A Witch-hunt With Shofars on 59th Street

There is nothing new about protests against progressive groups participating in the Israel Day Parade. But this year, the campaign is far wider.

Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt

The protesters lined up in front of the headquarters of the United Jewish Appeal on East 59th Street holding shofars, just as the Manhattan evening rush hour began.

“Shut down the UJA!” A man in a baseball cap shouted, holding a homemade sign.

A few dozen picketers showed up on this summer afternoon for a rally organized by the self-styled JCC Watch and sponsored by Americans for a Safer Israel and the Zionist Organization of America, among other right-wing Jewish organizations; most of the demonstrators wore yarmulkes and baseball caps, T-shirts and jeans. Average age: approximately 60.

“The UJA is pushing boycott groups onto the Jewish community,” said one of the speakers from the podium. "We have very evil people in the UJA ... raising money and devoting it to evil groups,” the megaphone thundered. Among the groups that purportedly “call for boycott” and which JCC Watch hopes to ban from the scheduled May 31 parade, the New Israel Fund is the main culprit.

On Monday afternoon, protesters were invited to bring their shofars to an “anti-BDS rally”: Perhaps as Joshua once blew a shofar to bring down the walls of Jericho, so too this group intended to bring down the UJA’s midtown building – figuratively, of course. They called for the dismissal of Alisa Doctoroff, President of the UJA Federation of New York, as well as, for some reason, the ADL’s Abe Foxman, who long ago announced his retirement. They are a “terrible shame within our own community,” the protestors cried. “They are fighting for the Other side.”

But while the sparsely attended and somewhat eccentric demos of JCC Watch against the participation of progressive groups in the annual Salute to Israel parade have become a largely ineffectual annual ritual, communal Jewish politics have been ruffled far more this year with the wider campaign attacking Doctoroff, one of New York’s most active Jewish philanthropists, for her private support of NIF. The campaign is funded by far-right Islamophobic activist Pamela Geller and her organization, the American Freedom Defense Initiative, host of the latest Muhammed cartoon contest in Garland, Texas, which was the target of an attack - allegedly sponsored by ISIS - in which the two assailants were killed. Like JCC Watch, Geller’s ads maintain that NIF funds the BDS movement.

Geller had reportedly intended to spend $100,000 on her campaign’s NYC bus ads alone, planning to plaster buses with Doctoroff’s name alongside other NIF donors and philanthropists Karen Adler, Carole and Saul Zabar, and the Bronfman Foundation, calling for the end of the “Jewish destruction of Israel.” The ads did not go up, however, after a separate controversy involving different inflammatory bus posters sponsored by Geller led to a new MTA policy banning all political ads on subways and buses.

Geller’s blogs point an accusing finger at Doctoroff for staying with a Palestinian family through an Encounters program, and discussing Palestinian non-violent activism with them. Public relations executive Ronn Torossian has joined in, lambasting Doctoroff in a slew of op-eds in the New York Post, The Jewish Press, and Front Page Magazine. The AlisaDoctoroff.com domain has been purchased to bolster the personal denouncement of one of New York’s most eminent Jewish activists and givers.

And while mainstream New York is shocked that Doctoroff has been dragged into the fight, the link between NIF and BDS is also a stretch: New Israel Fund, an organization devoted to advancing “liberal democracy, including freedom of speech and minority rights, and to [fighting] inequality, injustice, and extremism that diminish Israel,” states in its policy that it “will not fund global BDS activities against Israel nor support organizations that have global BDS programs,” but will merely distinguish between products made in Israel and in the West Bank. That distinction is enough for Geller and her choir-members. Through a series of mailings filled with spelling errors and social media posts in all-caps, the NIF has become synonymous with Satan in right-wing circles, due to its funding decisions of organizations like B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence, and its general anti-occupation stance.

In response to the campaign, NIF said that it will not allow itself to be “distracted from our work supporting Israeli champions of liberal democratic values.” Doctoroff, in an interview earlier this year with Haaretz, echoed her commitment to her philanthropic work, dismissing the campaign against her as a waste, a “bad idea."

On East 59th Street, passersby - office workers, policemen, Bloomingdales shoppers - were reminded of Israel’s scientific advancements, the amount of new books published a year in Israel, the university graduation rate and start-up amount per capita. If not for Israel, you couldn’t use your cellphone or take an aspirin. It’s Israel’s invention of cherry tomatoes which merits Zionism, ladies and gentlemen.

The crowd applauded in joyous rapture.

“The UJA is pushing boycott groups onto the Jewish community,” said one of the speakers from the podium We have very evil people in the UJA...raising money and devoting it to evil groups,” the megaphone thundered. “Doctoroff has put an Orthodox front into the UJA-Federation ... [CEO Eric Goldstein] is her puppet, Michael Miller, head of the Jewish Community Relations Council, again an Orthodox rabbi who relies on Alisa Doctoroff ... Like the old Soviet Union, what they have to do comes down from the UJA Federation board with no debate...” More applause and cheer.

“I hope you see that this is important for the Jewish community,” said one protester, who asked to remain anonymous.

On the sidelines stood Tuvia Tenenbom, German-Israeli journalist and author of "Catch the Jew!," a controversial portrait of modern-day Israel and the Palestinian territories. His wife Isi stood next to him, holding a copy of her husband’s book. They were slated to promote the book at several pro-Israel events in New York, but were uninvited in the last minute by some of the community leaders present at the rally, Isi tells.

“One lady convinced the organizations to uninvite us, because the book admits that there is racism in Israel,” Isi says. “It shows Israelis as just people. We are human. In Chapter 7, we asked an Israeli boy if he would ever marry an Ethiopian girl. And he said, ‘No, she’s black, I don’t want her.’ This small story was enough to ban the book.”

Tuvia lit a cigarette. “I am a journalist. These American Jews, they tell me, ‘You can’t touch anything, you must write exactly what I want to see in Israel. Because I have the money.’ Well, I am not for hire. This is journalism. What am I? A PR company?”

Later that night, the Tenenboms would receive an email from the event organizers who had uninvited them, threatening that if they would dare to arrive at the event the organizers would have them arrested.

“American Jews are done for,” Tuvia declared, taking another puff from his cigarette.

A few meters away, the protesters’ shofars screeched in unison. 

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly identified one of the protest speakers as Paul Brody. None of the statements attributed to Mr. Brody in the original version were spoken by him.