My Experience at the Salute to Israel Parade and Counter-Demonstration

Periodically, Turning the Tide prints first-person accounts of the way the contradictions of racism and privilege, identification with and opposition to the empire, and conflicting “racial” identifications play out in people’s real life experiences. We are printing in this issue such an account of the emotional and political impact on a pro-Palestinian Jew of confronting New York’s “Salute to Israel” parade. –Editor.


My Experience at the Salute to Israel Parade and Counter-Demonstration

by Junkyard ( )

On June 1, 2003 I went to New York City with a friend and fellow activist to participate in the Palestine Activist Forum of New York’s protest against the annual “Salute to Israel” parade.  It was an extremely emotional day for me, and I walked away with very mixed feelings about the events.  I’m definitely glad I went; as a Jew I feel like belonged there, representing what I feel is right.  At the same time, however, so much of what I saw, from all sides, really upset me.

Let me first start by saying that just being there, and being on the pro-Palestinian side of the barricades was hard enough.  I definitely know where my politics are, and I know where I stand on the issue of Palestine – that wasn’t the problem.  It wasn’t just that I might have been on the other side.

I grew up in a fairly observant Jewish family, and we had always actually marched in the parade when I was younger.  I haven’t been that observant over the past several years, but I still identify as being Jewish, and definitely believe in some form of spirituality and the idea of some sort of “higher power” (as un-anarchist as that may be of me).

Watching all of these people march with their Israeli flags, mixing their Zionism with their Judaism was very hard for me.  I’ve become able to separate those two things, and seeing people doing what I used to do was really upsetting.  It was upsetting to me for several reasons – primarily because I know I used to act like that, and I can’t believe I was ever so naive.  Also, I remember how hard it was for me to change and see the truth. I felt like the people in the parade were not interested in even attempting to see the issues in any other way.

My own position on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict has changed dramatically over the years, so I know it must be possible for others, too.  As a teenager, I can remember sitting with my grandfather and arguing with him about the Oslo Accords.  I remember telling him that the agreement would never work because the Palestinians were bent on the destruction of Israel, and of the entire Jewish population living within those geographic boundaries.  I remember spouting all of the ultra-Zionist propaganda I was taught in Hebrew school  that there is no such thing as a “Palestinian,” that Israel needs to act the way it does, and have the borders it does, to protect itself against its Arab neighbors.

One thing that really bothered me were the thousands of children marching in the parade.  I know first-hand what they are taught by their parents and Hebrew school teachers, and I know the propaganda that is drilled into their heads, day in and day out.  I know how intertwined Judaism and Zionism become in their heads because of what and how they are taught: the two become almost inseparable.  I know what kind of lies they are told.  The ideas that are taught become so ingrained.

I remember just a few years ago, even when I knew what the “right” viewpoint on Israel and Palestine was – when I knew what group of people I would support if this was happening anywhere else in the world – I still argued with my friends.  It is such an emotional issue, even now, and I guess I just didn’t expect to have that kind of reaction.  My friend – who is also Jewish – was definitely right when he saw my reaction and remarked, “First time on this side of the barricades, huh?”

One thing that definitely made me feel better was talking to someone I know from Jews Against the Occupation (JATO).   This is someone who was born in Israel, whose father is a rabbi, and who is still a very observant person.  She is also someone who has been doing Palestinian solidarity work for several years now.   She remarked on how disturbing it was to see all of these religious symbols that she grew up with and was taught to treasure, mixed with all of this blind nationalism and patriotism.  She was explaining to me how upsetting it was to see all of these religious symbols twisted and used for purely political purposes, used to represent a government that is murdering people on a daily basis.  She also told me that we need to remember that we have a very beautiful and diverse community, and that we are fighting for what is right.  Being able to hear someone else articulate a lot of what I was feeling, especially someone who is Jewish and who has been doing this work for a long time, was definitely cathartic.

If it had been purely an emotional and personal response to being at the PAFNY demonstration, I wouldn’t have walked away with so many negative feelings.  I definitely would have walked away with a new perspective, but wouldn’t have been as upset as I was.  But what I saw not just from the parade participants and spectators, but from “my” side of the barricades as well really disturbed me.

I guess I’ll start with the PAFNY demonstration.  First off, like I said, the parade is made up mostly of children.  Probably, just like when I was in Hebrew school, the teachers encouraged them to go.  Many synagogues that participate do the same thing.  In most instances, not many adults attend, other than the few that go as chaperones.  As the children passed us, some people were yelling “Murderer” and “Terrorist” at them.  We’re talking about kids in elementary school – do people really think that’s appropriate?  Do people really think that’s going to make the children think that we’re right?

I consider myself to be a militant activist, and I believe in confrontation.  I’ve been in my fair share of “Black Blocs” at a variety of demonstrations  from anti-globalization, to anti-war, to anti-fascist.  I’ve verbally, and sometimes physically, confronted fascists of all stripes.  However, I also believe that there is a time and place for militancy and confrontational tactics.  I don’t feel like the “Salute to Israel” Parade was such a place, especially when it came to the children who were present.  I’ll be honest – there were plenty of adults in the parade that I would have loved to have been confrontational with, believe me.  But the children?  We should be trying to win them over, making them see right from wrong, not further alienating them.  That was very upsetting for me, especially because, as I said, I know what those kids are taught – and I know what they were thinking when they passed by us.

The one good thing is that some people started a chant “Your parents are lying; Our children are dying,” which a group of us consistently chanted, usually over the very offensive chants of other people that were with us.  This definitely had an impact, as many of the children looked at us and paid attention, many of them with puzzled looks on their faces.  Several of us were also holding up peace signs (this is definitely one of the few places where you’d ever see me do that), which some of the children returned.  This made me feel really good, and made things much better.  This was definitely an improvement over the tense and insulting atmosphere that some of the other participants were creating.

Another very upsetting thing I saw from the PAFNY-side of the barricades were several groups of people who decided to “sieg heil” at the march.  Do those people really think they are helping the Palestinian cause and the Palestinian people by being so offensive?  I do understand that there is a parallel between Israel and fascism, but to so bluntly equate Israel with Hitler and Nazi Germany is nothing but offensive.  What’s worse, most people in the march were going to interpret the gestures as a show of support for the “final solution.”  They would not have seen it as an attempt to make the aforementioned point, and thus would have just viewed it as utterly offensive and reprehensible.  Honestly, as someone who is Jewish and a dedicated anti-fascist, this is how I would interpret it as well, even though I can see parallels in terms of the fascist behavior of Israel, and the fascist behavior of Germany in the 1930’s and 1940’s.

When I tried speaking to some of these people and explaining these points, they told me that they viewed Israel just like Nazi Germany, and were specifically trying to be offensive.  They also told me that it wasn’t my business what they chose to do with their “free speech.”  When I tried expressing my opinion as someone who was Jewish, they disregarded what I had to say, and told me to talk to their Jewish friend who was standing with them.  I walked away, very upset and angry.

One of the protest marshals asked me what was wrong, and I explained to her what happened.  I found out later that a bunch of the marshals for the demo, mostly JATO people, talked to them and the other people who were doing it.  Most people listened, but they didn’t seem to really get why we were all upset.  How is that possible?

One of the other major things that bothered me was a group of people who decided that using Hamas slogans would be an appropriate way to demonstrate their views on Israel.  They had signs that said, “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be Free,” and were also chanting it all day.  While the words themselves may not seem offensive at first glance, they are once you understand what they mean.  This is a slogan that is used to convey support for a “Jewish-free” Palestine.  Its meaning is that Hamas supports expelling all Jews living anywhere from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea  by any means necessary.  It has been used in the past by Palestinian groups with similar politics to advocate murdering all of the Jewish population in that area, by literally pushing them all into the Mediterranean.

I know people are entitled to their own political opinions, but I really just don’t understand how being that extreme is any help to resolving the issues in the Middle East.  I also don’t understand how supporting the Hamas position will ever contribute to reaching a peaceful solution.  I guess I should just understand that some people have a different solution to the Palestine/Israel issue.  Actually, I do know that – I just have a hard time understanding why people would take such a hard-line position.  Why call for the destruction of one people in favor of another?  Does that really make any sense?  I felt like this counter-demonstration should have been about educating people and getting our message out, not being violent or confrontational with the parade participants.  Again, I guess I just have a different opinion on how things should be done.

There were some other things that were bothersome, like some guy chanting as the parade passed by, “Long Island is your home; Leave Palestine alone.”  I know this isn’t as offensive as some of the other things that went on, but it was still offensive, still very stereotypical.  It does nothing to solve any issues, just makes people angry and further polarizes people.

On the other side, we can start with the Jewish extremist groups, who were just ridiculous.  Signs like “Anti-Zionism = Anti-Americanism” (what the hell does that mean anyway?), “Swastika = Muslim,” and “Palestinians danced on 9-11.”  But this was all to be expected – I’ve had run-ins with those Jewish Defense League/Jewish Defense Organization (JDL/JDO) types before, and they are just crazy.

What was most upsetting were the parade participants.  From flipping us off, and being outright confrontational (some tried to come over to the barricades and start fights), to one of the school chaperones grabbing his crotch (in front of his kids, no less), it was just crazy.  One woman even came over and tried to spit on us.  The participants were especially confrontational to those people they could easily identify as Jewish.  They would point and scream at them, calling us “traitors”, and fun stuff like that.

Something else that was equally disturbing, and something that I just can’t understand, was the presence of two visibly Native American men marching in the “Salute to Israel” parade.  It just made no sense, and when we were talking about the history of their people and how similar it is to the Palestinian experience of dispossession and subjugation, they became enraged at us.  One of them came over to the barricades and started screaming at us, challenging us to a fight.

Some of the floats and participants themselves were upsetting.  There was a group wearing IDF camo, screaming about how they support the Israeli army.  There were people handing out fliers asking for money for bulletproof vests for Israeli soldiers. There was a float of an IDF soldier.  There was even a float that dared feature a bulldozer on it!

All this was equally as disturbing as anything that upset me in the PAFNY contingent, and because I wasn’t with the Zionist contingent at all, I saw much less of what they were doing.  As a Jew, seeing people that I can identify with (and even some people that I knew) acting like that, well, I don’t even know how to describe my feelings.

One major thing that made the day worthwhile for me, and made me feel a lot better about being there, was standing with a group of JATO members and supporters chanting “Occupation has got to go.  We are Jews and We Say NO!”  This seemed to both confuse and infuriate the marchers and spectators.  It even made the JDO/JDL types speechless for a long time after we started this chant.  It was really good to stand with (mostly) like-minded people and express our opinions.

While I did have a really hard time dealing with things I saw at the parade and counter-demonstration, I am glad that I went.  It was good to have this experience, and to be able to reflect on it and figure out how I can continue to do Palestinian solidarity work in an effective way.

Like probably many of the Jews in the “Sakute to Israel” Parade, I once thought the answer to the Palestinian “question” was for the Arab countries surrounding Israel to open their borders and let the Palestinians in.  I had no historical knowledge about the physical land of Israel anytime before the beginning of the Zionist movement, and no knowledge about who the Palestinians really were.  But still, I was vehemently opposed to any type of peace process that would eliminate any part of Israel. It was “our” land, God promised it to us, and we must do everything to keep it, no matter the consequences for others. But even as someone who bought all that propaganda, I was able to change.

It was when I was in college, and becoming involved in other politics, that I began to seriously question my opinion.  I had long since stopped being so “in your face” about my personal opinion on Israel, but I still held the same types of opinions I had when I was a few years younger.  It took me learning about similar conflicts in other places around the world, and reading more about Israel and what was actually going on, to begin to see the parallels with other struggles. Then I began to realize that I was wrong.

A big part of my shift in viewpoint had to do with my participation in other social justice movements.  Realizing that what the Palestinian people were fighting for was legitimate.  Seeing that it was a group of people fighting for their freedom and right of self-determination, and for the right to live on the land they had been living on for thousands of years in peace.  Seeing that what the Israeli government was doing was way too similar to what the Jewish people have faced over thousands of years, and  not understanding how a people who have faced such oppression could be treating another group of people that way.

I saw the hypocrisy in all this, and through lots of reading, lots of talking and arguing with people, and soul-searching, I began to slowly change my views.  It took a long time – I would argue with friends of mine about why I was right about Israel, even when I knew I was wrong, and that I was being a hypocrite.  It was just so ingrained, I couldn’t help it.  One of the other things I was able to realize was that Judaism and Zionism are not the same thing.  I learned this through learning about the historical movement of Zionism, and learning alternative views on this history.

I also realized that some of the main tenets of Judaism are about social justice, about working for a better world – “tikkun olam,” as its known in Hebrew, healing the world.  And I knew from everything else I was doing, that Israel and Palestine have one of the major conflicts in the world that need “healing.”  I realized as a Jew that it was really important for me to make my voice heard on this issue. It became important to me to distinguish my voice from among the more extremist viewpoints that are normally heard from “my people,” and to let the world know that not all Jews feel the same way.

For people that are reading this to find ways to “convert” or change other people wedded to Zionism, I would say that the most important parts are getting people to realize the fallacy of identifying Zionism and Judaism.  Get them to read their history, get them to see why the ruling class has made the issues seem like one, and most importantly, get people to realize the hypocrisy of oppressing the Palestinian people the way we as Jews have always been oppressed.  That was and is a very big issue for me – how can we be doing the same thing that was done to us for so many years?  Have we not learned?  Do we not see that in our haste to have our own homeland to be away from such oppression, that we are just recreating it for another group of people?

I found this quote in the New York Times while reading the corporate media coverage of the parade and the counter-demo:   “‘It’s difficult seeing all the kids,’ said Lisa Adler, 24, a teacher in the Bronx who was in the demonstrators’ pen. ‘I don’t want to yell at them. I want to talk to them.'”   I totally agree with this sentiment, and might even expand it to include other people who are open-minded and willing to have a conversation.  In fact, I think one of the best ways I can continue to do this type of organizing is by helping to put on educational events, and maybe even a dialogue-type event between the Jewish and Palestinian communities.

I know there are many people who consider dialogue to be a waste of time, but I really think it is important.  While there are people who probably would get nothing out of such an event, there are many other people who could learn a lot.  The two communities are very polarized, and it doesn’t really need to be that way.  From talking to people on both sides of the issue, there are many cases where people are much closer in opinion then they realize.  I really do feel that it would be very fruitful for people to sit down and have a discussion, to realize that those people seeking a peaceful solution on both sides have similar goals and opinions on how to get there.  Having people sit down and talk, learning about each other, their fears and their wants seems to me to be a very good way of beginning to get people to understand each other, and to hopefully end the rhetoric and fighting.  While actually getting people to sit down and talk may be difficult, it seems that the result would be worth the effort.  I think this is something that I would be able to contribute to, and something I would be willing to put energy into because of the potential results.


Junkyard is the pseudonym of a member of New Jersey Anti-Racist Action. He is working on starting a New Jersey chapter of Jews Against the Occupation.

Reprinted from Turning the Tide: Journal of Anti-Racist Action, Research & Education,  available from Anti-Racist Action L.A., PO Box 1055, Culver City CA 90232

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