PHILADELPHIA (JTA) – A burst of black balloons ascended toward the gray sky as thousands of area Jews marched down the Philadelphia boulevard waving their blue-and-white flags in support of Israel.
For the children in the crowd on May 18, the color of the balloons didn’t register. Only when they began passing protesters dressed in black and shouting anti-Israel slogans did they begin to ask questions.
“I don’t get it,” a 9-year-old said to his parents as they tried to explain that these balloons were not meant as symbols of celebration.
With Israel and its supporters marking the nation’s 60th anniversary with festivities around the world, pro-Palestinian groups have been unusually assertive in pressing their case that Israel’s birth marked a “nakba,” or catastrophe, for the Palestinian people.
The U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, a national coalition that includes many anti-Israel organizations, is launching an advertising campaign in New York in advance of the city’s June 1 tribute to Israel, which is likely to be the largest celebration of Israel outside the Jewish homeland itself.
While debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is commonplace among adults, for children it can be unsettling to see large signs and graffiti denigrating the very state they are celebrating.
In Philadelphia, the parade marchers persevered down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the city’s grand boulevard. Spontaneous singing erupted with songs of peace and hope – “Oseh Shalom,” “Hatikvah,” “Lo Yisa Goy el Goy Cherev.”
The conversations between parents and children were heard everywhere, as the adults sought to explain why protesters were raining on their parade.
For some it was an opportunity to educate, to explain and in some instances re-explain that Israelis and Palestinians both claim the land of Israel, that Israel has sought to make peace with the Palestinians but that many Palestinians have opposed it – some violently – and that people have the right to express their opinions as long as they do so peacefully.
For others it was more black and white.
“Some people want to destroy Israel; we want it to live,” one mother was overheard telling her children.
At Israel parades and celebration events nationwide, this confusion has increased with organized anti-Israel activity. From an educational symposium in San Francisco to parades in Sacramento, Milwaukee and beyond, pro-Palestinian activists have been a forceful presence this year.
Nakba events have made a “strong showing this year,” said Josh Ruebner, the director of national advocacy for End the Occupation.
“It is very important to put across an alternative message,” Ruebner said. Pro-Palestinian groups believe that “the overwhelming discourse about Israel minimizes or ignores the fact that Palestinians were ethnically cleansed in 1948.”
Like many of the anti-Israel protesters at several of the demonstrations, Ruebner is Jewish.
“As a Jewish person, I don’t believe we should be celebrating at the expense of another people,” he said.” This is profoundly opposed to Jewish traditions.”
At the JCC of San Francisco, during a May 8 educational symposium in honor of Israel’s 60th anniversary, anti-Zionist activists staged the largest anti-Israel protest ever to take place in the building, according to a JCC official.
Twenty of these protesters were escorted out by the San Francisco Police Department, which was well equipped to deal with the situation due to intense security preparations for the event.
According to Doug Kahn, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of San Francisco, the protest was loud and there was much chanting.
But since the Bay Area is known as a hotbed of action on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian fence, “there was a smooth and effective response,” Kahn said.
More than 70 miles northeast, Sacramento’s Israel parade was held in front of the state capital building for the first time. This larger-than-usual parade provoked a larger-than-usual response as a pro-Palestinian group picketed across the street.
As the Jewish community of Milwaukee celebrated Israel’s 60th, Peace Action Wisconsin staged a protest outside the event at the local JCC, which adjoins two day schools and a preschool.
In the face of these protests, parents are grappling with how to explain harsh criticisms of Israel to their young children.
Julie Roat, the mother of children aged 10, 12 and 13 who attended the Philadelphia parade, had to answer questions about the protesters.
“My kids were a little shaken,” she said. “Why would anyone want to mess up their celebration?”
Amy Krulik, also at the Philadelphia parade, described a scene in which the paraders were singing loudly while the protesting groups were yelling. The Jewish group formed a “‘ reverse protest,’ which was interesting for the kids,” she said.
“It was the First Amendment at its finest,” Krulik said she explained to her children, aged 12 and 13.
Elana Kahn-Oren, the editor of the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle, said the Milwaukee community was proactive in securing the children on the JCC campus. One of the day schools even advised parents not to allow their children to walk outside of school alone on the day of the celebration.
“You’re allowed to protest. It’s part of living in this country,” Kahn-Oren said she told her children. “We are happy and they are upset.”
In New York, children have become accustomed to the sight of pro-Palestinian activists and anti-Zionist Neturei Karta Chasidim turning out to protest the Salute to Israel Parade.
Ahuva Landman, a ninth-grader at the Yeshivah of Flatbush High School, said she feels “disgusted” by the fact that some of the protesters are Jewish.
Her classmates are torn by the protest.
“It shows the Jews are not united,” Landman said. Still, “it makes us feel stronger in a sense because we are united marching – we stand straight and march well.”
Before the parade each year, her school warns students about the protesters and instructs them to ignore them, “keep going and maybe cheer a little louder.”