June 3, 2005

Frontline: Sunday in the Park

By URIEL HEILMAN
NEW YORK

This coming Sunday, hundreds of thousands of American Jews are expected to line Manhattan's Fifth Avenue for New York's annual Salute to Israel Parade, for what usually is the largest annual gathering of Diaspora Jews anywhere in the world.

About 100,000 marchers are expected, including 16 marching bands, 12 entertainment groups and dozens of schools, synagogues, Jewish federations and youth organizations.

The annual march down Fifth Avenue is not so much a show of support for Israel as it is an opportunity for New York's Jews to come together and have a good time on what inevitably turns out to be a gloriously sunny day. Young moms and pops push strollers along the avenue's cobblestone sidewalks, showing off their new babies. Grandparents wave little Israeli flags and wear awkward-looking hats to shade themselves from the sun. High school students march in identical T-shirts of some embarrassingly poor choice of color while trying all the while to still look cool.

The question this year is how many of those T-shirts will be orange and emblazoned with slogans about Gush Katif or expulsion of Jews by other Jews.

Organizers of the parade are taking pains to emphasize that this year, like every year, the event is not about politics.

But, of course, it often is.

In 2002, at the height of the intifada, parade organizers scrapped plans for the usual joviality in favor of a more solemn and political message. Clowns and merry bands were replaced with political messages and the theme, "Israel and America, Now and Forever, United We Stand." Nearly 1 million people turned out at the parade that year-a record number.

The next day, the New York Times reported on the event by running a large, front-page photograph of a small group of pro-Palestinian counter-demonstrators who showed up at the march, with the pro-Israeli marchers in the background. American Jews were outraged. The Times eventually apologized, but it wasn't enough to stave off a boycott of the newspaper by several prominent Jewish New Yorkers convinced that the Times' coverage of Israel was inherently biased.

This year, it's not pro-Palestinian demonstrators that threaten to overshadow the parade (though they, too, will be there), but a concert in Central Park following the march that will double as a political rally against Israel's planned withdrawal from Gaza.

The concert, organized by a key figure behind the right-wing group Ateret Cohanim, also is an annual event, and it draws many people from the largely Orthodox crowd that turns out for the much larger parade.

Organizers of this year's concert say they expect 50,000 spectators. Musical performances by such Jewish groups as Blue Fringe and the Moshav Band will be interspersed with oratory about the folly of Israel's disengagement plan. The band Maarava Mikan is getting special billing, with newspaper advertisements promising "Ezra Haidu from Gush Katif, featuring the hit single, 'Have No Fear.'" MKs Effie Eitam and Uzi Landau are supposed to deliver speeches, and a live video hookup will broadcast a message from Avraham Shapira, the former Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel.

Many of the same people who led the protests against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon during his recent visit to the United States will also speak at the concert, which is co-sponsored by groups like the Coalition for Gush Katif, the Hebron Fund and the American Committee for the Preservation of the Land and People of Israel.

New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, an Orthodox Jew from Boro Park, Brooklyn is one of those people. Hikind, who will speak at Sunday's concert and last week fired verbal salvos at Sharon from a street protest during one of the prime minister's speeches in New York, is typical of many of the American Jews who are taking an active role opposing the Gaza withdrawal: Though they choose to reside in America and don't serve in the IDF, they say they know more about what's good for Israel than the Israelis who live-and serve-in the Jewish state.

Most Israelis have "no clue" about what the Jewish communities in the Gaza Strip are all about, Hikind told the Jerusalem Post in a recent interview, deriding Tel Avivians in particular.

"Many Israelis don't visit Jerusalem, much less Gush Katif," he said. "They don't know there are entire cities [in Gaza]. They haven't been to the synagogues that I have been to."

Some of that may be true, but the Israelis also wear military uniforms that Hikind has never donned, live in cities that are miles, not oceans, away from Gaza, and bear the brunt of the dangers and/or benefits that Israel's withdrawal from Gaza may yield.

Furthermore, most Israelis probably know at least as much about life in Gaza as Americans like Hikind know about Jews in Tel Aviv.

Fortunately for Hikind, he'll be on a concert stage on Sunday in New York, where he'll get the reception he wants, not at a concert hall in Tel Aviv, where he'd probably get a very different kind of reception.