This year’s Salute to Israel Parade will do more than reflect on the first 50 years of the Jewish state. For many spectators and participants, it will reflect on American history as well.
For the first time in 33 years, those marching down Fifth Avenue on May 17 will include both Jews and African Americans as they combine support for Israel with commemoration of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In an arrangement that, for some, will evoke memories of blacks and Jews marching side by side for civil rights, the Israel Tribute Committee and the 369th Regiment Veterans Association have agreed to combine two marches planned for the same day. The 369th Regiment was a segregated unit that distinguished itself in World War I and World War II.
“I don’t think there’s been a situation like this where Jews and blacks have marched together [since] 1963 in Washington,” said William Helmreich, president of the Israel Tribute Committee (ITC), which took over responsibility for the parade last year from the now-defunct American Zionist Youth Foundation.
Reflecting on a scheduling conflict that quickly turned amiable, Helmreich said the story was a welcome change of pace from recent clashes between blacks and Jews. “This time the news is good. When we march together publicly up Fifth Avenue it may send the message that not everything has to be solved through conflict. I think it’s a very important civics lesson.”
The arrangement reached last month, brokered by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, calls for interspersed contingents from both groups to march down Fifth Avenue in a theme of unity.
The discussions began when the Jewish group sought a permit on May 17 and found the black group had already reserved the date. (Martin Luther King’s birthday is Jan. 15; the national commemoration is the third Monday of January.) The Israel parade is traditionally scheduled after the completion of Sefirat Ha-Omer, the days of mourning in which celebrations are proscribed. The number of available Sundays between the Shavuout holiday and the beginning of summer vacation is limited. In 1995, this led to a conflict with Yom HaShoah, the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration.
“We thought maybe we can persuade the [369th] to take another day,” said Helmreich, a sociology professor at City College in Manhattan. “We explained about the Omer. But they said they had given up their date a few years ago and, for their own reasons, preferred to stay on this date.”
In what he called a “fortuitous development,” Helmreich learned that Francis Terrell, his co-director at the Center for Conflict Resolution at City College, had been the grand marshal at last year’s parade. The two contacted Gen. Nathaniel James, president of the 369th, to arrange a meeting.
“I said … instead of us picking another avenue, why don’t we just join forces and march together and send a message of unity and tolerance for the rest of New York,” said Helmreich. James readily agreed.
Terrell, a retired general in the U.S. Army Reserves, said solving the problem was a simple matter of bringing the two sides together. “You can think of a million ways to say no to an idea,” he said. “It just takes some common sense and some patience to sit down and think it through to make it a win-win situation for everybody. It shows all the naysayers out there that in the spirit of cooperation and good will, many things can be done.”
The Martin Luther King parade is considered a substantially smaller event than the Salute to Israel, although no figures on participation were available. Last year’s Israel parade included 35,000 marchers with 22 floats. This year, as the result of a national outreach effort, that number is expected to increase to 50,000 marchers and 30 floats, according to Ruth Kastner, director of ITC.
Terrel said he hoped combining the events would increase spectator turnout to “at least half a million, maybe more.” He also expressed hope that the event would serve to bolster support for Israel in the African-American community, as well as deepen black-Jewish ties.
“This is a parade for school children,” he said. “What better way to teach the spirit of cooperation than to begin with young people?”
Meanwhile, confusion may await spectators who wish to attend the concert in Central Park that has succeeded the parade for the past four years.
The concert has typically been a forum for right-wing speakers and musicians who oppose the Oslo Accords, an alternative to the parade’s apolitical message of unity. But this year the ITC has secured a permit to hold its own concert, creating the possibility of competing musical events. Both groups are securing permits at separate areas of the Rumsey Playfield, adjacent to Fifth Avenue in the East 70s.
Dr. Joseph Frager, president of the Jerusalem Reclamation Project, who has organized the concert in conjunction with other organizations, including the National Council of Young Israel, said it was “unfortunate” that the ITC was able to merge a black and Jewish event, but not two Jewish events.
“I’ve done everything in my power to join forces with the parade,” says Frager. “I don’t see why they had to create a new event when we would have gladly joined with them.”