Who Has the Right to Celebrate Israel?

Planned inclusion of liberal Jewish groups in New York's Israel parade spurs walkout threats and calls for their exclusion.

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NEW YORK – The war over the Palestinian-led “boycott, divest, sanction” campaign against Israel and the definition of loyalty to Israel is spreading from university campuses and Jewish cultural centers to Fifth Avenue, the site of the annual Celebrate Israel parade. Critics of the New Israel Fund, Partners for Progressive Israel and other progressive Zionist groups are planning to rally against the participation of these organizations in the annual march down the Manhattan avenue, with the rabbi of at least one prominent synagogue pledging to pull out of the parade unless the liberal groups are banned. But don’t call his threat a boycott, he says.

Rabbi Elie Abadie of the Upper East Side’s Edmond J. Safra Synagogue issued an open letter addressed to the current and incoming CEOs of UJA-Federation of New York, and to the CEO of the New York Jewish Community Relations Council, which organizes the parade. Naming the New Israel Fund and J Street, Abadie wrote, “many of these ‘Jewish groups’ are financed by anti-Semites, anti-Israel and Jew haters. Their sole mission is to delegitimize and demonize the State of Israel until its extinction … I urge you to disqualify these groups from ever marching in the Celebrate Israel parade. Nothing less is acceptable.”

The Celebrate Israel parade — formerly called the Israel Day parade — will mark its 50th anniversary on June 1 with a parade expected to include about 35,000 marchers in over 200 individual groups, according to director Mike Mittelman. UJA-Federation of New York provides $100,000 of the $1 million budget for the parade and a related run.

Abadie told Haaretz that his congregation of more than 600 families, along with three other Sephardi organizations and yeshivas with which he is affiliated, last year had a float in the parade but “will abstain” from marching this year if the progressive groups are allowed to participate. But don’t call it a boycott, he said. “Boycott is a negative term. We are very in favor of the parade but will abstain because we disagree with their policies. It’s completely different than someone who doesn’t buy Sodastream” products because they are manufactured over the Green Line.

Richard Allen, a New York insurance broker with a group called JCC Watch, is organizing a protest outside the New York federation on Tuesday, April 8, against what he describes as “extremist anti-Israel groups,” including Partners for Progressive Israel, NIF and B’tselem. The rally is needed, Allen told Haaretz, because pro-BDS groups are gaining traction.

“We make space to make [these groups] legitimate in the Jewish community and we feel that boycotting Israeli products is illegitimate,” Allen told Haaretz. Supporters of the rally include the Zionist Organization of America, Americans for a Safe Israel and Americans for Peace and Tolerance. The latter is headed by Charles Jacobs, who recently made an anti-J Street movie.

Allen has organized previous demonstrations outside the Jewish federation office in Manhattan. They have attracted small groups of supporters.

Allen said the federation should have guidelines on what is acceptable policy on Israel, much as Hillel International does. Without them “money can be diverted to be used for nefarious purposes,” Allen told Haaretz. “I don’t think people who donate to UJA-Federation wish their money to be going to support BDS.”

In fact the organizations named by Allen and Abadie oppose the global BDS movement, which has recently become a central issue in the American Jewish community. The issue is taking on greater salience as controversy over boycotts has grown and some on the right have used the charge of “BDS supporter” to tarnish the reputation of those they view as undermining Israel’s security — even when they do not, in fact, support BDS.

NIF “opposes the global (or general) BDS movement, views its use of these tactics as counterproductive, and is concerned that segments of this movement seek to undermine the existence of the state of Israel,” its policy states. “NIF will not fund global BDS activities against Israel nor support organizations that have global BDS programs.” However, NIF also “opposes the occupation and subsequent settlement activities” and “will not exclude support for organizations that discourage the purchase of goods or use of services from settlements.”

NIF spokeswoman Naomi Paiss said that the only organization that “comes close to participating in BDS” is former grantee The Coalition of Women for Peace, which NIF has not funded in more than five years. What is being said about NIF “is recycled garbage. This tiny group of people with a fax machine have been making the same allegations in the same language for three or four years running and each year, to their credit, the parade’s organizers have ignored them and invited NIF to participate,” Paiss said.

Partners for Progressive Israel (formerly known as Meretz USA) endorses boycotting products made in the settlements.

Those lobbying against the progressive groups’ inclusion say there is no distinction between boycotting Israel as a whole and products made in the occupied territories.

“There is no difference between Israel and the settlements,” said the Safra synagogue’s Abadie. The rabbi is also a practicing gastroenterologist. “To single out Israel or even those communities in Judea and Samaria is discriminatory and immoral,” Abadie said. He spoke to JCRC leaders two years ago and decided to make a public statement now because “I realize nothing is happening.”

Indeed, in an increasingly divisive time, both New York’s federation and JCRC are working hard to maintain their “big tent” approach.

“We are proud funders of the New York Jewish Community Relations Council, which organizes this parade to enable the diverse New York Jewish community to stand together to express their commitment to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state,” said UJA-Federation of NY spokeswoman Emily Kutner, when asked about the protests.

The JCRC said, in a statement, that it “carries the profound responsibility to bring together the widest possible spectrum of supporters of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” Groups applying to march in the parade are required to pledge that they “support Israel as a Jewish and democratic state,” and will not include “political, divisive or inflammatory” statements on their banners or other marching props.

And while the JCRC “strongly disagrees” with organizations that support targeted boycotts of companies that manufacture products in Judea and Samaria, as long as they sign the pledge they “fit within the guidelines of the Parade.”

“Further, many of these same groups participate in a variety of prominent, national Jewish organizations and all Parade participants must adhere to the guidelines by displaying exclusively celebratory messaging on the avenue,” said the JCRC’s statement.

That isn’t enough for Aryeh Spero. The Orthodox former pulpit rabbi who now has an online congregation published an article in the U.S. Jewish newspaper the Algemeiner comparing the JCRC and the UJA-Federation allowing the progressive groups to march in the parade with Nazi appeasement. “It’s reached a critical and dangerous mass. It’s not just the parade. There’s just too much platform given within establishment Jewish organizations to people who are not just simply critical of a policy of Israel but want to harm Israel, want to demonize Israel. This goes beyond our classic desire for debate. This is actually suicidal. It’s Jewish suicide,” he told Haaretz.

The vice president of Partners for Progressive Israel, Dina Charnin, said, “There is a lot of misunderstanding and ignorance, and on the part of more extreme people, a willful desire to shut down conversation on these issues,” from those opposed to their marching in the parade. “According to surveys a majority of Jews here and in Israel support two states” for Israelis and Palestinians. “There may be differing opinions about how to get there, but it’s better for the Jewish community to discuss these things and not shut each other down,” Charnin said.

Her group, like others cited by those opposed to their inclusion in Celebrate Israel, will likely march in a group organized by the NIF, as they did last year.

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