on its 71st anniversary by walking down Ste-Catherine Street, waving flags, singing Hebrew songs and partying in Place du Canada on May 9.

It was a new route for the 18th Israel Day Rally, which was held in downtown Montreal on Yom ha-Atzmaut. Due to work being done at the usual starting point, Phillips Square, the event began at Cabot Square and proceeded east along Ste-Catherine for a dozen blocks.

With its many storefronts and restaurants, and Concordia University, this route was quite different from the usual one along René Lévesque Boulevard that is framed by office towers and other large buildings.

The sea of blue and white, blaring music and the roar of motorbikes – which, as per tradition, were the first in the parade – drew many curious onlookers on this busy street, but the event went off without incident.

The police presence was heavy throughout, with officers keeping a close watch on foot, in patrol cars, as well as on motorcycle and horseback. A team of bicycle cops fronted the procession as it headed to Peel Street and then south to Place du Canada.

The crowd grew even bigger there, as others joined in for the live show that featured Cantor Danny Benlolo and Jason Rosenblatt’s band, Streiml.

Again this year, the MC was Catherine Verdon-Diamond of City TV’s Breakfast Television, who lived in Israel for four years in the 1990s, when her engineer father was posted there.

“I fell in love with the country,” said Verdon-Diamond, who tried out some of the Hebrew she had learned, to the delight of the cheering crowd.

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A large menorah was lit by a variety of people who were chosen to demonstrate that those outside the Jewish community also support Israel, said Israeli Consul General David Levy. He added that this was also a celebration of the 70 years of diplomatic relations between Canada and Israel.

The honour was given to representatives of the Chinese, Filipino and Greek communities, as well as to Italian Consul General Sylvia Constantini and Second World War veteran Alexander Sexton. Levy noted that Israel’s Independence Day coincided this year with VE Day, in which Canadians played such an important role.

Federation CJA president David Amiel and Jacques Saada, president of the Communauté Sépharade Unifiée du Québec, lit a candle together to symbolize the unity of the community.

Many members of the Filipino community joined in the festivities, some carrying placards hailing “The ties that bind,” and recalling that the Philippines had taken in many Jewish refugees from Europe.

“We are proud that a small, poor country was able to help a little bit,” Valencia Divina Gracia told The CJN. About 1,200 Jews were given asylum and the government wanted to take in more, but was blocked by the U.S. State Department, she said.

Conservative MP Michelle Rempel of Calgary and Mount Royal Liberal MP Anthony Housefather spoke on behalf of their respective parties.

Rempel asserted that Jews are the indigenous people of the Land of Israel, yet face daily threats to their existence. “We have to protect this wonderful place,” she said.

Tory Sen. Leo Housakos underscored the commitment Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer made in an address to the Montreal Council on Foreign Relations two days earlier to move Canada’s embassy to Jerusalem.

“We will never stand for a divided Jerusalem – ever,” Housakos said.

In a videotaped message, Scheer said that, “It’s an obvious fact that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.… Jerusalem has been central of Jewish identity and culture for thousands of years.”

Housefather enumerated the way he and his government have acted on the concerns of the Jewish community, including defending Israel in international forums, as well as denouncing BDS and anti-Semitism. He called for a national action plan to combat anti-Semitism, following the release of the B’nai Brith Canada audit, which recorded over 2,000 incidents in 2018.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in his videotaped message, confirmed that, “Our government will always stand with you.”

That evening, Quebec Environment Minister Benoit Charrette spoke at a private reception hosted by the Israeli consulate, extolling the growing economic, academic and cultural ties between the province and Israel. Quebec particularly admires Israel’s expertise in technological innovation, he said.

Levy noted that Israel’s first diplomatic mission was in Montreal, not Ottawa. In recognition of that seven-decade relationship, the consulate honoured seven local individuals and institutions for their exceptional contribution to bilateral relations:

Jerry Gross and Sydney Cadloff, who volunteered in the 1948 War of Independence; McGill University for being among the first Canadian universities to form academic partnerships with Israeli institutes of higher learning; former Montreal Canadiens head coach Jean Perron for his contribution to the development of hockey in Israel; Bombardier for its role in expanding and modernizing Israel’s railway system; Chantal Renaud, the widow of Premier Bernard Landry, who died last year, for having led Quebec’s first official economic mission to Israel and for his lifelong friendship with the Jewish community; and Air Canada for having flown to Tel Aviv since 1995 and, for the third consecutive year, scheduling direct flights from Montreal this summer