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'During COVID, we lost the streets'

‘A powerful, visible message’: 40,000 expected to march in New York’s Israel parade

Sunday’s annual event, canceled by pandemic since 2020, seeks to affirm support for Jewish state, bring together disparate community; top US and Israeli politicians to attend

Luke Tress is an editor and a reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

People carry Israeli flags as they march during the annual Celebrate Israel Parade, June 3, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)
People carry Israeli flags as they march during the annual Celebrate Israel Parade, June 3, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)

NEW YORK — Tens of thousands of people, including top Israeli and American politicians, will march in Sunday’s Celebrate Israel Parade in New York City, in a long-delayed affirmation for the area’s Jewish communities and Israel supporters during a fraught period.

The parade, billed as the largest expression of solidarity with Israel outside of its borders, will take place on Manhattan’s iconic Fifth avenue, starting on 57th street at 11 a.m. Organizers estimate 40,000 people from 250 groups will march, and thousands more will spectate, in line with the event’s pre-pandemic turnout.

The annual procession has been canceled since 2020 due to the pandemic. During that time, antisemitism has surged in New York, the partisan climate has continued to stoke tensions between Jewish groups and fray political support for Israel, and sizable anti-Israel marches have taken place in the city.

The theme of this year’s parade is “Together again.”

“I think in a world that’s so fractured, and in the Jewish community that also is often fractured and divided, it is so central and so important that we can come together for one day and in one place and at one time,” said Gideon Taylor, the head of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, which organizes the parade.

Sunday’s parade aims to be both a public, ground-level display of support for Israel, and a chance for New York Jews to get together. It will include groups with different religious affiliations and political leanings.

“Whatever differences we have, whether we’re left, right, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform; whatever we are, we can come together and say, ‘Yes there is a lot that unites us,’ and that’s important for us as a community,” Taylor said.

The council, which has managed the parade since 2011, worked hard to bring together a wide spectrum of Jewish groups for this year’s parade. Before the pandemic, the event had become increasingly Orthodox, with many marchers coming from Jewish day schools.

Illustrative: Dignitaries lead the 53rd annual Celebrate Israel Parade down 5th Avenue in New York City, June 4, 2017. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

“I think the community has lost by not being together. Zoom is wonderful, social media is influential, but at the end of the day, personal connection, being together, arm in arm — that’s something that is unique and nothing can replace it,” Taylor said, adding that there was “pent-up demand” from Jewish groups for such an event.

“I think if you want to send a message of engagement with and support for Israel, to celebrate Israel, you have to show up and you have to be there,” he said.

Gideon Taylor, head of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. (Courtesy)

The procession will include youth groups, day schools, a float of Holocaust survivors, a group of Jewish war veterans, and for the first time, representatives of Brooklyn churches, who are heading to the parade directly after Sunday services. For those who can’t attend, the march will be broadcast live on the event’s website.

Not all Jewish groups will be represented. The council approves the marching organizations before the parade, and says participants must identify with Israel, recognize it as the Jewish homeland, and not support the anti-Israel boycott movement. That excludes far-left political organizations and anti-Zionist Haredi groups.

Polls show that US Jews overwhelmingly consider caring about Israel an important part of their identity.

The parade will also be a display of support for the Jewish state at the political level.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul, New York City Mayor Eric Adams, state attorney general Tish James and other national and local lawmakers will attend, and an Israeli delegation will be led by Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Diaspora Minister Nachman Shai, Immigration and Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata and Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan.

“The Jewish Diaspora is crucial to Israel’s well-being,” Shai said in a Times of Israel op-ed about the parade. “The Celebrate Israel Parade has the power to bring Jews together in recognition of the critical value the State of Israel has to the entire Jewish people.”

The lawmakers Ofir Akunis of the right-wing Likud party, and Gilad Kariv of the dovish Labor faction, will attend, as will Simha and Leah Goldin, the parents of an Israeli soldier killed in Gaza whose body is believed held by Hamas.

Members of the Israel Boy and Girl Scouts Federation participate in the annual Celebrate Israel Parade on June 3, 2018 in New York City. (Kena Betancur/Getty Images/AFP)

Israel is politically divisive, including in New York. New York City congressional representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman co-sponsored a bill on Monday that would have the US formally recognize the Palestinian “Nakba,” endorsing the Palestinian view of Israel’s establishment. The participation of New York’s leadership in the parade indicates the Democratic party’s mainstream remains firmly supportive of Israel.

Hochul and Adams have strong ties to New York Jewish communities, and are consistently engaged, including in a Wednesday meeting with the head of Yad Vashem to discuss antisemitism. On Thursday, Hochul met with Israel’s consul general in New York, Asaf Zamir.

The parade also represents a message to the city. Reported antisemitic incidents are at their highest level ever, according to the Anti-Defamation League, including physical assaults, racist graffiti and verbal abuse taking place regularly.

In some of the most recent incidents, on Monday in Brooklyn, an assailant fired a pellet gun at a synagogue, then shot a Jewish man in the neck with the non-lethal weapon. Last week, an attacker told a Jewish man to say “Free Palestine,” then punched him in the face.

“Given everything, terrorism in Israel, all the antisemitic attacks in New York, I think there is a feeling that this year is a time when we really have to come together and we have to send a very powerful visible message and that’s what this does,” Taylor said.

Since the last Israel parade in 2019, there have been massive pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel protests in New York, mostly during and after last year’s Gaza war. Smaller rallies take place regularly, with demonstrators calling for a “global intifada” at central locations, including Fifth Avenue, often to the approval of passersby. Some of the protests have spilled into violence against Israel supporters, including last month.

Anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian activists burn an Israeli flag in New York City, May 15, 2021. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Anti-Zionist activism is prominent and intense in New York City’s public colleges; at CUNY’s law school last week, a pro-intifada activist elected as a commencement speaker spent much of her speech lashing Israel, to loud applause from the audience.

“During COVID, we lost the streets, to put it bluntly. We lost the streets and I think we need to be back on the streets because that’s a message, and that’s a sign of pride and engagement of who you are,” Taylor said.

“It’s a message of pride — that we’re proud Jews and others who are friends of Israel. It’s a message that we’re not afraid, that after terrorism, after attacks in Brooklyn and hate crimes, we’re not afraid to come and march on the most iconic street in New York and to say we are here to celebrate Israel,” he said.

The event is not all about politics and messaging, though — it’s also meant to be a fun, family event, and there will be 23 floats, 13 bands and three dance troupes. Performers include rappers Nissim Black and Kosher Dillz, and Israeli singer Eliad Nachum.

The parade will wrap up at around 4 p.m. on 74th Street.

The annual parade began in 1965 with an impromptu march by thousands of Zionist youth in support of Israel.

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