The traditional Salute to Israel Parade, now rebranded as Celebrate Israel, took place on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue on Sunday − in sweltering heat, under heightened security and with the obvious preponderance of Orthodox Jews among marchers and onlookers.
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Over 35,000 marchers danced and sang their way up Fifth Avenue, from 57th to 79th Street, under the watchful eye of hundreds of New York’s finest, in uniform and undercover. New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly told reporters that security had been tightened significantly and SWAT teams put on alert, in light of the Boston Marathon bombings in March.
“We’ve upped our game,” he said.
As the parade appeared to pass without any serious incident, an obviously relieved Michael Miller, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council that organized the parade, said that it “reflects the spirit, the unity and the diversity of the Jewish community.”
Nonetheless, if the parade had been held in Israel, it would have been taken automatically as a pro-settler march or as a demonstration organized by the religious Zionist Habayit Hayehudi party.
The clear majority of the marchers belonged to Orthodox schools and yeshivas, sported kippot for males and modest dress for females, and separated boys from girls. A not-insignificant number of delegations also sported orange shirts, the color associated with the settler protests against the Gaza disengagement. And while many non-Orthodox groups also participated in the parade, their numbers were small in comparison to the large Orthodox contingents.
This makeup was reflected in the crowds as well, which were comprised of elderly New Yorkers and many religious Jews from both Israel and New York. There were very few onlookers who appeared to represent the kind of young, non-Orthodox Jews that make up the majority of the Jewish population in Manhattan and many parts of Brooklyn.
Although the organizers forbade political demonstrations, many of the Orthodox schools sported maps of Israel without the 1967 lines, shouted slogans in favor of one Jerusalem and “the holy city of Hebron” and participated in a political post-parade concert in Central Park. The non-Orthodox Zionist Organization of America delegation unfurled a banner with portraits of Zionism’s greatest, including Theodor Herzl, Ze’ev Jabotinsky and ... Sheldon Adelson.
This year’s march was also marked by the upcoming election campaign for New York mayor and its controversial new star, former U.S. Congressman Anthony Weiner.
Weiner’s rivals for the Democratic nomination marched only briefly at the start of the parade, hurrying off to a separate gay pride parade in Queens. Weiner, on the other hand, walked from start to finish holding a large Israeli flag and repeatedly shouting “Am Yisrael Chai” and “God Bless America.”
Although he encountered some jeers, Weiner was mostly greeted either with off-color jokes alluding to the “sexting” scandal that forced him to resign in May 2011, or with cries of encouragement from fans who said that they would support him nonetheless.
The Israeli delegation to the parade included cabinet ministers Gilad Erdan and Sofa Landver, Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon and Yesh Atid’s Dov Lipman. Lipman, the American-born newcomer from Yair Lapid’s party, widely recognized by many among the predominantly Orthodox marchers, ascribed the relative lack of representatives of other streams to their inferior status in Israel. “They feel it doesn’t belong to them,” he said.
But the phenomenon of ever-decreasing non-Orthodox participation may reflect deeper and more worrying trends from Israel’s point of view. While the degree of support for Israel among Orthodox groups is obviously on the rise, non-Orthodox New Yorkers either can’t be bothered or are, in fact, increasingly alienated by the parade or by the country that it salutes, or both.