This Sunday, we who live in the tri-state area will have the opportunity to publicly celebrate the State of Israel’s first 64 years as New York City hosts what has become a tradition over the last 48 years – the Salute to Israel Day Parade (sorry, I mean the Celebrate Israel Parade; more below on why the name change).
The parade is the largest gathering of Jews outside of Israel to celebrate the forming of the Jewish state. In the past, it was arranged by the Israel Tribute Committee with respect and dignity. This year, however, some of that respect and dignity may be diminished. Not only will school groups, Jewish organizations, synagogues of all stripes, Zionism-inspired artists and the like proudly proclaim their love for Israel, but this year’s parade will also see people marching who stand accused by some of actively working to undermine Israel. It matters little whether the accusation is a false one. This is a case in which perception counts more than reality.
My father directed communications for the parade one year a couple of decades ago. To him, it was a display of Jewish unity and pride as groups that normally stood apart from each other stood shoulder to shoulder along the parade route.
I served on the Israel Tribute Committee’s board for several years between 2002 and 2009. My fellow members and I would argue over themes, color schemes, and logo designs. We sometimes fought over whether a band or an act was too parochial, too secular, or too awful, but we always agreed on this: No matter what we chose, it had to highlight the very best of Israel and those who wish the Jewish state well every day, and on parade day in particular.
Jews for Jesus wanted to march, but we said no. We agreed amongst ourselves that this missionary Christian group probably does love Israel for many of the same symbolic reasons we Jews do, and for some reasons unique to its own ideology. Yet, we also believed that to allow the group, a very definite lightning rod for discord, to march would be divisive and we did not want divisiveness on a day of unity.
We never once disagreed on the purpose of the parade. It was intended to demonstrate the stunning and overwhelming support Americans had for Israel. The parade – with hundreds of thousands of people (and even over one million people in some years) marching along Fifth Avenue, or cheering marchers on from the sidelines regardless of the weather – was designed to send a powerful message to anyone who doubted the American people’s resolve to support Israel as a true friend of the United States and a champion of democracy in the Middle East.
Today, the parade is run by a larger organization, one that used to have just a vote or two on the board, but which now controls its agenda. “Agenda” is the operative word here, because there is no other way to describe it. The Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, funded largely by New York’s UJA-Federation, now controls the parade. The JCRC-NY even changed the name, from “Salute to Israel Parade” to the supposedly more inclusive and perhaps more pareve-like “Celebrate Israel Parade,” so that many more people can now participate.
And, indeed, more are joining in. We now have the New Israel Fund, for example, which helped finance an effort to convince the Norwegian government’s pension fund to divest from Israel. Meretz USA, an offshoot of the Israeli political party, urges a boycott of products made in the territories, including Ahava cosmetics; it will march. The Israeli civil rights group B’tselem, whose chairman publicly called for “effective sanctions” against Israel, will be there, as well.
These groups believe in Israel and in its security, and it is disingenuous to argue otherwise, but they disagree with Israeli government policies in the territories. That is their right, but on parade day, they are lightning rods of discord, just as Jews for Jesus would do.
One need only see what has been going on for a couple of months now. Richard Allen, founder of JCCWatch.org, has been promoting an effort to rally against these groups at the parade. He notes, often in overly exaggerated and inflammatory rhetoric, that John Ruskay, the head professional at UJA-Federation in New York, once was part of an organization known as the Committee on New Alternatives in the Middle East.
Allen said that he and a committee he helped form to “give the parade back to the people who want to see a thriving Israel” are working hard to get the message out.
“We have an open call for all friends of Israel to attend the Israel Day Parade and give out a loud Bronx Cheer to New Israel Fund, Meretz USA and B’Tselem as they march by. There should be no room at the Israel Day Parade for those groups that support a Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions against Israel,” Allen said.
Never mind whether Allen is correct. What he proposes for Sunday can also run counter to the main purpose of the parade by adding further discord and dissension.
He and those who agree with him are not the problem, however. The parade organizers are at fault, because they abandoned the parade’s original mission.
The message, the spirit, the reason the event was begun in 1964 will be lost amid the din of those Bronx cheers. In its own words on its website, the parade states that its purpose is to “enable the tri-state community to celebrate in a non-partisan, apolitical show of unity with Israel.”
Make no mistake, political diversity is acceptable. Lightning rods are not. Groups that support a two-state solution with a viable Palestinian Arab state and no settlements are acceptable. Groups that would make the people in the territories suffer because they live there, or who would make the entire state pay an economic price for a peace even the Palestinians do not seriously pursue, are not acceptable, especially if they do not also advocate similar measures against Palestinian intransigence.
People should come out in larger numbers than ever this year to unite behind the State of Israel. That is the only reason to be there. That is the real reason we all need to be there. More than ever, the world needs to see that America’s concern for Israel’s safety and security and prosperity remains undiminished and unshakable.
The politics of it all have their venues. Fifth Avenue on Sunday is not one of them.