A controversy centered around the inclusion of a leftwing group in June’s Celebrate Israel Parade in New York has spilled over into Israel, with groups sparring over what constitutes the acceptable limits of Zionist discourse in America.
The debate centers around the participation of the New Israel Fund (NIF), a liberal social advocacy organization that funds a large number of indigenous Israeli civil society organizations. Taking over New York’s Fifth Avenue every summer, the parade, a collaboration of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York and the UJA-Federation, is one of the most visible manifestations of Zionism in America today.
MK Nissim Ze’ev spoke at a New York rally last week opposing the inclusion of the NIF, Partners for Progressive Israel and B’Tselem in the parade.
One of the organizations leading the charge against their inclusion is JCC Watch, run by Richard Allen.
Partners for Progressive Israel is one of several parade participants who have advocated settlement boycotts while opposing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). In a statement on its website, the group explained it believes American Jews “should refuse to purchase any goods or services, including tourism services, made in or by the settlements.”
Critics such as Allen have accused the NIF of indirectly funding BDS efforts against Israel though a number of its grantees.
Opponents of the left-wing groups circulated a flyer berating several parade participants for advocating boycotts of settlement goods, which drew the ire of the Anti-Defamation League, which decried the use of a parade as an ideological “litmus test.”
On Sunday, Israeli student group Im Tirtzu (If you will it) weighed in on the debate, coming down firmly on the side of the opponents of the NIF. A longtime critic of the organization, Im Tirtzu issued a statement comparing those who boycott settlement goods to those who advocate BDS and, ultimately, comparing both to terrorists.
“We must roll up our sleeves and denounce those seeking to destroy us, without hesitation,” Im Tirtzu head Matan Peleg said. “Even if it is not the explicit intention of the New Israel Fund… history does not judge according to their intent, but only according to their outcome.”
In response to the Im Tirtzu statement, Rabbi Uri Regev of the Hiddush religious equality NGO came to the NIF’s defense, telling The Jerusalem Post that “given the growing tension among Jewish groups in the US and Israel, it was inevitable albeit unfortunate that this year’s controversy... is over the question of who may march in support of Israel.”
“The parade should be open to all segments, whether they be political, religious, or other, who support Israel. The parade should not feature any messages that are critical of Israel. There is ample time and room for that outside of the parade,” he said.
Citing a 1993 controversy over the inclusion of LGBT Jews in the parade, Regev said American Jewry must not “go astray again by singling out another group for exclusion as much as one may disapprove of their views or practices.”
Prof. Gerald Steinberg, the founder of the watchdog group NGO Monitor, said that while he did not feel comfortable venturing an opinion as to “who should march in parades, or the limits of the ‘big Zionist tent’ in New York,” he believed it was legitimate for Israelis to debate the NIF’s inclusion.
“With an annual budget of some $30 million, the NIF is the largest single source of foreign money and political influence on Israeli society. As a result, criticism of the NIF’s agendas, its secrecy, and its mistakes is growing in Israel among centrist Israelis who view war and peace as complex and not subject to simple ideological formulae,” he explained.
While the NIF repudiates BDS and ceased funding groups like the Coalition of Women for Peace, which did advocate for boycotts of Israel, he added, he said “the damage was done.”
A source close to the parade slammed those critiquing the NIF’s participation, telling the Post that “instead of working together to combat the real threats and those who delegitimize the very existence of the State of Israel, there is an effort by a handful of individuals who are instead diverting the attention of the community to an intra-communal debate and putting at risk the powerful message of hundreds of thousands of Jews standing in support of Israel.”
However, some in Jerusalem have begun to question their affiliation with the parade, with a government source telling the Post that “due to the ongoing controversy that has now erupted, the Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Ministry will review its funding of the parade for future years, [although] not this year.”
The source, who asked not to be identified, said that while future funding was being reconsidered, reports that the Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Ministry cut funding to the parade due to the controversy were incorrect and that the cuts had been planned for almost a year. The funds, he explained, had been reallocated to Minister of Religious Serices Naftali Bennett’s new strategic initiative for the Diaspora and the shortfall had been made up by a grant by the Prime Minister’s Office.
Bennett, he added, never intended to attend, and reports that he canceled a trip in response to the NIF’s participation were incorrect.
JNS contributed to this report.