Israel Parade: Pounding The Pavement Amid Ambivalence

Israel Parade: Pounding The Pavement Amid Ambivalence

Annual Fifth Avenue ‘Salute’ attracts ‘hundreds of thousands,’ but questions about unity linger.

Standing at Fifth Avenue and 59th Street, near G.M. Plaza and the start of the annual Salute to Israel Parade, Marilyn Chandler apologized Sunday for being a little disoriented by all the hoopla around her.

“I just got off the plane from Greensboro, N.C., and it’s overwhelming to see all the blue and white,” the colors of the Israeli flag, said Chandler, executive director of the Greensboro Jewish Federation.

Chandler (no relation to the reporter), explained that she had come to town for a meeting of the Jewish Federations of North America and had come to the parade to show solidarity with the Jewish state.

“It’s very exciting to hear all the spirit and see people so enthusiastic about Israel, as I am,” she said.

It was clear on Sunday that others who had come to participate in the parade and to cheer from the sidelines were as excited as the federation executive, who heads a Jewish community of about 3,000. More than 30,000 people took part in the parade, either as marchers or as volunteers on the event’s floats, and “hundreds of thousands” of people came as spectators, said Michal Brickman, the parade’s executive producer.

The parade, celebrating Israel’s 62nd anniversary, followed its traditional route, starting at Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, heading north on Fifth Avenue and ending at 74th Street. It also drew an array of politicians and celebrities, as it always does, including Andrew Cuomo, the state’s attorney general, whose participation marked his first stop as the Democratic candidate for governor. Other participants included Mayor Michael Bloomberg; Israeli-American businessman Meshulam Riklis, the parade’s grand marshal; Yuri Foreman, Israel’s first world boxing champion; and Adi Neumann, an Israeli supermodel.

But if the event’s participants and spectators shared Marilyn Chandler’s excitement, some may have shared her sense of disorientation, although for different reasons.

This year’s parade more or less capped a winter and spring of increasing anxiety, fear and division among American Jews. The past few months have included tension between the Obama White House and Israel over the construction of new housing in east Jerusalem, growing alarm over Iran’s development of nuclear weapons and the related concern that economic sanctions against Iran may be too little, too late.

The tension has widened the gulf not only between liberal Jews, who support Obama, and their conservative brethren, many of whom regard the president as anti-Israel, but also between the great majority of Jews who favor a two-state solution in the Middle East and those opposed. Both sides see any alternative to the course they advocate as a threat to Israel’s very existence.

Those divisions have been highlighted by an essay in the current issue of the New York Review of Books by Peter Beinart, a former editor of the New Republic. Beinart asserts that mainstream Jewish organizations are turning a blind eye to increasingly undemocratic impulses in Israeli society regarding its treatment of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians. He also contends that those same organizations, while avoiding any public criticism of Israel, also try to prevent others from criticizing Israeli policy, alienating Jews who consider themselves pro-Israel and pro-peace.

“For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door,” Beinart writes, “and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.”

One result, according to Beinart and others, is that the world of pro-Israel, Zionist activism is increasingly under the purview of the Modern Orthodox.

Whether those divisions have played out during the Salute to Israel Parade is a matter of debate. Many observers believe that, with each passing year, the marchers and spectators drawn by the event are more and more Orthodox, as suggested by Beinart.

But organizers of the parade, under the auspices of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, say that such an impression is wrong. While acknowledging that most of the large groups of marchers come from Orthodox yeshivas and day schools, Brickman said that dozens of non-Orthodox organizations also participate, including synagogue youth groups and campus Hillels.

“Wherever you stand politically or religiously, the parade is a vehicle for people to come out in celebration of Israel,” said Brickman, who echoed language on the event’s website.

One group of spectators came from Temple Beth Sholom, a Reform congregation in Queens, with about 220 families. Rabbi Sharon Ballan, the synagogue’s spiritual leader, said the synagogue rented a school bus to bring about 25 members to the parade, believing, as they do, that it was important to show their solidarity with Israel.

At the same time, Rabbi Ballan said, she’s progressive when it comes to Israel, as she believes most of her congregants are, in line with stands taken by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Union for Reform Judaism. She also agrees with Beinart’s assessment.

“People feel their loyalty is being questioned,” the rabbi said. There’s a “perception” among liberal Jews that the organized Jewish world is telling people there’s only one way to support Israel. But “not all Israelis favor Bibi [Netanyahu],” she added, referring to the Israeli prime minister, “and there’s more than one way to support Israel.”

Other groups that lined the sidewalk included a number of right-wing organizations and at least one organization, the Human Rights Coalition Against Radical Islam, opposed to Islamic militancy. But missing from both the sidewalk and the parade itself were groups on the Zionist left, such as Meretz USA and Ameinu, that used to send large contingents to the event.

Hiam Simon, national director of Ameinu, said he “would have loved to have had enough bandwidth” — members and financial resources — “to have a strong, visible presence in the parade,” one that would have shown that his group “is pro-Israel, along with everyone else on the street.” But the Jewish community, he added, is now in “a tug of war” over the meaning of being pro-Israel, and a parade isn’t the forum for presenting a “nuanced” point of view.

“I don’t know how you can be pro-Israel without being pro-two-state solution,” Simon said.

Hashomer Hatzair and Habonim-Dror, both youth movements on the Zionist left, marched together in the parade, with some participants carrying signs saying, “Two States, One Love.” Hadas Amster, an Israeli emissary to a Habonim-Dror summer camp, said some people along the route cheered their presence, while others “felt differently.”

On the right end of the spectrum, the spectators included Lorrie Fein, 62, a resident of Flatbush, Brooklyn, who recently returned from Israel with a mission sponsored by Americans for a Safe Israel. Wearing an orange T-shirt associated with settlers who opposed Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, Fein said she doesn’t “want that to happen again,” in the West Bank.

Watching on the sidelines were Zhava Jeff and her husband, Michael, of Kew Gardens Hills. “It’s a very lively group,” she said as a band played and marchers danced in front of them. “They’re very spirited.”

Jeff said she has been coming to the annual parade “for more years than I want to count – more than 30 years.” What made this year so special, they said, is that their 7-year-old grandson, Tzvi Motechin, accompanied them. A few minutes later, Jeff, who was wearing the shirt of Yeshiva Har Torah in Jamaica, spotted her group, stepped around a police barricade and joined the line of march.

Like thousands of others, Fein later attended an annual rally and concert, sponsored by right-wing groups that support Israel’s settlement movement, held in Central Park on the same day as the parade. Speakers included Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, and Danny Danon, deputy speaker of the Knesset from the Likud party.

Steele blasted the Obama administration for its response to developments in Iran, likening the president to Neville Chamberlain, and for demanding further concessions from Israel.

Staff Writer Stewart Ain contributed to this report.

Signup for our weekly email newsletter here.

Check out the Jewish Week’s Facebook page and become a fan! And follow the Jewish Week on Twitter: start here.

read more: