Thousands of flag-waving supporters of Israel rallied in downtown Montreal yesterday to celebrate the 62nd anniversary of its founding.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper sent greetings via Senator Leo Housakos, who said Harper’s support was “not for political expediency.”

“He, like many Canadians, respects the principles of freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

Israel shares those fundamental principles,” Housakos told the cheering crowd at Place du Canada. “Together, side by side, we defend them.”

Organizers estimated the crowd at 13,000, many of them brought in aboard a dozen school buses from west-end and West Island locations.

Israel was founded May 14, 1948, after the United Nations decided to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab-ruled parts. According to the Jewish calendar, that date corresponds this year to April 20.

The blowing of the ram’s horn by four men – the traditional way to summon Jewish crowds – signalled the start of the walk from Phillips Square along René Lévesque Blvd. to Place du Canada.

Participants were revved up by a live band and vocalists singing traditional Jewish melodies and modern Hebrew songs. French, English, Hebrew and Yiddish could be heard among the lively celebrants, including students from many Jewish elementary and high schools who danced to the music.

Israeli consul-general Yoram Elron, Montreal Mayor Gérald Tremblay and Liberal MP Marc Garneau (Westmount-Ville Marie), who read a message from party leader Michael Ignatieff, made brief speeches.

Retiree Meyer Bloom said he attends the event every year “because I feel Israel needs the support of Jews throughout the world.”

“This is not political; it’s a pleasure for us to be together,” Nadine Cohen said.

Marcelle Chemtov, who immigrated from Egypt in 1963, said she celebrates every year that “we have our own land so we can avoid the cruelty of anti-Semitism.

“We were never considered Egyptian,” she said.

Marianopolis College student Michael Zaslavsky, who was born in Moscow and lived five years in Israel, said: “What Israel has done in 62 years, no other country has achieved.”

A peaceful counter-demonstration by a dozen members of the ultra-Orthodox Neturei Karta Hasidic sect, several anti-Zionist Jews and pro-Palestinians were a reminder that Israel has its detractors.

Neturei Karta sect member Abraham Gold, a rabbinic student from Boisbriand who studies with the Tash community there, said: “Judaism and Zionism are diametrically opposed. Judaism is a spiritual idea and Jews are united by their religion. Zionism is a political idea.”