Big Parade for NY Jews on East Side, Massive Bash for Israelis on West

Controversial leftist delegation marches despite protests, which NIF leader describes as 'louder and meaner.'

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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A boy walks with a flag during the Celebrate Israel Parade along Fifth Avenue May 31, 2015 in New York City.
A boy walks with a flag during the Celebrate Israel Parade along Fifth Avenue May 31, 2015 in New York City. Credit: AFP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Close to 40,000 marchers walked up Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue in sweltering heat, Mayor Bill de Blasio danced with Hassidim, the controversial left-wing delegation was only sporadically heckled, the mock ultra-Orthodox anti-gay protestors showed up, as expected, and finally the rains came down, as they usually do, propelling the meeker to seek shelter and the bolder to dance and get wet, 1960’s Woodstock style.

If you’re a leftie in search of some Schadenfreude, you might find solace in the fact that the heavy rains forced the police to put a stop to the mostly right-wing/Orthodox Israel Day Concert, in which Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee spoke. Otherwise, the annual Celebrate Israel Parade went off without a hitch, much to the relief and to the credit of its main organizer, Michael Miller of the Jewish Community Relations Council.

The real news – perhaps a small bit of history, even – was being made across town, in Piers 92-94 on Manhattan’s West Side, on the Hudson River. In an impressive show of financial prowess and organizational strength, the recently enlarged Israeli American Council (IAC), whose main funder is casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, hosted close to 10,000 mostly former Israelis and their American friends and family at what may very well be the biggest expat Israeli bash ever held in the city.

“The Israeli community has never been organized in such numbers,” according to Sagi Balasha, the Los Angeles based CEO of IAC. Balasha said the New York party is one of five similar events held in recent weeks across the United States: the biggest was in L.A., with 14,000 participants, as well as Miami (9,000), Boston (6,000) and Las Vegas, where Adelson lives, in which 4,000 people participated. Balasha said that the five events cost about $2.5 million altogether, covered by ticket sales and concession fees, local funding by Israeli businessmen and subsidies handed out by the group’s national headquarters, based in L.A.

Balasha said that IAC has already made contact with about 200,000 Israelis, out of the half million that are said to reside in the U.S. It has also taken under its wings 50 Israeli cultural and social organizations, including the Scouts, subsidizing them generously, while maintaining their independence, according to Balasha.

Although many insiders in the Jewish community ascribe ulterior motives to the IAC - including Adelson’s wish to eventually form a lobbying group that would work independently of AIPAC - Balasha maintains that one should take the organization at face value. “We are bipartisan, both left and right,” he asserts, adding that groups such as J Street and even the New Israel Fund would be welcome to exhibit or have their own booths at IAC events. In the New York affair, the “left” was represented by a small group of Hashomer Hatzair, which attracted attention by virtue of its famous Shomria summer camp held annually in the Catskill mountains and the lollypops it was handing out to young children.

Things were just a bit tenser, but only sporadically, for the “progressive delegation” that marched in the parade, that has been the object of an intense lobbying campaign by increasingly virulent elements on the right wing fringe, including famous Islamophobe Pamela Geller: they have been have been pressing Miller as well as other sponsors of the parade, including the Israeli government and the UJA, to eject the group – that also includes Americans for Peace Now, Partners for Progressive Israel and the rabbinical human rights group T’ruah – for what they claim is NIF support for BDS. The right-wingers were unimpressed by the fact that the NIF and others had signed the mandatory JCRC form that states that all participants in the parade “must identify with Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish People and must oppose, not fund, nor advocate for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel” and so on.

NIF’s New York director Stephanie Ives, who marched with her family, said that she and her co-marchers were “extremely grateful for the unwavering stand” of the parade’s organizers, “who are our partners in making sure that there is a big Jewish tent that remains open.” She denied that protest against NIF participation had gotten larger, saying it was “still on the fringes,” but had gotten “louder” and seemed to be better funded than before. “They’ve gotten a lot meaner, that’s for sure,” she said.

The organizers of the parade made sure that the small progressive group would be among the first to march after the parade’s traditionally punctual launch, thus ensuring it would also be among the first to finish, well before the midday crowds began to swell. Nonetheless, they were mostly well received, though they did encounter some boos on 57th street, a few thumbs down from the still-empty bleachers in the 60’s and angrier heckling and abusive placards near 70th. “We are protesting against them because they support BDS and other anti-Israel groups,” said Helen Freedman, of the Americans for Safe Israel (AFSI) group. When asked why she would seek to bar anyone from marching in what was obviously a show of support for Israel, Freedman replied: “Let them act accordingly before they march.”

Otherwise, it was business as usual for the annual fete: Close to 250 groups, with about 40,000 marchers – predominantly though far from exclusively young and Orthodox - walked up Fifth Avenue, from 57th to 74th Street; Governor Andrew Cuomo and Senator Chuck Schumer were there, as well as New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was caught by the intrepid reporter of JP Updates, Jacob Kornbluh, dancing with Hassidim. The perennial anti-Zionist Neturei Karta protestors were there, as well as the dozen “protestors for rent,” donning makeshift haredi gear, holding up signs against homosexuals. Contrary to last year, when they first appeared, they made very little effort to disguise themselves this time around.

All in all, the Israeli delegation, led by new minister Ofir Akounis – touted as a possible UN ambassador – were probably gratified to see such an outpouring of public support. As the unidentified Walter’s Mom tweeted: “I’m shocked but happy that a pro-Israeli parade could still occur. Good for them!”

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