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A Disunified Celebration of Israel

Ron Skolnik
June 12, 2014
by Ron Skolnik salute_israel_paradeThe 18th-century Swiss mathematician, Leonhard Euler, is sometimes credited with being the first to frame the so-called “law of impenetrability.” The principle, simply stated, is that no two things can occupy the same space at the same time. This is a notion that we tend to accept intuitively, from an early age, and that we employ routinely in our daily lives. I was recently reminded, however, that when it comes to the world of Israel advocacy, the fundamental axioms of metaphysics do not apply. On Sunday, June 1, I attended the annual Celebrate Israel Parade in New York City, observing studiously from the sidelines, and discovered that not one, not two, but three essentially different Israel marches were co-inhabiting the same twenty-block span on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. salute_israel_parade 2 This year’s Celebrate Israel event marked the parade’s 50th anniversary. Inaugurated in 1964 as a “Salute to Israel” — the procession was given its less military-sounding moniker a scant three years ago — the parade was originally conceived and created by a small group of figures associated with the State of Israel and the now-defunct American Zionist Youth Foundation (AZYF), who sought to amplify American Jewish solidarity with the still-young Jewish state. salute_israel_parade 2In order to demonstrate that the feeling of commitment to Israel was embraced by nearly the entire American Jewish community, parade organizers labored early on to have the broadest possible cross-section of Jews represented. They devised the tactical compromises needed to assure the participation of the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform streams, as well as non-denominational Zionist youth movements, such as Young Judaea, Hashomer Hatzair, Habonim, and Betar. Although the overarching theme of the Parade was always support for Israel, the complementary sub-theme was therefore “Jewish unity.” In the early years, with a whiff of anti-Semitism still lingering in the air and with most American Jews more concerned with integrating into the broader culture than with cultivating their particularist identity, unity was especially important for the organizers, as it helped them counterbalance the Jewish community’s concerns with potential dual-loyalty accusations. Fifty years later, and in spite of massive socio-political changes, American Jewish unity remains one of the organizers’ leading goals. The “Tone & Spirit Agreement” that all marching organizations are required to sign, for example, emphasizes that the parade, “is held with pride and with a sense of unity, despite philosophical or political differences within the community-at-large.” And the announcement of this year’s parade by the New York Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) — which took over organizing duties after the AZYF was shut down in 1995 — branded the event as “a spectacular show of unity and pageantry.” The organizers seem to realize, however, that 2014 is a far cry from the parade’s halcyon days, and unity in support of Israel is no longer something that can be left to spontaneity and chance. The JCRC’s “Rules and Regulations” now empower it to vet and approve “all banners, props, flags, music, T-shirts and costumes used in the Parade.” The organizers expressly warn marching organizations, “under any circumstances,” not to introduce any type of political slogan or other “divisive or inflammatory statements.” Marching organizations are obliged to acknowledge their “understand[ing] that any infraction of the aforementioned… constitutes grounds for probationary status, denied participation and/or removal… of any and all offending articles, banners, props, etc. from the Parade route that are political and controversial.” In other words, unity around Israel these days needs to be meticulously engineered. Despite the organizers’ best efforts, however, the parade I attended was anything but unified. Much as the U.S. and U.K. are said to be “two nations divided by the same language,” so did the Celebrate Israel marchers seem, upon close examination, divided by the same “love of Israel” that all committed to demonstrate in their registration materials. With apologies for a small degree of oversimplification, one could say that there were three relatively distinct and discrete ‘Israels’ being celebrated throughout the day, as outlined here:
Which ‘Israel’ was being celebrated? Primary celebrants
Biblical ‘Land of Israel’ Modern Orthodox yeshivas and day schools
Hi-tech, Western ‘State of Israel’ ‘Federations, Reform and Conservative congregations, Jewish Community Centers (JCCs)
Israel as imagined in its Declaration of Independence The New Israel Fund and its allies
Although all three “Israels” had adherents at the parade, they were clearly not equal in number — or motivation. Tears happyThe non-Orthodox mainstream that marched under various synagogue, local federation, JCC and other banners was often generic and nondescript in its love of Israel. Marchers who bothered to cite specific reasons for their ethno-religious pride tended to conjure up Israel’s image as a “Start-Up Nation” or, as AIPAC puts it, “a technological marvel that is one of the world leaders in science and innovation.” Indeed, science, research, and innovation were prominent among the achievements that the Parade’s creative team advised marching groups to focus on in order to “portray what makes Israel great.” These mainstream marchers seemed warm and sincere in their connection to Israel, but by and large they lacked ruakh — Hebrew for passion and spirit — especially compared to the younger and larger delegations affiliated with the Modern Orthodox movement. The non-Orthodox delegations typically made do with polite Israeli flag-waving; the yeshiva bokhers, more often than not, were jumping, singing and chanting. In its fourth year at the parade, the New Israel Fund-led “Progressive Cluster” (including Americans for Peace Now, Partners for Progressive Israel and others) was the only marching group that focused its celebration on the Israel envisioned in its foundational document, citing its ideals of “freedom,” “justice,” “peace,” and “equality” on their blue-and-white signs. The progressive groups’ participation had actually been a hot topic for Jewish and Israeli media outlets in the weeks leading up to the parade, as a far-right coalition led by businessman Richard Allen’s “JCC Watch” conducted its annual effort to have them dishonorably drummed out of the event. Allen claims that the support shown by the progressive groups for a limited, targeted boycott of West Bank settlements (but not of Israel proper, within the 1967 borders) makes them, ipso facto, card-carrying members of the ‘global’ Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions (BDS) movement, generally regarded as anti-Israel. The groups pointedly reject the charge, along with the BDS strategy as a whole. [Disclosure: I served as Executive Director of Partners for Progressive Israel when the organization introduced its call to “Buy Israel - Don’t Buy Settlements (They’re not the Same)” in February 2011.] But while the continued participation of progressive organizations might be crucial for its symbolic value — to reinforce their rightful place within the “pro-Israel” tent amid attempts in both the US and Israel to have them declared non grata (cf. J Street and the Conference of Presidents) — in practice, the parade has not become a major draw for their supporters, who again turned out in limited numbers and had little impact on the general atmosphere. To add insult to injury, the organizers sent the progressives out to march so early-on in the day that they had passed the reviewing stand before the TV cameras even got rolling. On the other end of the spectrum were the Modern Orthodox yeshivas and day schools, who once again brought out the largest number of marchers and who, as a rule, were the loudest, best organized, and most zealous of the delegations. For these groups, the Israel being celebrated on Fifth Avenue — on their banners and T-Shirts and in the texts used to introduce them as they passed the announcer’s booth and reviewing stand — was not so much the modern ‘State of Israel’ as the ancient ‘Land of Israel’, Eretz Yisrael, stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. The difference between the terms is crucial and needs to be examined, since, notwithstanding the organizers’ determination to make the parade an “apolitical event” (again, per the “Tone and Spirit Agreement”), the phrasing is loaded with political meaning. In May 1948, Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, grounded his proclamation of the Jewish state on UN General Assembly resolution 181, the Partition Plan, that sought to create two states, one Arab and one Jewish, within the area of British-Mandated Palestine. While the Declaration of Independence did affirm the Jewish people’s “historic and traditional attachment” to Eretz Yisrael, the “State of Israel” was brought into being within the context of what, in modern parlance, is called the ‘two-state solution’. Not all Zionist leaders approved the idea. The leader of the Zionist right-wing, Menachem Begin, who, as head of Likud, became Prime Minister three decades later, declared resolution 181 “illegal” and vowed that, “Eretz Israel will be restored to the people of Israel. All of it. And forever”. Twenty years later, amid the post-Six Day War fervor of the late 1960s, Israel’s Modern Orthodox community added a messianic flavor to this Greater (in Hebrew, “Complete”) Land of Israel principle, insisting that Israel’s conquest of East Jerusalem and the West Bank was part of God’s redemption process, which required, “absolute sovereignty of the Jewish nation over all parts of Eretz Yisrael”. It was this religiopolitical ideal of Israel that was being celebrated by a large portion of the Modern Orthodox delegations, along with other groups with a specific pro-West Bank settlement agenda, such as the Hebron Fund, the One Israel Fund, and Ariel University, all of which sponsored floats. The Greater Land of Israel messages were often subtle and implied, but they were ubiquitous. Many of the Orthodox delegations sported orange T-shirts, for example, the representative color of the Israeli far-right since the 2005 Gaza disengagement. Some, such as the Hebrew Academy of Nassau County, hoisted banners that extolled Israel’s West Bank settlements, such as Beit El and Efrat. The Hebron Fund, on a large red heart, listed settlements including Psagot, Shiloh and Ariel, and flew their “Hebron - From the Past and Forever” flags to express their demand for permanent Israeli control of the city. For a variety of marching groups, such as the DRS Yeshiva High School and Manhattan Jewish Experience, support for the Greater Land of Israel was indicated on their logos, which featured outline maps of Eretz Yisrael that purposefully omit the ‘Green Line’ dividing the sovereign State of Israel from its occupied territory. Much more explicit were many delegations’ introductory texts, which frequently emphasized their “commitment to Eretz Yisrael” rather than the more territorially-limited State of Israel. In 2012, the JCRC introduced a new requirement for marching groups, insisting that they identify with Israel as both a Jewish state and a democracy. With an almost equal number of Jews and Palestinians inhabiting the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, including several million disenfranchised Palestinians under occupation, it is not clear how these groups apolitically square their commitment to the Land with both these criteria. If the devotion to Eretz Yisrael were only a matter of harmless nostalgia for days of yore, of course, one could write these groups off and downplay the import of their words and symbology. Unfortunately, this is not the case. For the past two decades, since the days of Yitzhak Rabin, right-wing and Modern Orthodox groups have organized a highly political “Israel Day Concert” in nearby Central Park that takes place immediately following the parade and features speakers who attack the principle of partition and compromise. As in previous years, the 2014 concert (organizationally unaffiliated with the Parade) was attended by many thousands of the Modern Orthodox marchers who had just finished their walk. I should note that while the disunity at the Parade was apparent to anyone who closely follows the divisions and cleavages within the pro-Israel community, the fissures were much less noticeable to the casual observer, i.e. most Americans. Although widely divergent political approaches were hinted at and implied, the JCRC’s Rules and Regulations prevented the groups from making them explicit and strident. In their public remarks, Parade spokespersons neatly and nonchalantly papered over whatever differences had managed to bubble to the surface. How long the organizers can keep the divisions under wraps is another question, though. A recent article by AP’s Rachel Zoll reported the ‘dirty little secret’ that those inside the community have known for some time: Israel has become a divisive, rather than unifying, cause for American Jews, and this has already affected activity in synagogues, on campuses, at JCCs, and elsewhere. Amid the growing tensions surrounding Israel and the occupation, Celebrate Israel organizers will be hard-pressed over the coming years to keep their pageant immune to these developments. Ron Skolnik is an American-Israeli political analyst and columnist. Until recently he directed the non-profit Partners for Progressive Israel, and for many years served as political adviser to the British Embassy in Israel. You can follow Ron on Twitter at @Ron_Skolnik.