A group of gay and lesbian Jews have begun a campaign to protest what they believe is discriminatory treatment by the organizers of New York’s Salute to Israel Parade.
Members of JAGL: Jewish Activist Gays and Lesbians have so far gathered 300 signatures on petitions that they plan to submit to the American Zionist Youth Foundation, organizers of the largest annual parade in the country honoring the founding of Israel.
Last week, the group inquired about marching in the May 21 event, but were told that it was too late to apply. Organizers of the parade said the deadline for applications was Feb. 1.
“We will apply next year,” said JAGL member Eric Cohen. “It’s definitely a strategy we’re pursuing. Our goal is to have openly gay and lesbian Jewish groups marching in the parade as such.”
Parade Director Ruth Kastner, when asked about JAGL’s assertions said, “I have no response. As far as we’re concerned there is no issue.”
JACL’s campaign may once again raise the conflict over the participation of gay Jews that has plagued the parade since 1993. That year, a controversy erupted when Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, New York’s gay and lesbian synagogue, applied to march in the Parade.
Orthodox groups vowed to pull out if the congregation were permitted to march on its own. After several failed attempts at compromise, the gay synagogue agreed to pull out of the parade so the Orthodox groups could participate.
At the parade that year, however, members of JAGL and other supportive Jewish groups stood on the sidelines chanting slogans such as, “We can march in the Israeli army but not in the Israel Day Parade,” referring to Israel’s non- discriminatory policy towards gays in the military.
For the 1994 parade, new rules were created that specified that only groups with at least 75 students or youths could participate.
Cohen said these rules were designed specifically to prevent Congregation Beth Simchat Torah from marching. Its Hebrew school has fewer than 75 students.
Don Adelman, executive director of AZYF, denies that charge. “Guidelines are straightforward. Anyone who meets those criteria” can march, he said.
Cohen also maintained that some adults-only groups, like veterans organizations and Hadassah, which had previously marched in the parade with their own floats and banners, were receiving special permission to march in the 1995 event.
“The bottom line is that people can demand a right to march except gay and lesbian Jewish groups. Their whole excuse that it’s a youth group is nothing more than an excuse. It remains to be seen what they would do with a lesbian and gay youth group,” said Cohen.
The gay and lesbian congregation ultimately marched as part of a larger presence, the Reform movement’s youth group, in the 1994 parade. The names of the congregation and several other groups were jointed on one banner, and the synagogue was not allowed to use the words gay or lesbian in connection with the parade.
Some 35,000 students marched in last year’s parade, according to Kastner. She estimated that 750,000 people looked on from the sidelines.
The signatures on JAGL’s petitions this year were gathered at what the group’s members describe as “an action” they held outside a recent fund-raiser for the parade.
At a performance by Israeli pop star Achinoam Nini in late March, about 25 JAGL members and supporters handed leaflets to concert-goers outside the Carnegie Hall venue.
One was arrested for stepping under the hall marquee rather than staying the street, on public property.