(Salute to Israel march, New York, May 2009. All photos by Antony Loewenstein from his flickr page.)
Antony Loewenstein writes:
Last year I was told a story about a friend’s visit to Israel on the Birthright program. After visiting Auschwitz and waving the Israeli flag, his group were shown around Israel. One night they were in the Jordan Valley and as the sun was setting a guide decided to role-play as a Palestinian from the West Bank (the group had not visited the Palestinian territories nor spoken to any Arabs on the trip.)
The guide, playing a Palestinian, told of certain hardships in the West Bank due to the occupation but said he understood why Israel had to implement such a tough “security” regime because his brother was a “terrorist” who wanted to kill Jews. The only “interaction” with Palestinians for these young Jews was with an Israeli Jew who was role-playing.
I was reminded of this during Sunday’s Salute to Israel march through central New York. 100,000 Jews paraded in the streets held under the banner of Tel Aviv’s 100th anniversary. The parents of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit also attended. Arabs and Palestinians didn’t exist; they were invisible. The world’s biggest public display of pro-Israel feeling had no room for 20 percent of the Israeli population (let alone the millions in the West Bank and Gaza.) Like the Birthright tour, mainstream Zionism wants to completely shield Jews from the uncomfortable facts of the Israeli occupation and Palestinian self-determination.
The event was thoroughly disheartening . Young Jews and old, colourful floats, countless Israeli and American flags, fans with the tag line, “I’m an IDF fan” (in support of Friends of the Israel Defence Forces, pictured right with the author) and t-shirts advertising Israeli airline El-Al. Flyers were distributed celebrating kosher food, the hardline Zionist group Stand With Us and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Some marchers carried small signs with a picture of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and the words, “Have you seen Gilad Shalit?” New York Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer marched down the road alongside friends waving signs with his name.
The sheer organisational firepower was awe-inspiring, though it was hard not to conclude that the participants were largely going through the motions. They may have loved Israel, but it wasn’t a real country, rather an abstract nation in the Middle East that defended democracy, human rights and freedom (I’ve discussed this Jewish psychosis in the past). How many of these Jews had ever visited the West Bank and Gaza, other than as IDF soldiers? Were they even mildly concerned with Jewish-led pogroms in the West Bank?
The Bruce Springsteen song, ‘Born in the USA’, blared in both English and Hebrew, but the irony was tragic. Jewish immigration to Israel has virtually stopped, so the vast majority of Jews in the West have no interest in moving to the self-described Jewish state. Instead, billions of taxpayer dollars are spent on maintaining an illusion; a garrison state with a ghetto-mindset. The American Jews at Sunday’s parade were happy to have their comfortable lives in multi-cultural America but seemed to have no problem backing a country that proudly discriminated along racial lines.
My American friend attended the parade a few years ago and told me that there was a special section for the “counter-protest.” This year, behind many separation barriers on 5th Avenue, stood no more than 30 Jews, Palestinians and others loudly opposing the march. I entered the cordoned-off area and mingled with them. One Jewish woman in her 70s, holding a sign with murdered Palestinian and Lebanese children and the words, ‘The IDF at work: Beirut 2006 and Gaza 2009’, told me that she was deeply pained by the rally. Israel, she said, “is not [Albert] Einstein; it’s not [Martin] Buber; it’s not Judaism.” I asked why more Jews and Palestinians hadn’t come and she muttered something about organisational issues. A lone Moroccan man held a Palestinian flag and paced back and forth in the police-cordoned area.
Around 20 Jewish protestors, clearly unable to handle the sight of critics, shouted abuse at the Muslims and Jews peacefully protesting the rally. Only a separation barrier divided the groups.
A handful of Muslims stood against the masses (including one with the disturbing sign, “Close Guantanamo Bay. Re-Open Auschwitz”) but the bulk of the counter-protest were members of the anti-Zionist, Jewish Orthodox group Neturei Karta. Heavily bearded men in their 20s and up (including a survivor of the Holocaust, I was informed), the global organization controversially (and in my view, mistakenly) attended the 2006 Holocaust Conference in Tehran. I’ve always held a grudging respect and skepticism of the organization, men seemingly unafraid to speak their minds and endure ridicule in the process.
A Haredi Rabbi and spokesman for the group, Yisroel Dovid Weiss, spoke to me for around 45 minutes. While some of his colleagues shouted to the crowd that Israel was a “Nazi state” – the Neturei Karta have stated that, “What we want is not a withdrawal to the '67 borders, but to everything included in it, so the country can go back to the Palestinians and we could live with them” – Weiss rationally explained why Israel and Zionism had “brain-washed” the Jewish people. It was only God, he believed, who could grant a state to the Jews (or anybody else.) He seemed hurt that many protestors in the parade told their children not to even speak to the Neturei Karta. They seemed perfectly harmless, if eccentric, to me.
Wearing a “Free Palestine” badge, a black coat, white shirt and black hat, Weiss argued that Zionism was the “work of Satan”. His religious fervour, though calmly argued, was irreconcilable to my own beliefs, but his understanding of the Israeli occupation was informed and moving. “When soldiers harass women and children at checkpoints”, Weiss said, “this helps hate and breeds suicide bombing. What do we expect in return?” He had just returned from Iran, where he said his group had been building alliances with like-minded organizations. In times of crisis, strange bedfellows occur. They tirelessly visit university campuses and speak to anybody who’ll listen. They see it as God’s will to spread the message. Weiss invited my Jewish friend and me to a Friday night Sabbath.
Weiss revealed the physical attacks his members experienced in the US and Britain and articulated the reasons why a global boycott on Israeli products was just and necessary (a position shared by his colleague in Manchester).
Weiss compared Israel’s hopeful decline to the USSR and South Africa, two states that eventually collapsed under their own repression, internal contradictions and economic isolation. He held hope that because this conflict was a racial, not religious, struggle, outside pressure would hasten its conclusion.
I didn’t for a second presume that Weiss represented a mainstream view, but his sympathy for Palestinian suffering, caused by Israeli aggression, was deeper than many liberal Jews. A crazed nationalism has captured the hearts and minds of the Zionist community. Even as a strongly atheist Jew myself, I empathised with Rabbi Weiss’s humanity.
The march petered out around four hours after it started but the parade never seemed to end. Marching bands practiced in the streets alongside 5th avenue. Floats waited for their cue. Israeli flagpoles were twirled. Participants would have gone home with a satisfied feeling that Israel had been defended one more day in the world’s most influential Jewish Diaspora city. In many ways, attempts to isolate Israel probably only harden the resolve of the country’s staunchest backers.
But until the realities of the conflict seep into the minds of mainstream Jewry, parades will only reinforce the unspoken truth; Israel cannot sustain itself on Herzl’s “dream” for much longer.