It is one of Donald Trump’s chief foreign-policy credentials: that morning a dozen years ago when he marched down Fifth Avenue with the words grand marshal across his chest.
“In spring 2004, at the height of violence in the Gaza Strip, I was the grand marshal of the 40th Salute to Israel Parade, the single largest gathering in support of the Jewish state,” Trump told attendees at this year’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in Washington, D.C., a line he has also offered at debates, in interviews, or whenever his fealty to the Jewish state or knowledge of foreign affairs is questioned. “It was a very dangerous time for Israel and frankly for anyone supporting Israel,” he continued. “Many people turned down this honor. I did not. I took the risk, and I’m glad I did.”
Which is, as is often the case with Trump’s stated accomplishments, not the way others involved with the event remember it. “I mean, come on,” said Juda Engelmayer, a PR executive who served on the board of directors of the Israel Tribute Committee, which used to organize the annual event. “The Israel Day Parade is one of the most protected parades at every level of government. I don’t think there was ever any concern that anyone’s life would be in danger.”
Photos of the event show a beaming Trump waving to the crowd on a gorgeous summer afternoon and shaking hands with attendees. At one point he marched alongside his co–grand marshal, the sex therapist Dr Ruth. The Apprentice had debuted earlier in the year, and Trump’s fellow marchers recall him pointing a finger at paradegoers and shouting, “You’re fired!” to cheers.
Trump wrote about the parade in his book Think Like a Billionaire: Everything You Need to Know About Success, Real Estate and Life, a rambling, diaristic account of his life when he was shooting the first season of The Apprentice.
“We were finished by 8 p.m. and Melania was making dinner tonight, so we headed upstairs for a relaxing evening at home,” Trump writes in the sole paragraph in the book dedicated to the event. “Tomorrow, after the task assignment I would be the grand marshall in the Salute to Israel Parade on Fifth Avenue, so it would be a busy and exciting day. I’ve always enjoyed parades, and this parade would be a special one.”
Trump’s claim that “many people turned down this honor” is about as true as his claim that it was a dangerous undertaking. Prior to Trump, previous grand marshals had come from the ranks of American and Israeli public officials, particularly those based in New York, for whom attendance is practically mandatory. Chuck Schumer was the 2003 grand marshal. In 2011, it was Yuli-Yoel Edelstein, who did hard labor in a Siberian gulag before rising to the speakership of the Israeli Knesset.
The widespread assumption about the choice of Trump that year was that he secured the plum spot by making a high-dollar donation to the Israel Tribute Committee, which ran the parade. But as has been the case with much of Trump’s charitable giving, his generosity is more imagined than real. Judy Kaufthal, an active Riverdale-based philanthropist and longtime organizer of the parade, said that she did not recall any donations from Trump that year, even though later it would become part of the organizer’s practice to ask the grand marshal for fundraising help to defray the parade’s costs.
Instead, the event’s organizers were simply looking to raise the parade’s profile, and trying to make the event more inclusive by finding someone who was not Jewish to lead it. Kaufthal was brainstorming with Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, the president of the New York Board of Rabbis, who, in addition to serving as chaplain of the New York City Fire and Police Departments and for the New York Press Club, also hosts “Religion on the Line,” an interdenominational call-in show on WABC 770. They went back and forth on a few different names — Jerry Seinfeld’s name came up — when Potasnik suggested Trump.
Back then, Trump was no longer seen as the avatar of Gotham greed as he was in the 1980s and 1990s, nor was he the snarling nativist of today, nor, for that matter, was he yet the grim-faced arbiter of entrepreneurial acumen that he was on The Apprentice.
“I remember, he looked up at me and said, ‘How would you like it if I got you Donald Trump?’” Kaufthal recalled. “I mean, talk about someone exciting. Everyone was pretty pleased.”
Potasnik contacted Howard Lorber, the chairman of Douglas Elliman and one of the few New York real-estate tycoons friendly with the reality-TV star. Lorber proposed the idea to Trump — the two marched together at one point — and Trump quickly accepted.
“It wasn’t like we asked ten people first who said, ‘No, I’m too afraid to do it,’” Kaufthal said, adding that they moved around the start time of the march in order to accommodate Trump’s television schedule. “He was very gracious and very charming.”
“Judy and some others came to see me in my office,” Potasnik recalls. “They wanted to elevate the profile of the parade, they wanted to heighten the attention so that more people would come. We said, ‘Who is the person who can be grand marshal who will generate that kind of enthusiastic response?’ He was just a popular figure. There was no political consideration. It was strictly a matter of finding a celebrity.”
Twelve years ago, Kaufthal, Potasnik, and the rest of the parade organizers would never have imagined that Trump would be using the experience as a talking point in a populist presidential campaign. But none seemed to view the decision as a mistake.
“I don’t think you could put the word regret on it,” said Engelmayer. “Has he said or done anything as far as Israel, or as far as the parade is concerned that would make you regret? I don’t think so. It’s not like we asked a young Adolf Hitler to be the grand marshal.”
Trump, after all, was a major New York City personality, someone with business ties to the Jewish state and whom the Jewish community in town counted as one of their supporters. That he now uses the parade as proof not just of his support for Israel but as proof of his foreign-policy bona fides, that’s just politics.
“If Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of State, said that marching in the Celebrate Israel parade was a reason to support her for president, that would be a problem. I mean, Trump will use whatever leverage he can get right now. There is nothing else he has done,” Engelmayer added.
And given that the whole idea of asking Trump to lead the parade was to garner attention — well, that plan succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
“The first time he said it, I just couldn’t believe it,” said Kaufthal. “Selfishly, truthfully, the parade has in the end gotten a lot of publicity this year thanks to Trump.”