It had been at least 20 years since I was in New York for a Salute to Israel Parade.
But it was a happy coincidence.
I was scheduled to be in New York on Monday for a meeting of the board of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. I came into the city a day early with my wife and 20 year old daughter to enjoy the parade. My daughter marched with a delegation from the University of Maryland Hillel. My wife and I enjoyed being part of the crowd, hearing the Israeli music and watching the floats and delegations of students from synagogues and schools from all around the area.
After the parade we heard that there was going to be an Israel-themed concert in Central Park so we decided to attend. It was a shock to the system.
I was not troubled by the fact that the crowd was predominantly Orthodox. I was raised in an Orthodox day school and I do a lot of work with Orthodox institutions under the auspices of PANIM, the organization that I run in Washington D.C. committed to training young Jews for a lifetime of leadership, service and activism.
Then one speaker launched into a tirade about how every American president since Jimmy Carter had betrayed Israel by courting the favor of Arab nations. Applause. Another speaker announced that Hillary Clinton cared more about Palestinian national aspirations than about Israel’s survival. Applause. Candidate for Congress, Elizabeth Berney, slammed Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY), chairman of the House Sub-committee on the Middle East for his characterization of Israeli settlement activity in the territories as part of a “destructive dynamic” in the region. More applause.
Then a band launched into a rousing rendition of Am Yisrael Chai. I spent more than 25 years as an activist for Soviet Jewry. This was our theme song signaling solidarity both with the history of our people and with all those oppressed Jews in the world whose cause we championed. A group of young men in their 20’s with kippot and tziztzit were right in front of me dancing in a frenzy. But they alternated the verse that meant “the people of Israel lives” with “all the Arabs must die.” It rhymed with the Hebrew. Given the way all joined in, it was clear that this was not the first time it was sung.
I leaned over to a young man who was next to me, also wearing a kippah and tzitzit. I nodded at the dancers and asked: “Does this song bother you?” He looked at me with a suspicious look and replied: “This is Zionism.”
There were a dozen or so sponsors of the rally including the Zionist Organization of America, Americans for a Safe Israel and the National Council of Young Israel. Rally sponsors cannot control every statement of every speaker and they certainly can not control the actions of those in the audience. Yet the messages from the stage were all in ideological alignment and the MC was generously doling out yasher koachs after each presentation.
The joy of the earlier part of the day changed to outrage and then to deep sadness. I have devoted my entire life to Zionism, Israel and the Jewish people. I ran a Zionist think tank for academics in both Philadelphia and Washington D.C. I brought public officials to Israel as the executive director of the JCRC of Washington D.C. I led Solidarity Missions to Israel during Intifadah II under the auspices of UJC. All three of my children spent a gap year in Israel with Young Judaea Year Course. My organization trains thousands of young people to be proud of their Jewish identity and to be effective advocates for Israel in the public square.
But the Zionism that compels me includes the proposition that a Jewish state will honor the rights of all of its citizens and be true to the prophetic ideals of peace and justice that are elaborated on in the Torah. It does not include anti-Arab sentiments that Israel’s new foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, wants to enshrine in Israeli law. It does not include a political stance that is destined to put the government of Israel on a collision course with an Obama Administration that seems committed to bringing about a just settlement to the Middle East conflict that has made Arabs and Jews enemies for more than a century. And it certainly does not include a fervor that turns a Jewish solidarity song into an anthem of prejudice and hate.
Jewish leaders are quick to demand that Muslim clergy condemn the extremism that has hijacked Islam into a religion of terrorism and death. We need to make the same demands of the rabbis of institutions whose students make a chillul hashem (a desecration of God’s name) by singing “all the Arabs must die”.
Finally, Jews who love Israel and who want peace need to ask themselves how we can reclaim the public discourse about the future of the Jewish state. Islam is not the only religion that is in danger of being hijacked.
This article first appeared in the New York Jewish Week and it is reprinted here with the permission of the author.