The Human Spirit: Marching for Zion

The Salute to Israel Parade on Fifth Avenue in New York has always held a precious place in my heart.

Salute to Israel Parade 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Salute to Israel Parade 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Salute to Israel Parade on Fifth Avenue in New York has always held a precious place in my heart. When I was in high school in the then farming town of Colchester, Connecticut, we would gather in the early morning hours and board buses headed to New York City. With many stops to pick up teens along the way, the ride took four hours. In Manhattan waited a fascinating world I didn’t know about in Colchester. Tens of thousands of teens like us, as well as adults, were standing up for Israel. Some of my peers looked almost like soldiers in martial movement uniforms. Other teens looked very sophisticated, wearing embroidered Israeli blouses, twirling and debka dancing on float platforms, screaming and hugging long-lost friends. It’s hard to evaluate the impact of participation in the parade on my Zionist identity and decision to move to Israel. Certainly, the parade provided an early taste of the sense of peoplehood that I have savored living in Israel.
The germ of the Salute to Israel Parade – renamed last year the “Celebrate Israel Parade” – was an impromptu walk down Riverside Drive in support of the State of Israel in 1964. This evolved quickly into the nonpartisan, apolitical Salute to Israel Parade. Today, 30,000 marchers representing many organizations participate. Hundreds of thousands of spectators join in to support the State of Israel and to celebrate its miraculous existence.
Even back when I was a teen, others were on hand to point out the imperfections of the State of Israel to us marchers. Still others to wish us every evil.
Last week, I received an e-mail invitation to sign a petition relating to the parade. Before I read it, the despised initials BDS caught my eye. What could the relationship of the nefarious Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement be to the Zionist march? As it turns out, the petition was initiated by a group called Committee for a Pro-Israel Parade. It urged the parade organizers – the Jewish Community Relations Council – to boycott groups that were connected to other groups that promote BDS.
A FEW words about boycotts. Anti-Jewish and anti-Israel boycotts have a long and inglorious history. Some may be unaware of the disaster to families wrought by boycotts of Jewish goods and businesses organized by the Ku Klux Klan. Before the Final Solution, on April 1, 1933, the Nazis carried out the first nationwide planned action against Jews: a boycott targeting Jewish businesses and professionals. That evil boycott was launched in a country in which Jews made up 1 percent of the population and had earned 14 of Germany’s 38 Nobel prizes.
I'm not sure if my computer knows I’m particularly interested in Jewish topics, but when I Google the words “boycott goods” with no mention of “Jewish” or “Israeli,” I receive a mix of “boycott Israel goods” and “boycott Jewish goods.” Not a single “boycott Syrian goods” pops up.
Anti-Jewish boycotts have always masqueraded behind ideological pretensions. BDS is no different. The old and hollow “we’re not against Jews, just Zionists” has yielded to “we’re not boycotting all Israelis, just certain portions of the population.”
Previously proposed British academic and medical association boycotts were aimed at all Israeli Jews. The latest boycott in England against Israeli fruits and vegetables proffers the old libel of stolen land and water, but according to today’s spin, it claims to discriminate only against certain Israeli tomatoes. Look back at previous boycotts against our sweet cherry tomatoes and persimmons, and you’ll find op-eds in major London papers urging the ethically minded British to avoid Israeli produce to punish the Jewish State where it hurts.
Anyone who has followed modern Israeli history knows that all sectors and all parts of the country are targeted by our enemies. Whether you are riding a bus on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv, visiting the doctor in the Ashkelon mall or driving to a dance festival in Shiloh, you may find yourself under attack. We’re all in this together, no matter what our political opinions are. Likewise, wherever any Israeli stood on the disengagement from Gaza, we know that our country alone has subjected its own citizens to the trauma of forced transfer to try to bring about peace.
All anti-Jewish and anti-Israel boycotts are despicable no matter who is promoting them.
Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean that far-left organizations, or far-right for that matter, should be banished from the pro-Israel marches, no matter how misguided each side finds the other’s views. No group gets a monopoly on defining Zionism, or on setting the parameters of the ideological make-up of the Jewish State. Among ourselves, we have so many areas about which we passionately disagree, we’re lucky if we can get through an extended family meal without an argument. In the heat of the battle, each of us is scrambling to claim the moral high ground for our ideas. Without polling opinions, we can be pretty sure that the vast majority of those indifferent to or hostile to the State of Israel will not be spending their Sunday marching down Fifth Avenue with blue-and-white flags.
ACCORDING TO recent surveys, the majority of Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs are proud to be Israelis, despite the broad arc of opinions we hold. We need to welcome the same diversity in ideas from abroad. Anyone who wishes – rain or shine – to march down Fifth Avenue on June 3 and declare himself or herself a Zionist should be allowed to. The Celebrate Israel Parade describes itself as the world’s largest public gathering honoring the State of Israel. Wouldn’t it be great if 300,000 instead of 30,000 showed up – even if most of those marching don’t agree with you?
I was already living in Israel by the time I reconnected with the parade. I’d gone for a semester to New York to study in the New School. I paid for the room I’d rented in the home of an older Jewish lady with part-time jobs, one of which was as a “parade consultant.” I visited synagogues to help organize their marching delegations. Orthodox, Conservative and Reform congregations were all taking part, overcoming the conflicts that divided them to stand up together for Israel. On the day of the march, walking with my young charges, I hoped that the experience would help them decide to choose a lifetime lined up on the Zionist side of the street.
The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.