Unity in diversity
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Unity in diversity

Jersey City raises Israel's flag on Yom Ha'atzmaut

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Mayor Steven Fulop, left, with Ambassador Ido Aharoni, Rabbi Debra Hachen of Temple Beth-El, and Arthur Fulop, the mayor’s father.

It’s visceral.

The sky, finally, is blue. The clouds are puffy and white, and the breeze skitters them across the sky. There is that indescribable feeling, that feeling of the sap inside your own body rising, that tells you that it’s spring.

And then there go the flags, up and up into the blueness, brought to snapping life by the breeze.

And whose flags? The United States’ flag – and Israel’s.

It’s Yom Ha’atzmaut in Jersey City.

Jersey City, the state’s second largest city – Newark, needless to say, is the biggest – is among the country’s most diverse. According to the 2010 census, 75 languages are spoken in the city’s public schools. (As a challenge, try simply to name 75 languages!) Members of many ethnic groups that do not get along well in their own countries find themselves close neighbors here, and they learn first to tolerate and then sometimes to appreciate and even like each other.

Which brings us back to the flag-flying ceremony on Tuesday.

“We pride ourselves on being the golden door,” Mayor Steven Fulop said after the ceremony. (The phrase, of course, comes from Emma Lazarus’s poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty. “I lift my lamp beside the golden door,” it reads. The statue faces Manhattan, but it bestrides Jersey City waters.) “We have a huge Indo-American community, and a Filipino community, and a Pakistani community, and a Coptic Egyptian community,” he continued. “The Muslim community has been very supportive, and we have a terrific relationship, and we recognize that.”

But on this Yom Ha’atzmaut, the first since he took office in July, “we recognize the Israeli and Jewish community,” he said.

Mr. Fulop was accompanied by Ido Aharoni, the Consul General of Israel in New York, whose coverage area includes New Jersey. Mr. Fulop had met Mr. Aharoni through a mutual friend, the Israeli violinist Miri Ben-Ari. “The ambassador mentioned to me that when Glenn Cunningham was mayor, he took the time to do the flag raisings, but it fell off since then,” Mr. Fulop said.

Mr. Cunningham, the city’s first African-American mayor, was Mr. Fulop’s mentor. He died in 2004, and the custom died with him.

“I said then that I would like to revive and expand that,” Mr. Fulop said. And he has.

Mr. Fulop’s father, Arthur, was at the flag-raising. Arthur Fulop fought in the Golani Brigade during the Six-Day War, and had come out of it strongly anti-war; he was gratified by the chance to talk to Mr. Aharoni, his son reported.

Beyond the purely personal, “it felt really great” to be able to raise the Israeli flag over City Hall, Mr. Fulop said. “Israel has been such a great friend to this country. I am the first Jewish elected mayor here, with terrific relationships to the Muslim community. It is a great thing to be able to put the flag up here – and next month we’ll do the same thing with the flag of Pakistan.”

In June, Jersey City will further its relationship with Israel by hosting a showcase for new Israeli technology. In a joint project from the city and the consulate general in New York, on Monday, June 23, from 10 a.m. until noon, potential investors and users will be invited to take a look at some of the new marvels soon to be available from eight to 10 innovative new high-tech ventures.

Mr. Fulop noted that many religious leaders came to the flag raising. “We had rabbis and imams and priests,” he said. “We are very lucky to be so diverse.”

Among them was Debra Hachen, the rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Jersey City.

“It was just wonderful,” Rabbi Hachen said. “For those of us who are here, so far away from Israel, life goes on in an ordinary way all around us on Yom Ha’atzmaut.”

Part of the flag-raising was devoted to honoring Israel’s scientific accomplishments. “Ido Aharoni spoke about the technology and creativity in Israel,” she said.

She also spoke at the flag raising. “I talked about the fact that my brother is in Israel. He’s my family – but Israel is our family, whether we have relatives there or not. I read the prayer for Israel and our hope for peace.

“It was very meaningful to me, as a Zionist, as someone who is going to Israel for approximately my 20th trip.

“I woke up this morning, on Yom Ha’atzmaut, and it felt this was the beginning of my trip. It starts today, with Yom Ha’atzmaut.”

Rabbi Hachen found herself moved by Mr. Aharoni’s talk.

“At the beginning, the consul general talked about the many people who gave their lives for the establishment of the state of Israel,” she said. “Those of us who are connected to the Jewish calendar understand that Yom Ha’atzmaut comes right after Yom Hazikaron” – in other words, that Israel’s Independence Day dawns when the day that precedes it, the country’s Remembrance Day, fades out.

“We only have Yom Ha’atzmaut because so many young people died,” she continued. “That was one percent of all the people who were in Israel in 1948.

“When we have our own Independence Day here, we don’t have the same sense of sacrifice, because Memorial Day isn’t anywhere near. There is something so poignant in realizing that Israelis cannot imagine Independence Day without pausing to think of the sacrifices.

“It makes it such a bittersweet day. But today – to see that flag flying there – it was such a sweet omen. It was an honor to be there.”

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