The annual Celebrate Israel parade, the New York Jewish community’s largest and most visible sign of support for the Jewish state, is set to mark its 50th anniversary this year.
The event will take place Sunday, June 1, 11 a.m.-4 p.m., along Fifth Avenue from 57th to 74th streets. This year’s theme is “50 Reasons to Celebrate Israel.”
The number of Jewish organizations participating this year is up from 2013, a JCRC (Jewish Community Relation Council) spokesperson said. But as is often the case in recent years, the parade, which is intended to be celebratory rather than political, has been caught in the whipsaw of Mideast politics. As a result, a few groups and individuals on the political right are calling for the parade to ban groups that they claim are pro BDS (boycotts, divestments and sanctions) and therefore anti-Israel.
And the parade may take place without the participation of the Edmond J. Safra Synagogue, a Sephardic congregation in Manhattan, which has threatened to withdraw from the parade if the offending organizations are allowed to march.
The JCC Watch group, which was formed three years ago to protest the JCC in Manhattan’s hosting what it believed to be controversial films and speakers, is calling on the JCRC to issue participation guidelines that would keep three left-leaning organizations out of this year’s parade.
Supporters of the parade charge that the critics are deliberately conflating the worldwide BDS movement, which seeks to undermine the Jewish state’s legitimacy, with those who see the settlements as a threat to Israeli security and support economic sanctions against settlement businesses in the West Bank. (See Editorial, page 6).
One flyer from JCC Watch features a photo from 1933 of Nazi storm troopers putting up a sign on a Berlin store that says, in German, “Do not buy from Jews.” The JCC Watch flyer, announcing a protest rally April 8 at UJA-Federation of New York for its role in support of the parade, includes the tagline: “It starts with boycotts.”
Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL, called the flyer “a distortion and outlandish abuse of historical memory,” noting that “we are a people who so diligently guard the message of the Shoah.” To make the day of the parade, “when Jews come to celebrate the land of Israel and its people, a litmus test for how much you love Israel, is very sad, and very scary.”
Some mainstream leaders described such JCC Watch tactics in equally strong terms but were reluctant to give the small group attention, even by criticizing it publicly.
The three organizations targeted are Partners for Progressive Israel (formerly Meretz USA), the New Israel Fund and B’Tselem, which monitors human rights in the region.
This is the parade’s first-such political controversy since some conservative members of New York Jewry objected two decades ago to Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, Manhattan’s self-declared “LGBTQ Synagogue,” marching under its own banner.
Richard Allen, a JCC Watch founder, said he has held discussions the last few years with leaders of JCRC, the parade’s coordinator, and of UJA-Federation, a major supporter, to, in effect, keep out of the parade groups he considers anti-Israel. “Our pleas have fallen on deaf ears,” he told The Jewish Week. “It’s an outrage that groups that call for a boycott of Israel” take part in a pro-Israel parade.
Establishment Jewish groups assert that Allen’s is a fringe group.
“There’s no BDS in the parade and no groups have pulled out,” a JCRC spokesperson said this week.
All participating groups in the parade sign a statement that declares they “identify with Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”
A JCRC statement this week noted that BDS is “a clear and present danger to the future of Israel. The single most dangerous element of its campaign is their stated call for a full right of return of Palestinian refugees into modern day Israel, which would spell the end of the Jewish state,” the statement said, noting that the JCRC “carries the profound responsibility to bring together the widest possible spectrum of supporters of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” It noted that while the JCRC “strongly disagrees” with the three targeted groups’ support for boycotting products “from Judea and Samaria” (the biblical names for the West Bank communities), the groups “fit within the guidelines of the parade.”
Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, a prominent community activist who takes conservative positions on many Jewish issues and is often aligned with Richard Allen’s efforts, said he does not favor excluding the three targeted organization from the parade. “The right does not have the right to throw them out of the parade,” he told The Jewish Week, adding that, “the left must concede that it is wrong to boycott Jews anywhere.”
Rabbi Heshie Billet of the Young Israel of Woodmere and a former president of the Rabbinical Council of America, said that while he sees the New Israel Fund as funding organizations “whose goal is to undermine the Jewish state,” he objects to the “boycott of the parade by JCC Watch and its supporters.”
“The Salute to Israel Parade is a feel-good, pro-Israel event, which is neither ideological nor political. It is a great event with good spirit in which diverse people of differing persuasions come together to support Israel,” Rabbi Billet said. “It should be joined and endorsed by the Jewish community without controversy.”
Rabbi Elie Abadie of the Safra Synagogue in Manhattan said he might pull his congregation out of the parade unless the three groups are banned. “Many of these ‘Jewish groups’ are financed by anti-Semites, anti-Israel and Jew haters,” he stated in an open letter to the leaders of JCRC and UJA-Federation. “Their sole mission is to delegitimize and demonize the State of Israel until its extinction.”
Allen would not give a direct answer when asked if he and his family, annual participants in the parade, would attend this year.
“We’re looking to see what’s happening,” he said.