Protest Against Gaza Plan Falls Short of Expectations

By Nathaniel Popper

Published June 10, 2005, issue of June 10, 2005.
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The first American effort to mount a mass protest against the Gaza disengagement plan fell short of expectations on Sunday.

Organizers had hoped that 35,000 people would show up for a concert in New York’s Central Park, mounted to protest Prime Minister Sharon’s disengagement plan. The plan will evacuate Israeli troops and civilian settlements from Gaza and the northern West Bank beginning in August, effectively forcing some 8,000 Jewish settlers to relocate from their homes.

Final estimates put the concert crowd at 10,000 people, spread in scattered clusters over a parched field in northern Central Park. The concert was organized by the National Council of Young Israel, an Orthodox congregational group, and several pro-settler organizations.

“It’s not as many as I expected,” said the main organizer, Joseph Frager, a physician and longtime pro-settler activist. “I think a lot of people are back under the trees, trying to escape this heat.”

The concert followed New York’s annual Salute to Israel Parade, which moves up Fifth Avenue alongside Central Park and traditionally draws tens of thousands of marchers and onlookers.

The post-parade concert in the park is an annual show of solidarity with West Bank and Gaza settlers. The first, mounted in 1994 following the Oslo agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, drew some 20,000. This year’s, on the eve of the Gaza withdrawal, was expected to break previous records.

In the past, Ariel Sharon has been a guest of honor, but the pullout plan has reversed his traditional support for the settlers, and this year he was the target of many speakers. Dov Hikind, a New York state assemblyman — and the only American politician on hand — said, “Ariel Sharon got out of bed on the wrong side one morning.”

Immediately after the protest, Hikind led a solidarity mission to Gush Katif, the major settlement block in Gaza. Among the 145 participants in Hikind’s mission were eight Baptist ministers from the Midwest.

Several observers speculated that the poor turnout for the pro-settler protest concert might have been related in part to the marked visibility of pro-settler sentiment at the parade itself, which has undergone a transformation in recent years from a community-wide show of solidarity into an event dominated by Orthodox yeshiva students.

A city fixture since the 1960s, the parade once drew as many as 250,000 participants from a broad spectrum of Jewish and Zionist groups and rivaled the St. Patrick’s Day and Columbus Day parades as symbols of ethnic pride. In recent decades, however, the parade has drawn its marchers mainly from Jewish day school students enlisted for the day, frequently as a school requirement. Onlookers appeared to consist largely of marchers’ parents and numbered in the low tens of thousands, though organizers continued to claim far higher figures.

Although parade organizers, including New York UJA-Federation, have worked hard in recent years to keep political and denominational divisions out of the parade, this year saw several entire contingents of Orthodox day-school children marching in identical orange or orange-tinged T-shirts, the color adopted by Gaza settlers to show opposition to Sharon’s disengagement plan. Many marchers also carried orange pom-poms handed out by the Zionist Organization of America and other anti-disengagement groups.

So widespread were orange shirts, caps and pom-poms along the parade route that the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, describing the day’s overall mood, said that a “casual observer might have thought Israel’s national colors were blue, white — and orange.”

At the concert, several speakers, apparently referring to the poor turnout, complained of the difficulty of mobilizing Americans at large against the Gaza pullout.

“Americans don’t understand the Gaza plan,” said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America. “The major Jewish organizations supported this as soon as Sharon announced it. It’s difficult to work against that.”

Polls in Israel show declining support for the pullout. A poll last week by the daily Ma’ariv found that only 50% of Israelis now support the pullout, with 38% opposed. Support was down from 66% just weeks ago.

The Central Park event was the first effort to create a mass anti-disengagement movement in the United States, and the event took many of its cues from recent Israeli protests. While the sultry heat drove families to the shaded areas at the edge of the meadow, the crowd near the stage was dominated by students reminiscent of the so-called “hilltop youth,” young West Bank settlers who blend Orthodox culture with the protest counterculture of the 1960s — yarmulkes mixed with tie-dye.

One group of 17-year-old girls seemed to be reveling in the beating sun. “We’re willing to sacrifice our hotness for the good of our country,” said Esther Adler, who was with four friends from Yeshiva University’s high school.

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