They come from all over the greater New York area and around the United States. Tens of thousands of Jews (and non-Jews) gather once a year in New York City to march down Fifth Avenue to express their love for Israel. The annual “Celebrate Israel” parade started small 55 years ago, but it’s now one of the Big Apple’s grand traditions as organizations, synagogues and schools come to Manhattan to take part in what is a great big birthday party for the Jewish state. The parade has long been one of those rare events where the non-Orthodox can be seen rubbing elbows along the route with the Orthodox, and a vast community in all of its diversity is on view along with representatives of the alphabet soup of Jewish organizations.
While local and national politicians march in the procession, organizers have always done their best to avoid having the fun hijacked for strictly partisan purposes. Political signs and slogans are banned from the parade’s floats or being held by the marchers. Indeed, any group that wants to participate must be a nonprofit that is prohibited from taking partisan stands or making political donations. That’s why groups like AIPAC, which is inherently political, aren’t allowed to have representatives join in the promenade.
Of course, there are always the inevitable contingents of anti-Israel protesters proclaiming their support for the Palestinians, as well as the sad spectacle of small groups of ultra-Orthodox Jews who oppose the Jewish state’s existence for their own misguided theological reasons.
Yet one of the great things about the parade is that it demonstrates that being an active Zionist or just a sympathizer with Israel isn’t a political litmus test in either an American or Israeli context. Marchers are liberals and conservatives, as well as Democrats and Republicans, sympathizers with Israel’s left-wing parties and those who are fans of the Israeli right.
But while the estimated 40,000 people who were in New York for the 2019 edition of the parade enjoyed perfect sunny late-spring weather, there was something disturbing about the absence of some groups that, while claiming to be integral to the pro-Israel community, now choose to stay away.
Both the New Israel Fund and T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, both of which used to send groups of supporters to take part in the parade along with other progressive organizations, were very public no shows this year.
A spokesperson for the NIF told Haaretz “the parade is a space not well suited to express our deep engagement with Israel in all its complexity.” Similarly, T’ruah said that being part of the parade wasn’t a good use of their resources.
The same could probably be said for a number of groups that participate from all points of the political and religious compass. The parade doesn’t raise money for their programs. What it does do is associate their organizations with the communal consensus that Israel is worth celebrating and defending. And this seems to be something that some of those on the left no longer feel comfortable doing.
Perhaps a big part of the problem is that the rules of the parade state that participating groups must “oppose, not fund nor advocate for the global boycott, divest[ment] and sanction (BDS) movement against Israel, which seeks the delegitimization and destruction of the entire Jewish, democratic state of Israel.”
That leaves plenty of room for disagreement about a host of issues. But it may no longer be acceptable to a growing portion of the Jewish left that used to call itself Zionist.
The problem is that liberal pro-Israel groups have been bleeding members and energy to more radical organizations that aren’t interested in changing Israel as much as eliminating it. Support for openly anti-Zionist and pro-BDS groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow, which are allied with vicious anti-Israel groups like Students for Justice in Palestine, has been growing. In the progressive milieu, the Jewish state is viewed as racist by definition, and the belief in intersectional theory, which falsely claims the Palestinian war on Israel’s existence to be morally equivalent to the struggle for civil rights in the United States, is widespread. Liberal Zionist groups are finding that many potential supporters are now more comfortable in the ranks of organizations that don’t mix criticism of Israel with support for its existence.
Moreover, some on the Jewish left in the United States appear to be no longer satisfied with stances in which they advocate pressure on Israel in the name of saving the Jewish state from itself. They are aware that Israelis who share their views are now an increasingly insignificant minority that is consistently outvoted by centrist and right-wing parties. Such American left-wingers are alienated by the Israeli consensus that understands that—the theoretical virtues of a two-state solution notwithstanding—there aren’t any Palestinian peace partners who are willing to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state, no matter where its borders are drawn.
So while you don’t have to approve of the democratic choices made by the Israeli people in order to feel at home at an event that celebrates the Jewish state, it’s painfully obvious that some factions on the left simply aren’t comfortable joining in the communal party.
If waving the blue-and-white flag and expressing joy in the historic achievements of the Jewish nation strike American Jews as a tasteless distraction from the task of pointing out its imperfections or commiserating with those who wish for its destruction, then maybe the “Celebrate Israel” parade really isn’t for a growing contingent of nay-sayers. A big and diverse Jewish tent is a fine idea. But if some parts of the community can’t abide being part of a broad pro-Israel consensus for even one day a year, then maybe it’s time to stop pretending that they share the rest of the community’s love for the Jewish state.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.