NEW YORK — Tens of thousands of American Jews marched up Fifth Avenue on Sunday, proudly waving Israeli flags and holding pro-Israel signs as part of the 55th annual Celebrate Israel Parade.
“What a day for a parade!” one of the marchers, Gary, who attended with the Forest Hills Jewish Center, exclaimed.
What had begun in 1965 as an impromptu walk down Riverside Drive has today evolved into the largest showing of support for the State of Israel in the world, streamed live online and even broadcast on local television. It takes place every year on the first Sunday in June.
The parade included some 40,000 marchers representing Jewish community organizations, congregations and Jewish schools in the tristate area with music, visual displays and floats. Notable figures participating included Israeli diplomats in New York and Democratic politicians such as Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Sen. Chuck Schumer and 2020 presidential candidate Mayor Bill de Blasio.
“We’re Americans that support Israel and we want to influence our government as well to support Israel because we believe it's out best ally in the Middle East,” Gary added.
Yet despite the participation of politicians and the subject of Israel seldom escaping heated political debates, the parade’s organizers insist the event is apolitical.
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“We don’t allow any political signs whatsoever at the parade, whether it is from marchers or even from the elected officials,” Celebrate Israel Parade Director Dori Zofan told Haaretz a few days before the event. “The parade is purely there to celebrate Israel and its achievements.”
As stated in a document circulated to participating groups each year, all groups who want to be in the parade must be nonprofit organizations with a federal 501(c)(3) tax exemption status, which forbids them from taking political stances. Political lobbying organizations such as J Street and AIPAC are therefore unable to take part.
Zofan added that even in the bleachers, where there are ticketed seats, political signs are banned. “Obviously on the sides in the street, we can’t control [the messages spectators carry with them],” he said.
Every year, some of those messages find their way to the sidelines of the route, where it is common to find Palestinian flags and groups of Satmar Hasidic Jews displaying anti-Zionist slogans behind the metal barriers. Occasionally, loud verbal exchanges between the marchers also occur.
“Shame on you,” "Free Palestine" and "Self-hating Jews" were among the remarks exchanged by Jewish marchers waving Israeli flags and protesters dressed in kaffiyehs and holding Palestinian flags.
“In every society there are extremists,” an Israeli marcher, Menashe, told Haaretz as he passed the protesters. “But as an Israeli Jew I can’t sit still without reacting. It’s important for us to say that we are here.”
On the corner of 57th Street and Fifth Avenue stood Dion Cini, a pro-Trump activist who is often seen at public protests and marches with a giant flag reading “Trump 2020.”
“Inside the arena, apolitical. Outside the arena, political,” he told Haaretz when asked about his sign. “If there is going to be a crowd of people, that’s where you’re gonna see me and my Trump flag. It’s advertising — guerrilla marketing, they call it.
“If you go to places that are either apolitical or against Trump, at least you have an opportunity to turn one or two people over to Trump,” Cini added.
The enthusiasm ran high among those marching in the parade. Children and adults danced and sang along to popular Israeli songs, dressed in matching T-shirts.
But for some in the Jewish community, the parade doesn’t feel like home. Despite organizing a progressive cluster of marchers for several years, the New Israel Fund decided to pull out this year. However, some NIF-affiliated individuals still marched under different banners.
Rabbi Ayelet Cohen, the senior director of the nonprofit's New York and tristate region, told Haaretz that her organization “celebrates Israel every day through [its] work strengthening democracy and justice in Israel, and building a truly shared society between Jewish and Palestinian Israelis.
“Over the last number of years, we have concluded that a parade is a space not well suited to express our deep engagement with Israel in all of its complexity, and our resources are more effectively utilized supporting our work on the ground,” she said in her statement.
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“We would love to be part of a Jewish communal conversation in New York about deeper and more meaningful ways to publicly celebrate Israel and the true diversity of the New York Jewish community,” Cohen added.
The “Marching and Cluster Group Rules” of the parade state that “all groups must identify with Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, and recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people” — a guideline that for some feels politically biased.
“All groups must oppose, not fund, nor advocate for the global boycott, divest and sanction (BDS) movement against Israel, which seeks the delegitimization and destruction of the entire Jewish and democratic State of Israel,” the regulations add.
The organization T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, which had marched as part of the progressive cluster in past years, also decided to join NIF and not officially take part in this year’s parade.
The group’s executive director, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, said her organization believes in creating a Palestinian state alongside an Israeli one and in “ending the occupation that violates the human rights of Palestinians while endangering Israelis.
“After many years of organizing our New York members and supporters to march, we have concluded that our resources are better invested in our day-to-day work of training and organizing religious leaders, and working hand-in-hand with Israeli human rights leaders to bring about the change that will ensure a safe and democratic Israel that lives up to the best of our Jewish moral standards,” Jacobs said.
Zofan said he and the rest of the staff organizing the parade “spent countless hours reaching out to the progressive side of the Jewish world to try to get as many people as possible.”
“We really do view it as an opportunity to come together,” he said. “This is the one day of the year where we bring Jews together to celebrate Israel."
Zofan added that although many Jewish organizations marching have expressed political opinions as part of their outreach, “They all agree to the same set of guidelines for the parade. They will not display signs of a political nature, and if they do our staff will remove those signs.”
To those who say they don’t feel welcomed at the parade, Zofan responded: “We don’t allow left-wing political signs and we don’t allow right-wing politics signs.”
“We’ve asked people to stop displaying signs in right-wing groups more than in the left-wing groups,” Zofan stressed.