NEW YORK — New York City’s annual Celebrate Israel Parade was set to take place on Sunday under the shadow of the government’s contentious judicial overhaul, with activist groups protesting ministers in town for the march, a leading Jewish group refusing to participate, and organizers calling for a unified show of support for Israel despite the discord.
The march is a significant event for the city’s Jewish community and a major display of solidarity with the Jewish state. The parade’s organizers, the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York (JCRC-NY), said they expected 40,000 participants, including New York Governor Kathy Hochul and New York City Mayor Eric Adams.
The march will set off at 11 a.m. on Manhattan’s iconic Fifth Avenue between 57th and 74 streets. The theme this year is “Renewing the hope.” Participants include Jewish day schools, community leaders, Jewish organizations, activists and a large contingent from Yeshiva University.
“We’re looking forward to seeing our vibrant, incredible Jewish community come out in celebration of the 75th anniversary of Israel,” said the CEO of JCRC-NY, Gideon Taylor.
This year’s event has been marred by disputes over the government’s plans to diminish Israel’s judiciary, however. Activist groups have launched a series of protests against representatives of the Netanyahu government who have arrived for the event and appealed to the organizers to block their attendance. It’s unclear how many Israeli lawmakers will participate — reports this week put the figure as high as 18, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday told members of Likud to not attend due to public criticism over the cost of sending so many politicians abroad.
The protesters have hounded the lawmakers since their arrival in New York, including by showing up at Economy Minister Nir Barkat’s hotel at 6 a.m. on the day of his flight in. They have focused on MK Simcha Rothman, the chair of the Constitution Law and Justice Committee, and one of the key players in the coalition’s push to overhaul the judiciary.
In one incident on Friday, Rothman appeared to lose his cool with demonstrators walking behind him and chanting with a megaphone.
In a video posted to social media, Rothman can be seen spinning around and forcibly grabbing the megaphone from the woman.
— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) June 3, 2023
The Walla news site said the woman was a student doing her master’s degree at Columbia University.
“Even Rothman’s violence won’t shut down our protest,” Walla quoted her as saying, adding that she intended to file charges against him with New York police.
“This is Manhattan is not Hadera; democracy still exists here, so we can tell him to his face what we want, and no police officer will stop us from exercising basic freedom of expression,” said protest organizer Shany Granot-Lubaton.
“This is our opportunity to give everything to push against the delegation of lies and hatred that comes here,” protest organizers said in a statement. “Our message is simple: whoever dismantles Israeli democracy should not expect a relaxing vacation in New York.”
On Friday, around two dozen opponents of the judicial overhaul gathered in midtown Manhattan outside the offices of the Jewish National Fund-USA to protest an appearance by Immigration and Absorption Minister Ofir Sofer of the far-right Religious Zionism party.
The protesters, led by a network of Israeli activists called UnXeptable, presented a phalanx of Israeli flags and shouted “shame” whenever the doors to the building opened. They chanted refrains in Hebrew used at the mass protests in Israel, including “Democracy or rebellion.”
“If there won’t be equality, we’ll take down the government, you came down on the wrong generation,” they chanted. Many wore t-shirts from Israeli protest groups including Brothers in Arms and the Black Flags movement that they picked up during visits to Israel since the start of the protest movement in January.
Sofer arrived under heavy security in a black Chevrolet Suburban SUV that drove onto the sidewalk, up to the building’s door. As he entered, Sofer kept the vehicle between himself and the shouting protesters, who were corralled behind a police barricade. Another rally took place near Grand Central on Friday night, and several hundred gathered outside an appearance by Rothman in New Jersey on Thursday.
The Israeli protesters in New York have been holding weekly rallies in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park, as well as events targeting government ministers in New York and US supporters of the overhaul. They have built out a well-coordinated network of hundreds in and around the city in recent months, efforts that are paying off as they work to disrupt the lawmakers’ visits to New York. Group members alert organizers when they spot the politicians around the city by sending in photos and a location, and other nearby activists are then dispatched to the scene. Protesters confronted Rothman as he relaxed on a park bench in Brooklyn on Thursday to tell him that “he’s not wanted here.”
הנה שמחה רוטמן יושב בדקה קצרה של נחת על ספסל בברוקלין, רגע לפני שישראלים אמיצים זיהו אותו, שלחו את התמונה והמיקום בקבוצות שלנו, והופ – תוך דקות עוד ועוד ישראלים מגיעים למקום עם מסר ברור שהוא לא רצוי כאן.
המחאה הכי נחושה בהיסטוריה של ישראל ממשיכה גם כאן בכל הכוח! pic.twitter.com/ttnLAxdoZd
— Shany Granot-Lubaton (שני גרנות-לובטון) (@ShanyGranot) June 1, 2023
The Israeli protesters aim to express support for the protest movement in Israel and voice opposition to the judicial overhaul in the US. The US-based demonstrators work together with the protest leaders in Israel, some of whom are attending the march on Sunday.
Some non-Israeli US Jews also attend the events, and have led other rallies in the city, with the participation of some of the Israeli activists.
The main protest for the week is scheduled for Sunday at 2 p.m. outside a conference at the Hilton Hotel in Midtown Manhattan.
Rothman decried the US demonstrations on Thursday.
“To the leaders of the protest against Israel’s democratically elected government, I say today: Is it not enough that you worked to damage critical unity among our fighting forces, and have both incited to and committed violence in Israel?” Rothman said.
He called on President Isaac Herzog “to condemn the organizations who stand ready to destroy the State of Israel’s most important relationship with world Jewry just to gain points in a domestic political struggle.”
UnXeptable called on the organizers of the Celebrate Israel Parade to rescind the invitations to the coalition lawmakers in a statement this week.
“Standing up for the country we all love and cherish and for its people, we urge you: as long as the judicial overhaul is in play, as long as Israel’s democracy is on the brink of destruction, disinvite the instigators and advocates of the judicial overhaul,” they said in an open letter. “They have yet to deserve the honor you are bestowing upon them, they have not earned the respect of your allies and friends in Israel, and many of your own community members, here in America. Please stand up for Israel’s democracy.”
Israelis against the judicial overhaul protest an event with Religious Zionism’s Ofir Sofer in Manhattan pic.twitter.com/BXwlj5LE36
— Luke Tress (@luketress) June 2, 2023
Some of the anti-government activists will march in the parade with the progressive group Ameinu. The organization said it will be participating for the first time in over a decade and its marchers will wear matching t-shirts with the slogans “Zionism equals democracy” and “marching for democracy.”
Also Friday, the US rabbinic rights group T’ruah said it will boycott the parade “to protest extremist ministers” and show solidarity with demonstrators in Israel. The group criticized JRCR-NY, saying this year’s parade does not achieve the organization’s stated goal of fostering Jewish unity.
“This is the wrong year for a simplistic call to ‘Celebrate Israel,’ as extremists in government push forward a judicial coup, and as Israelis continue to take to the streets protesting the anti-democratic ideologies of the far-right government,” said T’ruah’s CEO, Rabbi Jill Jacobs. “By attending the march, these ministers seek to normalize their violent, hate-fueled agenda, including a judicial coup that chips away at Israel’s democratic principles.”
Taylor, JCRC-NY’s leader, urged participants to attend in a show of support for Israel despite the political disputes. He said that the protest has for decades included a delegation of Israeli government officials from both the coalition and opposition, and that this year would be no different. Likud’s Shalom Danino and opposition MK Vladimir Beliak from Yesh Atid said in a statement they would be marching together in an expression of unity.
“We appreciate that many people in Israel and around the world continue to passionately protest with deeply held views concerning the future directions of Israel,” Taylor said in a statement. “We welcome participants with different viewpoints and opinions to show their love for Israel and participate in the parade.”
A cross-denominational group of 15 prominent New York rabbis signed onto a letter urging participation in the parade despite the political turmoil, calling the event an opportunity to “bridge the divide between us—whether political, religious or cultural.”
There are also typically minor pro-Palestinian demonstrations on the sidelines of the parade.
In addition to the march, the day will feature musical performances by Jewish performers Matisyahu, Kosha Dillz, the Maccabeats and others. For the first time this year, there will be a “block party” with Israeli food and art at 63rd Street and 5th Avenue, and a program by the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue that matches teenagers who are interested in politics with elected officials.
The annual parade began in 1965 with an impromptu march by thousands of Zionist youth in support of Israel. JCRC-NY has managed the event since 2011. Last year’s parade, held after a pandemic hiatus, drew 40,000 people from 250 groups.