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.