(New York Jewish Week) — For the first time in a dozen years, Ameinu, the former Labor Zionist Alliance, will be marching in the Celebrate Israel Parade, the annual gathering that draws tens of thousands of marchers and spectators along Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue.
“It was becoming harder to identify with the overall vibe of the march,” Kenneth Bob, the national president of the liberal organization, said about why the group stopped participating. “It didn’t reflect our more nuanced values about Israel. And because of restrictions on what we could put on our signs, it made it difficult for us to express our brand of Zionism.”
But this year, Ameinu will be back, wearing T-shirts that read in Hebrew on the front, “Zionism = Democracy,” and on the back in English, “Marching for Democracy.” At a time of turmoil in Israel, when hundreds of thousands of Israelis are taking to the streets in protest of efforts by Israel’s right-wing government to transform its judiciary, Ameinu’s participation — and objections voiced by at least one pro-Israel activist group — are signs of the political currents swirling around the largest Zionist solidarity event outside of Israel.
“We will be reminding other participants and those watching the parade that we are marching in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Israel and around the world who are fighting for the future of the state,” the organization said on its website.
Despite or perhaps because of those political currents, Jewish organizations across the political spectrum are gearing up for what organizers say will be one of the largest Celebrate Israel parades ever on Sunday, June 4, to mark Israel’s 75th birthday. Several groups are marching for the first time, and Long Island has the most marchers in a decade.
Organizers says more than 40,000 people are expected to march — some in sympathy with the Israeli protesters, others who support the government’s proposed overhaul, and still others who say the 75th anniversary of the Jewish state should be an occasion for Jewish solidarity no matter who heads its government or the policies they promote.
To underscore that last message, the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, the parade’s sponsor, generated, for the second year, a letter signed by area rabbis from all denominations urging participation in the parade.
“Events like the parade bridge the divide between us, whether political, religious, or cultural,” the letter reads. “It’s a chance for us to gather as Jews and walk together, showing the world that we are one community even when we disagree.”
Plans by Israel’s acting consul general in New York, Israel Nitzan, may test that proposition. Nitzan will lead an Israeli delegation of as many as 18 cabinet ministers and other Knesset members, which would be the most ever to attend the parade. They include the minister of economy and industry, Nir Barkat, and the minister of Diaspora affairs, Amichai Chikli, as well as Simcha Rothman, the chair of the law and justice committee who is an architect of the judicial reforms and has been pressing the case for them with U.S. Jews. The two most controversial members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet, the far-right ideologues Betzalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, are not scheduled to attend.
Israeli New Yorkers who have been protesting the government’s judicial overhaul plans have already objected to the government officials’ inclusion. Shany Granot-Lubaton, the organizer of the UnXeptable-Saving Israeli Democracy activist group, said they expect more than 400 of their supporters to follow the Israeli ministers and Simcha Rothman, a member of the Knesset for the far-right Religious Zionist Party, as they travel throughout the city in the coming days for the parade and a conference the same day organized by the nationalist news agency Arutz Sheva.
UnXeptable issued an open letter urging the organizers “to refrain from allowing Israeli government ministers to march at the head of the parade,” saying the lawmakers “have not earned the respect of your allies and friends in Israel, and many of your own community members, here in America.”
“They will not have a peaceful vacation in New York City,” Granot-Lubaton told the New York Jewish Week. “We served our time in the army and are fighting for Israel because we love it and care for it and not for any other reason. Nobody loves Israel more than us.”
Rabbi Rachel Ain, the rabbi of the Conservative Sutton Place Synagogue, was one of the 15 rabbis who signed the letter urging participation in the parade. Her synagogue has presented programs to explain the complexities of the political struggle in Israel today, but she said the unrest has “not affected our support for Israel; my synagogue is happy to participate in the parade.”
Ain added, “You can love and support the Jewish state and also understand that things are complicated.”
Ammiel Hirsch, rabbi of the Reform Stephen Wise Free Synagogue and former head of ARZA, the Reform movement’s Zionist organization, also signed the statement.
“It is more important than ever to participate in the Celebrate Israel Parade because it represents our commitment not to elements of this government but to our relationship with the people, the state of Israel, and the Zionist ideal,” said Hirsch. “The best response is not to walk away but to double down with those in Israel who are as distressed as we are and want to see a more representative Israeli government.”
The parade has received an endorsement from Israeli President Isaac Herzog, who in March warned that political divides in Israel could lead to “a real civil war.”
The parade, he said in a video message shared by the JCRC, “promises to be a powerful reminder of everything that holds us together as one proud people. … I marched myself as a student in Ramaz [High School] and it was a terrific experience.”
The largest funder of the parade is UJA-Federation of New York, which contributes $200,000. (UJA-Federation is also a funder of 70 Faces Media, the New York Jewish Week’s parent company.) This year for the first time it is contributing an additional $75,000 to sponsor a Celebrate Israel “Block Party” on 63rd Street that will run during the day. Vendors will sell kosher food, and there will be Jewish and Israeli crafts and various children’s activities.
There will be participation from “every part of the Jewish community,” according to Howard Pollack, director of the parade. “I’ve been getting emails from people asking how they can march and where can they sit to enjoy the parade. The enthusiasm is like nothing I have ever seen before. We normally have groups from out-of-state, but this year for the 75th anniversary, we have a lot more. They are coming from Florida, California, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey and Connecticut.”
The parade will include 20 floats, 13 marching bands and the same number of dance groups. Musicians Matisyahu, the Maccabeats and Harel Skaat will each be performing from different floats.
Mindy Perlmutter, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council-Long island, said 22 groups with about 500 marchers will take part under the JCRC-LI banner — what she called the largest number in at least a decade.
Ameinu, which originally intended to march under the banner of the American Zionist Movement, will have a large enough contingent to march on its own. Hadassah and Young Judaea will march together with about a dozen of AZM’s affiliated organizations. Other affiliates will also march under their own banners, according to Herbert Block, AZM’s executive director.
Also marching under the AZM banner for the first time will be the Baltimore Zionist District, which heeded the AZM’s call for members to make a special effort to join the parade to celebrate Israel’s 75th birthday. Also coming for the first time will be representatives from the Druze Zionist Organization in Israel, representing a non-Jewish minority living primarily in Israel’s north.
“There will be one or two from Israel and a couple who live in New York,” Block said. “They will march with the Druze flag in our contingent.”
Members of the Givati Brigade Association, which supports the elite unit of the Israel Defense Forces, will also marching for the first time. Some members of the unit were among the hundreds of Israeli reservists who announced they would boycott reserve duty before the judicial reforms were suspended this spring.
“We hope people will understand how important it is to support not only the Givati Brigade but the IDF in general,” said Itzhak Levit, chair of the GBA. “The Givati Brigade has been involved in all military operations since 1948. Former members of the brigade who live in New York will join us in the parade; we expect around 25.”
Over the decades some have noted that the parade, launched in 1964, gradually drew less grassroots support than it did large contingents of children bused in from various Jewish day schools. And there have been political disputes: In 2015, in addition to guidelines saying that all groups marching must “recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people,” parade organizers banned groups that advocate for the boycott against Israel. A decade ago there were calls from the right to ban the New Israel Fund and other left-wing groups from marching. And in 2012, LGBTQ Jews marched for the first time under the banner of Manhattan’s Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, after decades in which LGBTQ Jews were prevented from marching with signage identifying them as gay and lesbian.
Gideon Taylor, CEO of JCRC-NY, the UJA-Federation agency that runs the parade, said there were no new guidelines issued this year concerning the unrest in Israel or any other topic.
The parade has also attracted small groups of pro-Palestinian protesters, as well as a small contingent from Neturei Karta, the anti-Zionist Hasidic sect.
Kenneth Bob, the Ameinu president, told the New York Jewish Week that this “is an important year to be marching. Israel is celebrating its 75th birthday and with all that is going on in Israel we thought this is the time to march for Israel and in support of the protestors. Once we came up with the idea to combine our love for Israel with support for the demonstrators [in Israel], it was a quick and easy decision to decide to march; it’s a good fit for us.”
The Celebrate Israel Parade kicks off on Sunday, June 4, at 11:30 a.m. at Fifth Avenue and 57th Street and will march to 74th Street. The Celebrate Israel Block Party will take place on 63rd Street between Madison and Fifth Avenues from 11 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. The parade will be televised on Channel 9 in New York and livestreamed on the website celebrateisraelny.org.