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Montreal event marking Israel's national day overshadowed by regional war

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Every year, thousands of Jewish Montrealers gather at Place du Canada to celebrate Israel's national day, but this year there was no march and a lot more security.

Organizers say with the war going on in Gaza and 130 Israeli hostages still unaccounted for, they had a dilemma.

"We had a big decision of whether to celebrate or not, but everyone believes we have something to celebrate," said Michael Druckman, the event's co-organizer.

Although there was some singing and dancing, there was also a moment of silence for those killed and still missing since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas.

It was also an opportunity for people to show their colours — some like Richard Lion had never done that before.

"It's more of a need for us to express our support publicly. We support Israel privately and personally and this year for obvious reasons there was a need for us to demonstrate this publicly to show our community and the city in which we live, and the politicians, that these things are important to us as Canadians," Lion said.

The criticism of Israel was been loud and there was a group of pro-Palestinian demonstrators across the street.

Supporters of Israel gather to celebrate the country's Independence Day in Montreal on Tuesday, May 14, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christinne Muschi

But Consul General Paul Hirschson says the protests won't deter them. He believes the majority of Canadians support Israel.

"The saying in Israel is we need to be able to defend ourselves by ourselves. But we're not alone. We're not at all alone," Hirschson said.

That's why for some, waving the flag was especially important on Tuesday.

"It's definitely an unpopular opinion. A lot of stuff on social media where people are sort of demonizing support for Israel. To me, that's not what it is," said Ethan Borkowski.

Attendees who spoke to reporters expressed pride and support for Israel, even as they said they were saddened by the loss of life in Gaza.

"I think everyone who feels Jewish in their heart wants to come out and support Israel and support peace, which is most important, and I’m hoping that will be in my lifetime," said Dorrie Davidson, who waved a big Israeli flag on the sidelines of the event, in an interview with The Canadian Press. She said she wasn’t deterred by criticism of Israel, or by counter-protesters.

"They have a right to speak as well, and so do we. They have a right to believe in what they believe, and I have a right to believe what I believe, and this is it," she said.

Ari Kugler, a Jewish Montrealer, said this year’s event hits differently. “Unfortunately this year we’re forced in a situation where there’s war and death and tragedy, and we have to commemorate that and feel the pain, and just hope there’s an everlasting peace," he said.

Pro-Palestinian protesters demonstrate across the street from a gathering of pro-Israel supporters, gathered to celebrate their country's Independence Day in Montreal on Tuesday, May 14, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christinne Muschi

A few hundred pro-Palestinian protesters demanded a ceasefire in Gaza and tried to disrupt the Israelicelebrations. For them, May 14 is the date of the Nakba, which is the Arabic word for "catastrophe."

"We are here out of sadness when we see these pro-Israelis are celebrating 76 years of the Israeli Independence Day — 76 years of blatant rebellion against God, blatant rebellion of all that Judaism stands for: murder and theft, oppression of an entire people, a genocide going on for months," said Rabbi Dovid Feldman, of Neturei Karta Canada, an activist group that, according to the mission statement on its website, says it opposes the existence of the State of Israel and condemns the occupation of Palestine.

Pro-Palestinian protesters demonstrate across the street from a gathering of pro-Israel supporters, gathered to celebrate their country's Independence Day in Montreal on Tuesday, May 14, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christinne Muschi

"We are here just to send a message to the world that we support our brothers and sisters in Palestine," said Tarek Taha.

With files from The Canadian Press 

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