Marching To Two Beats

Marching To Two Beats

Schoolchildren participating in Sunday’s Salute to Israel Parade will learn about Israel’s courageous struggle to survive and the perseverance of the Jewish people. But William Helmreich and Nathaniel James agree that they may also learn a thing or two about compromise.

“We’re sending a message to thousands of young people that people can work things out,” said Helmreich, president of the Israel Tribute Committee, which will co-sponsor this year’s march with James’s predominantly black 369th Regiment Veterans Association.Both groups wanted Fifth Avenue on Sunday for their respective parades, but decided to share the permit.

As proud as Helmreich is of what he calls a “marriage of convenience,” he insists the unprecedented arrangement should not obfuscate what parade planners expect to be the most sensational salute to the Jewish state since the parade began.“It will be the biggest and most spectacular parade [ever] celebrating 50 years of extraordinary achievements,” said Ruth Kastner, director of the Israel Tribute Committee. Kastner expects 75,000 marchers, 35 marching bands and 25 floats.

And for the first time in 20 years, a sitting prime minister of Israel will be the parade’s honorary grand marshal. Benjamin Netanyahu will be only the second Israeli leader to participate in the parade; the first was Menachem Begin.

“We’re honored and thrilled that the prime minister will attend and address the parade,” said Michael Miller of the Jewish Community Relations Council, one of the Israel Tribute Committee’s parent organizations.

Netanyahu, who arrives in New York Friday, will take part in at least some of the march and will address the reviewing stand around 1:30 p.m. A sound system will convey Netanyahu’s address across the parade route. Tight security arrangements are expected.

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani will present Netanyahu with the key to the city at a Gracie Mansion breakfast prior to the parade, to be attended by Jewish leaders and other prominent New Yorkers. The arrangement was made by Giuliani’s chief of staff, Bruce Teitelbaum, in Israel last week.

The parade begins at noon at East 57th Street and Fifth Avenue. The march continues uptown to 79th, where it turns west to Third Avenue.

Celebrities, jugglers, clowns, acrobats and other entertainers will be interspersed with the marching groups.

And with campaigns for governor, the state Legislature, Congress and Senate underway, there are sure to plenty of politicians pressing the flesh and jockeying to be photographed.

Numerous yeshivas, religious schools, youth organizations, Y’s and community centers from across the country will participate, said Kastner, as well as corporate sponsors such as El Al, Bank Leumi, Jordache, Nabisco, and Russ Berry, makers of stuffed animals.

Only one yeshiva, Ezra Academy of Queens, is boycotting the parade. “I’m not interested in sharing Israel’s spotlight with anything else,” said a school official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, insisting: “This is not a racial statement.”

The school has participated in past parades throughout its 30 year history, said the official.

Although some other yeshivas were initially reluctant to participate following a campaign by Americans For a Safe Israel to scuttle the joint parade, most have now joined.

AFSI’s president, Morton Zweibon, said in a previous interview that the parade sponsors’ willingness to share the day represented a “post-Zionist” watering down of American support for Israel.

Bill Mehlman, a board member of AFSI, said Tuesday that the group was “quite disappointed with the way things turned out, and we hope it never recurs.” But Mehlman ruled out a protest. “We’ll leave the decision [to attend] up to individuals.”

Although the 369th Infantry Division Veterans Association has more than 2,000 members nationwide, only about 200 live in the New York area and are expected to march Sunday, together with several marching bands. While the parade, which honors Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., used to be a bigger event when it was held in Harlem, minority opposition to the Vietnam war has thinned the ranks, said James. “We never quite recovered from that,” he said.

The 369th Infantry Division is a legendary, predominantly black National Guard unit that distinguished itself in World War I, earning more decorations than any unit overseas, said James, a retired major general who commanded the brigade during the early 1980s.

James said reaction in his community to the combined event has been generally supportive. “There have been a few people who have said why are you doing that … but no real resistance,” he said. “People involved in our organization so far have gone along.”

Rabbi Marc Schneier of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, whose recent poll of blacks and Jews showed an increased willingness to cooperate, said he was “proud of this demonstration of solidarity.”

The Foundation’s own float in the parade will feature children of different ethnic backgrounds saluting the cooperation between African Americans and Jews.

“This coming together not only highlights the Jewish community’s historic contribution to [the struggle of African Americans] but it has also enabled the Jewish community to be sensitized to the role and the involvement Dr. King had with the State of Israel,” said Rabbi Schneier.

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