The Israeli Right-wing’s Witch-hunt Comes to New York

The Celebrate Israel parade was once welcoming and inclusive. Now it’s the target of the big money, pro-Greater Israel right-wing who brand pro-peace groups as fifth columnists.

Don Futterman
Don Futterman
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Im Tirzu activists rallying in Tel Aviv, February 2013.
Im Tirzu activists rallying in Tel Aviv, February 2013. Credit: Moti Milrod
Don Futterman
Don Futterman

The irony of Jewish peoplehood in 2014 is that the folks who scream the loudest about Jewish solidarity are the same ones trying to destroy it.

Hard on the heels of the misguided vote of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations to exclude J Street from its membership rolls, comes the news that several Jewish organizations and leaders are lobbying the sponsors of New York’s annual Celebrate Israel Parade to exclude the New Israel Fund from taking part. Likud-endorsed attack dogs, including JCC Watch and Im Tirtzu, are now recycling their tired old distortions in a new effort to undermine Jewish solidarity. Im Tirtzu, which was noted by Jerusalem district court Judge Yaakobi to have parallels with Fascist movements and rebuked for its attempts to silence debate through defamation suits, originally made its name smearing the New Israel Fund.

I grew up marching in New York’s Salute to Israel Parade – as it was called back then – every spring, first as a member of Temple Gates of Prayer, my conservative synagogue from Queens, and later as a leader of Young Judaea, the largest Zionist youth movement in America. The Parade was the feel-good happening of the Jewish year, rivaled in spirit only by Solidarity Sunday, the annual rally to liberate Soviet Jewry. Hundreds of thousands of onlookers cheered us as we paraded down Fifth Avenue, demonstrating New York Jewry’s newfound “Jewish pride,” inspired in part by the black pride movement, and only one generation removed from widespread American tolerance for anti-Semitism.

We trooped up the boulevards of the Big Apple next to the other youth movements, Habonim, Hashomer Hatzair, Beitar and B’nei Akiva, putting aside our ideological and religious differences, and the mocking songs we had written about each other, for the greater cause of celebrating Israel’s existence and progress. New York’s mayor and other city leaders saluted us as we strolled helter skelter past the dignitaries’ viewing platform. Although we were lousy at marching in formation, our hearts were full and our love of Israel boundless. The parade was inclusive and welcoming, and the only Jews left out were those who excluded themselves.

The attempt to keep the New Israel Fund and other progressive pro-Israel organizations out of the parade next week is the latest extension of an ugly offensive that has been going on in Israel for the past five years. A group of passionate, obsessive right-wing settlement advocates, their Likud sponsors and their very wealthy backers, have been working overtime to demonize any Israeli Jew who does not support the settlement enterprise or dares to criticize even a single Israeli military operation. Only those who agree with Greater Israel politics may be considered pro-Israel or a Zionist. Anyone who does not toe the line is literally branded an enemy of the state, democracy be damned. This ongoing witch-hunt is now being exported to the American Jewish community.

The goal, to be clear, is to prevent open discourse, to demonize pro-peace messengers so the right-wing never has to engage with their positions. Why refute leftist calls for resolving the conflict with the Palestinians through territorial compromise, or to create a Jewish democracy that treats its non-Jewish members with dignity and as equals, when it is so much easier to dismiss opponents as a fifth column?

An open debate would reveal that the right has no vision for how Israel should live with its Arab citizens other than keeping them down and grateful for second-class citizenship, no idea how to co-exist with our Palestinian neighbors, other than by oppressing them, and can only handle refugees and Bedouin by force.

The New Israel Fund (NIF), which gathers donations from Zionist supporters of Israel across the United States, Canada, the UK, Western Europe and Australia, represents the will of thousands of of Israel’s most passionate devotees. The NIF fights the rearguard efforts to remove Israeli women from the public square; promotes successful integration and education for Ethiopian Jewish immigrants; supports diversity and pluralism in Jewish religious expression, buoys up the LGBT community, helping transform Tel Aviv into one of the most gay-friendly cities on earth; and underwrites environmental activists advocating sustainability.

But what drives its right-wing critics into a frenzy is that the NIF also opposes the occupation and the settlement movement; supports the peace process; seeks equal rights and opportunities for Israel’s Arab citizens; and demands fair treatment for Negev Bedouin and African refugees.

For the right, ironically, settlements trump Jewish solidarity, as it has for more than 40 years. But since they trumpet Jewish Peoplehood at every turn, they are loathe to admit this fundamental contradiction in their own world-view.

As a minority community, American Jewry has understood solidarity’s importance in the face of a non-Jewish majority. Solidarity does not require total consensus on every issue, but it cannot allow a monopoly on the terms pro-Israel and Zionist by a small, and ironically, divisive camp. At a time when Jewish leaders are justifiably worried about losing younger liberal members, we cannot afford to kowtow to pressure tactics and big money designed to make the pro-Israel camp an exclusively right wing club.

The New York Jewish Community Relations Council and the UJA-Federation of New York, co-sponsors of the parade, must vociferously reject this campaign to exclude the New Israel Fund and other progressive pro-Israel supporters from the Celebrate Israel Parade, and tell its sponsors that if they are so troubled by views of progressive Zionists and supporters of Israel, and that Jewish solidarity is not important to them, they are welcome to stay home.

Don Futterman is the Program Director for Israel for the Moriah Fund, a private American Foundation, which supports the New Israel Fund as part of its efforts to strengthen Israeli civil society. He can be heard weekly on TLV-1’s The Promised Podcast.

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