On a cold wet day in April, a small crowd of protesters stood outside the United Jewish Appeal-Federation headquar-ters in New York to oppose the inclusion of anti-Israel groups in the Celebrate Israel parade. This year is the 50th anniversary of the parade, one of the most prominent displays of American support for Israel.
On June 1, around 30,000 people are expected to march down Fifth Avenue. It is a vibrant affirmation of Jewish unity. Except when it isn’t. Over the past few years, the parade has become a source of friction as pro-Israel activists have objected to the participation of groups involved with the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) movement. That’s the pernicious global campaign that calls for governments and businesses to wage diplomatic and economic warfare against Israel. The BDS movement speaks the language of nonviolence and human rights, but seeks Israel’s destruction.
The protesters against the participation of BDS groups in the parade are led by Richard Allen, an accidental gadfly, a businessman who says he never considered political action until he joined the Manhattan Jewish Community Center (JCC) to use its gym. It’s supposed to be an apolitical gathering place—Hebrew classes and bake sales and jewelry-making workshops. Instead, Allen would walk through the lobby and see groups that supported BDS setting up tables, distributing flyers, and giving lectures.
“The JCC were not just letting them debate,” he says. “They were hosting them.” Since the JCC runs largely on donated money, he says, “It’s using Jewish communal dollars to push BDS in the community. The JCC was trying to legitimize a movement that wants to delegitimize Israel.”
So Allen formed a group called JCC Watch, dedicated to calling out anti-Israel extremism that tries to pass itself off as part of the Jewish mainstream. Allen has had some successes—he’s gotten links to BDS groups, like Adalah (that’s Arabic for “Justice”) and the Mossawa Center, removed from the JCC’s website. His group has picketed events hosting supporters of the BDS movement, Roger Waters and Alice Walker, at the 92nd Street Y.
“And I haven’t seen any BDS in the lobby of the JCC lately, either,” he says. “They’ve koshered themselves up a little bit.” His next goal: get the pro-BDS groups kicked out of the Celebrate Israel parade.
Theoretically, this should be no problem. The Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), the parade’s host committee (which is funded by the UJA-Federation), says that BDS groups are not allowed to march in the parade. The thing is, JCC Watch and the parade committee disagree on what it means to be a “pro-BDS” group. The groups that have raised the hackles of Allen and his supporters are the New Israel Fund, Partners for a Progressive Israel, and B’Tselem, which insist that they are not supporters of the BDS movement. They’ll even condemn it.
But these groups have ties to groups that are full-fledged members of the BDS movement, and—here’s the sticking point—they support boycotts of Israeli products that are manufactured in the West Bank. They argue, passionately, that there’s a difference between full-on BDS and targeted boycotts of products like SodaStream, whose factory is located in an Israeli town just over the “Green Line,” or 1949 armistice line.
“We do not ourselves support the boycotts, but we don’t exclude groups that support the boycott of settlement products from our funding,” says Naomi Paiss, the New Israel Fund’s vice president for public affairs. “It’s not our job to do that.”
“People on the hard left and the hard right both try and conflate these two for their own purposes,” she says, “but we profoundly disagree.”
The parade committee is inclined to buy this fine distinction, though they say that they themselves do not approve of any boycotts. JCC Watch says that even targeted boycotts contribute to the BDS movement.
The parade committee, which is struggling mightily to avoid the controversy, has tried to settle the issue by requiring every group marching to sign a pledge saying that they support a Jewish and democratic state of Israel. Since the global BDS movement rejects Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, the pledge is meant to act as a de facto ban on BDS supporters.
If the New Israel Fund and the others sign the pledge, this gets them into the parade. Yet even if these far-left groups really do want to preserve Israel’s Jewish identity, JCC Watch says, their methods threaten it.
They point out that the New Israel Fund was until recently a major funder of groups that were explicitly and proudly leaders of the BDS movement. Until 2011, the NIF backed a group called Coalition of Women for Peace. This organization pioneered an online database that was crucial to the development of the BDS movement. After NIF’s funding was exposed, the NIF came under enormous pressure to cut them off. But by that time, the Coalition of Women for Peace was already up and running and enjoying funding from other sources.
The NIF “do some very good charitable and social work,” Allen says, “but a percentage of what they do still goes to very bad things.”
In an April press release, NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based research organization run by Gerald Steinberg, reported that “while about 80 percent of NIF’s budget goes to internal Israeli social and economic issues, the rest is problematic. . . . With the other 20 percent, the NIF has made many mistakes, providing legitimacy and funding for BDS campaigns.”
“Funny, isn’t it?” says Paiss. “The 20 percent that they are most concerned about funding are the ones who are most critical of the Israeli government’s policy.”
According to NGO Monitor, as recently as 2012, the NIF still funded Adalah ($356,911), which calls for a new Israeli constitution that would eliminate the right of Jews to immigrate, effectively ending the country as a Jewish refuge and Jewish state.
The New Israel Fund says that Adalah’s position on the status of Israel is irrelevant. “It would be ridiculous to expect Arab groups to be Zionist,” Paiss says. “We do not support groups who are working to change the nature of Israel as a Jewish democratic state,” she says. “That’s not what Adalah does. Adalah’s job is to litigate cases for Arab civil rights. If they changed their job, their main purpose, we would no longer fund them.”
Another group backed by the New Israel Fund is B’Tselem, whose U.S. branch marched in the Celebrate Israel parade last year. B’Tselem is perhaps best known as the group that helped produce the Goldstone Report, a 2009 document released by the U.N. that accused Israel of war crimes and intentionally targeting civilians in Gaza. B’Tselem was the single most frequently cited source in the report. Congress overwhelmingly condemned it, and in 2011, Richard Goldstone himself retracted its claim about civilians.
B’Tselem says it doesn’t support BDS but has been happy to take money from BDS groups in the past. And the kind of work B’Tselem produces—overwrought accusations in which virtually every Israeli security effort is declared a war crime or a human rights abuse—gives aid and comfort to the BDS movement, which attacks Israel’s legitimacy with the same accusations.
Allen’s group is not alone. He has received support from a number of other nonprofits, including the Zionist Organization of America, Americans for a Safe Israel, and the Emergency Committee for Israel. Members of the Israeli Knesset, among them Yariv Levin, the equivalent of Israel’s speaker of the House, wrote a letter of support for the protest.
Criticism of Allen’s group veers wildly, from eye rolls and assertions that he is inconsequential to claims that JCC Watch will stir up so much trouble that the parade organizers will take their floats and go home, and Allen will have ruined the day for everyone.
The truth is, Allen, JCC Watch, and the parade’s critics are neither inconsequential nor terribly powerful. While they are unlikely to get everything they want this year, there are signs that JCC Watch is laying the groundwork for a policy change next year.
An unnamed Israeli government official told the Jerusalem 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.”
In the meantime, B’Tselem seems to have quietly dropped out of the parade. When asked about JCC Watch by the Jersusalem Post, B’Tselem spokesman Sarit Michaeli was indignant, and said that her organization hadn’t even signed up to be in the parade.
“I have no idea why our name keeps getting dragged into this particular row, aside from the fact that the people behind this campaign haven’t bothered to look into the actual list of groups joining,” she says. B’Tselem was “dragged in” to the argument because they marched last year, proudly carrying B’Tselem signs and banners.
And indeed, there’s no indication that they’ve signed up to march in 2014. Were they unwilling to sign the pledge? Perhaps they just didn’t feel like Celebrating Israel this year? It is unclear. Multiple calls to B’Tselem-USA were not returned.
Either way, Allen doesn’t really see it as a victory for JCC Watch. “This is not just about a parade,” he says.“What we’re concerned about is these groups that are beyond the pale, covering themselves up in the Jewish community like they’re just normal. They want it to be an acceptable Jewish position to boycott the state of Israel.”
“I’m fine with having the left in the parade,” he says. “Even the far left. We’ll march together. We can even hold hands. But no BDS,” Allen says.“BDS is beyond the pale. We cannot have that.”
Kate Havard is a Tikvah Fellow at the Wall Street Journal in New York.