Soft Power in Central Park
It’s called the “Celebrate Israel Run,” so perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised to receive an Israeli flag, Israeli temp tattoo, and a Star of David T-shirt for running the four-mile race last Sunday in Central Park.
It was a not-so-subtle show of soft power organized by New York Road Runners and sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council, part of the Washington-based advocacy and lobbying group Jewish Council for Foreign Affairs. After the race, Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Cuomo showed up to march in the annual “Celebrate Israel Parade” down Fifth Avenue, formerly known as the “Salute to Israel Parade.” Even the Mets got into revelry with a “Celebrate Israel Night” at Citi Field. (Things get a bit awkward when you wonder at the symbolism of the Mets losing to the Phillies, whom I suppose had Allah on their side, or something.)
“More than just a parade, this day is a celebration of the special relationship between Israel and America that is rooted in common values and goals,” Israel’s Minister of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Yuli Edelstein said in a press release. “Like America, Israel is a strong, vibrant democracy, a symbol of freedom, tolerance and understanding.”
Clearly I was running in more than just a race, regardless of whether one sees Israel as a symbol of freedom and tolerance (which is certainly disputable given the country’s record on women’s and minority rights). This was a political event. Which got me wondering why Cuomo and Bloomberg weren’t marching in a “Celebrate Palestine Run.” Simple answer: such would be unimaginable because of the electorate’s opposition and the political ramifications. Remember the uproar last year when Barack Obama merely suggested that Middle East peace talks use Israel’s 1967 borders as a starting point? And in a city where 10% of the electorate is Jewish, saluting Israel is an imperative. It’d be suicidal for a politician to salute Palestine.
Still, not wanting to assume too much, I called up Bloomberg spokesperson Amanda Konstam to ask if her boss would consider marching in a “Celebrate Palestine Parade.” She asked me if any such event was planned. I said I wasn’t aware. She said she couldn’t comment on a hypothetical, and then said our entire conversation was off the record. I said I’d never turned off the record. She said she’d never agreed to go on the record. Then we hung up.
I honestly wasn’t trying to be antagonistic.
In an e-mail follow-up, I asked if the mayor’s office had ever received a request for a “Celebrate Palestine Parade” and if Bloomberg might participate in such an event. Konstam responded: “The Mayor participates in numerous parades throughout the year that celebrate the incredible cultural diversity of the city. Applications are reviewed against specific, content-neutral criteria that are established by law. Applications are granted if they meet these criteria.”
The entire situation is a microcosm of what Barack Obama and Mitt Romney must deal with during their 2012 race to the West Wing. To glean the Jewish-American (and to a good extent, Christian) vote the candidates must make overt salutes to Israel. During the 2008 election, Obama supporter and comedian Sarah Silverman launched “The Great Schlep” to gin up Jewish support in Florida. Last fall Obama got an early start on courting the vote with the hire of his first-ever Jewish outreach director following Democrats’ loss of New York’s ninth district due to his perceived declining popularity among Jews. This year, Romney is boasting of his long friendship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying they “almost speak in shorthand.”
Why all the fuss?
Even though the country’s 6.5 million Jewish-American population (nearly one-third of whom live in New York City) and 1.2 million Arab-American population (only 240,00 of whom are Palestinian) are both somewhat insignificant, the Jewish swing vote in Florida and the strong Israeli lobby sucks all candidates in their direction. Just as it sucked me into an oddly nationalistic race last Sunday. I mean, I don’t even take off my hat when the Star Spangled Banner is played at baseball games. And here I am running for Israel?
I didn’t have to, of course. I’m not running for political office, so I wasn’t under the political gun to stride down Fifth Avenue with Bloomberg and Cuomo wearing Israeli sashes and waving mini flags. But I was surprised at how easily I was sucked into the charade and inherent double-standard of New York’s leaders throwing their weight behind Israel when it’s obvious that such support would never be shown for Palestine.
Instead, how about a “Israeli-Palestinian Friendship Run” or a “Run for Peace in the Middle East”? I’d wear that temporary tattoo, and I’d march with that politician.