As a Jewish kid growing up in New York City, the Celebrate Israel Parade (formerly “Salute to Israel,” and affectionately but not-so-sensibly, the “Israeli Day Parade” ) has been a focal point of my Jewish identity and communal understanding. I remember the first time I went to the parade. It was June of 2000, and I recall eagerly waiting for what seemed to be eons until my school group marched by. I didn’t really know too many of the big kids, but I was shepping some serious nachas. I pushed through toward the fence and plopped myself down in front of it. My one-year-old cousin sat comfortably in my lap, strangely unfazed by the masses of people in our immediate surrounding. I took home a little Israeli flag. I was one little happy Zionist and I didn’t really know it. I hadn’t been to Israel, but I got the gist.
The next vivid memory I have is of the first time I marched in the parade. I was thrilled. It was mandatory from fourth grade up, at the expense of dropping half a grade in Jewish History. Aside from the notion that I had really looked forward to this momentous milestone, there was no way in hell that my Jewish History grade was going to suffer from this. It was my favorite subject. We had just come back from the Annual Ramah 4th Grade Schechter Shabbaton at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires (which later gained a whole other meaning). I was pooped, and felt weirdly carsick after watching “Chicken Little” and drinking whole-fat chocolate milk on the bus. It must have been the combination. At any rate, we got to our line-up spot, were given t-shirts that were simply gigantic and banners that we got to share. Schechter was relatively frugal so we didn’t have any fancy boomboxes on rolling carts like some of the other mega day school groups, but we either sang along to the music coming from passing floats or a cappella. We would walk, stop by the grandstands, be announced, and continue marching. I came home exhilarated from the experience, but absolutely wiped out. I was asleep on the living room beanbag chair by 5:30 pm and was awakened for school the next morning horribly disoriented.
And so it went. I marched every year through high school. The Heschel School didn’t make marching mandatory, which always utterly confused me, but I to some extent got that it was because they didn’t want to impose any sort of ideology on us. That philosophy was evident in the enumerable davening options, the kippah policy, etc. Besides, one of my friends and her mother who taught at the school were self-declared post-Zionists, so I figured there must be others like them. I was always upset that the turn-out from my school was shameful compared to others, and wondered why other students weren’t really quite as motivated to make such a public, positive statement about Israel. It was for the most part not ideologically driven, I’m sure, but we can leave that option open. During my senior year of high school, I spent a month as an intern at the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, the primary organizing body of the parade as well as many other communal events and sub-organizations. My tasks included calling up officials, synagogues, schools, and donors, reminding them to kindly line up on 50-something street and Madison at x time on June 5th. Rain or shine. My partner in crime/co-intern and I lined the streets of Manhattan in posters, and delivered maybe a total of 300 to every Jewish organization imaginable. I still have these “oh my gosh, I remember postering here…this is the such and such shul…the security guard gave me a really hard time…” moments. Midtown and the Upper West Side were my playground. I learned a ton about working in the Jewish non-profit world, and culminated my time at the office by being the youngest member of the team allowed to staff the parade (a step above volunteering…please…). I was honored to be part of such a huge, dramatic operation, which on a yearly basis mobilizes tens of thousands of Jews and others from the New York Metropolitan area to show support for a distant land called “home.”
The week after my return to the U.S. from Israel after my gap year, I volunteered at the parade. It was the best way to give back to Israel after an incredible and formative year. I was given the surprisingly enormous responsibility of telling the floats and marching bands to stop playing their music at the dispersal point. This was a HUGE power trip..and really quite difficult because they just plain wanted to finish their songs. Too bad. This past year, I decided to volunteer at the Celebrate Israel Run and then march with Brandeis as part of the Hillel cluster. So, you may ask, why is this such a big deal? Do you all of a sudden not want to “Celebrate Israel?” Even after working for the organization? Not even for the social obligations? I’ll give you the verdict before the explanation so you understand exactly how radical (or not really all that radical) I am. I’ve decided to go. Here are the qualms and my thought process.
As you may or may not have understood from the saga so far, I never questioned the power of the parade beyond its obvious benefits. This year I have undergone a tremendously tumultuous reevaluation of the American Jewish establishment and my relationship with the State of Israel. Likewise, and most importantly, I have a better grasp of what the American Jewish establishment has to say about my relationship with Israel. In short, through my involvement with J Street and a serious engagement with Israel discourse on campus, I have recognized that my education regarding Israel and the Occupied Territories has been remarkably myopic. I, like every good graduate of a liberal day school, could basically articulate that the big to-do these days is all about the two-state solution, and that for better or for worse, the settlements prove to be stagnating factor in peace talks. There was rare mention of what the status quo versus (any iterations of) a final status agreement would mean for Palestinians on the ground. And there most certainly was no discussion of the potential downside to Jewish nationalism and or the possibility of any abuse of power in the territories or anywhere else.
And for that I congratulate the American Jewish establishment. I fit the rather (unnecessarily) narrow mold of a Pro-Israel Activist. Heck, I was a to-die-for Pro-Israel Activist (and arguably still am). I had never referred to Palestine as a place, or the Palestinians as a people equally entitled to self-determination. I still sometimes take issue with people referring to the region as Israel-Palestine. Palestine doesn’t really exist at this point. That’s the problem. But even more than my blindness to that end of the conflict, or to requisite terminology (“occupation”), I didn’t see how empowered American Jews feel with relation to the State of Israel. There is a sense of deep pride, ownership, and even a joint fate. The IDF has an ideological army branch right here in the States. I still serve in that army, but I don’t fall for the whole “Israel is perfect and is the start-up nation, etc.” campaign at the expense of knowledge of the contentious realities on the ground, conflict-based and otherwise. No, I will not empower the people of New York to think that Israel’s innovations and her flaws are mutually exclusive. And no, I will not say that Jewish nationalism has only produced a positive, flourishing, and all-inclusive society. But no, I most critically will not stand on the sidelines like someone with my ideological hashkafah is wanted to do (protestors have aimed at barring the progressive groups from marching, and likewise, J Street was recently excluded from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations).
I am a Zionist, a Jewish nationalist, and a practicing Jew, and I hope to someday live in Israel (proper). Don’t bother calling me anti-Israel. That’s silly. I spend so much of my time wishing I were there instead of here. Reading Hebrew novels. Feeding my rather unusual affinity for Israeli alternative music. I don’t want anyone to hurt the State of Israel, take her security very seriously, and most importantly, don’t want to give anyone reason to cause harm. I am by no means willing to do anything detrimental to the sovereign state, but am open to conversation with those who don’t think the State of Israel should exist, at least not in its current state. I, like other American Jews, do feel I have a stake in that larger fate, and have a deep sense of pride. I shouldn’t feel any less entitled because I would never ever ever vote for Likkud.
This isn’t a formal endorsement for this organization, but I have decided to march with the New Israel Fund in the “Progressive Cluster.” They aim at promoting equality and democratic values in Israel, seeking to reach all citizens, regardless of race, religion, sex, etc., as promised by Israel’s Declaration of Independence. No worries guys, I’m going to try to also march with the Hillel International group. Israel may be my home, but the Jewish community at Brandeis is taking responsibility for me and my needs for the time being.
Shabbat Shalom, and maybe I’ll see you at the parade. The choice is entirely yours.