04 July 2006

Let’s Have A Parade

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

At the moment, I don’t think the blame game over the escalating crisis between the Israelis and the Palestinians is particularly helpful (if it ever was). Did the Palestinians attack an Israeli command post and kidnap a soldier because of the death of a Palestinian family on a Gaza beach, allegedly the result of an Israeli bomb that may or may not have been misdirected? Did the Israelis stage that beach attack because of mortar shelling from Palestinian militants in Gaza onto nearby Israeli towns? The answer to this he said / he said dynamic is irrelevant to a broader question of responsible, moral actions and a functional set of mechanisms for bringing this long, senseless, murderous era to a close.

Now let’s look at something closer to home (for us New Yorkers, anyway) that nonetheless may have an impact on this situation a few thousand miles away: the annual “Salute to Israel” parade in New York. Of all the cities in the United States, New York may have the greatest scope of ethnic heritage and history, since it was the traditional port of entry for (European) immigrants for much of our nation’s history. Moreover, New York City and its citizens take great pride in this diversity, from particular neighborhoods and their high concentrations of immigrant communities, to the shops, restaurants, and other activities in which these citizens engage, and which give vibrancy to their and our environment.

New York also loves to celebrate these different communities with annual parades honoring these immigrant cultures and communities, most notably with the Irish, Greek, and Puerto Rican day parades, along with festivals like San Gennaro in Little Italy and Brazilian Day in Little Brazil in Midtown. Each year, these events are organized by leaders from these different communities, floats and marching groups assembled from schools and churches, t-shirts printed, flags waved, signs carried, and politicians assembled to meet and greet. And for each group, the underlying message to their event is pride in the intermingling of their ethnic culture and heritage with their pride in being in New York, in being Americans in America.

The “Salute to Israel” parade, on the other hand, is different: it is an inherently political event, an attempt to reinforce a connection between the American Jewish community and a nation several thousand miles away – and to remind us of the alleged importance of supporting this other nation. In fact, the parade’s own web site states this clearly: “The single largest gathering in the world in support of Israel...” Where every other of New York’s ethnic groups celebrates their presence in and additions to American culture, the Israel day parade does something else. It does not celebrate Israelis in New York and the lengths to which they will go to add to vibrancy of the city’s melting pot; nor does it pretend to toast the many contributions made by American Jews to the United States over our long, 350-year history here.

No, the focus of the Israel day parade is Israel: a foreign nation, well beyond our borders, and with a culture that is (for all of its similarities, for all that English is an acknowledged second language) wholly different from ours here in America. Synagogues, schools, and youth groups wear t-shirts expressing their support for Israel, while rabbis and community leaders glad-hand under the blue-and-white banners of Israel’s colors. Never mind that most Jews in America did not come to this country from Israel – we came principally from Europe, from as far west as Spain and as far east as Russia. We may trace notional, Biblical roots to the land of the nation-state we now call Israel, but most of our underlying ethnic and religious identity – from the Jewish food we eat to the manner and melodies of our prayers – are firmly rooted in Europe’s history, not Israel’s.

The continuation of the Israel day parade should make American Jews examine our assumed priorities about our own culture here in the United States. Much as the contemporary American Jewish experience has been too heavily shaped (if not simply overshadowed) by the history of the Holocaust, we should wonder why our community’s New York parade celebrates not ourselves and the many pleasures of being a Jew alive in America, but instead is focused on the other – an external community and a foreign nation. Our community spends a lot of time worrying about questions of “continuity,” of whether or how both Judaism and Jewish culture will survive another generation, producing critical articles, studies, and working papers intended to inform and improve the mechanisms used to connect younger Jews with their heritage and religious traditions – but few have the guts to address this “question” of Israel and the degree to which the aging, Baby Boomer generation (and their parents) have confused and conflated these issues of American Jewish identity, by forcing Israel upon us and seeking at the same time (thank you AIPAC) to place any true discussion about Israel’s actions off-limits.

I do not, have not, and will not participate in such a parade. I have no fear of identifying as an American Jew or as a Jewish American, but “American” – the word, and all that it implies – is critical to my understanding of myself. I do support Israel and its fundamental right to exist, even when I disagree with the nation’s politics and policies, and even as I believe that we Americans, who contribute so much to sustain Israel, out to be more vocal in our rejection of its racist and revanchist policies. But what am I not? I am not an Israeli, and I do not believe there is value in confusing or conflating my identity, or in sustaining a mythology that says that we American Jews are and must be one and the same with our Israeli Jewish co-religionists. (Moreover, we must make this distinction – about Jewish Israelis – since there are non-Jewish Israeli citizens, a group largely ignored by the American Jewish community’s devotion to the state of Israel.)

So, let’s have a parade, shall we? Let’s celebrate our life, history, heritage, and accomplishments as Jews in these United States, joining hands with the other immigrant communities with whom we share so much, not least an appreciation of the freedom and opportunity that America has given us. Let’s even invite Israelis living in New York to participate, as our co-religionists who are also enjoying the bountiful pleasures of life in this city. But let’s please stop kidding ourselves that the “Salute to Israel” parade is anything other than a purely political gesture that does not do justice to our history or identity as American Jews.


Speaking of studies of American Jews, the National Foundation for Jewish Culture and the UJA Federation of New York have recently published a new study, Cultural Events & Jewish Identities: Young Adult Jews in New York, authored by Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman. A review will be forthcoming here shortly.


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