Israel’s beach in Central Park brings frenzy and protest

My following article is published today on the popular US website Mondoweiss:

The recent Salute to Israel parade in New York was symptomatic of a mainstream Jewish community desperate to appear normal, relaxed yet determined.

Sunday’s “Tel Aviv beach in Central Park” was another day in the life of Israeli propaganda, estimated to have cost $150,000. Ha’aretz reported the bare facts:

Hundreds of “bathers,” mainly families with children, played in sand brought especially from the beach in Tel Aviv, ice pops were provided by volunteers and people played the quintessential Israeli beach game of Pro Kadima paddle ball.

Al-Awda, the Palestinian right to return coalition in New York, announced the celebration of Tel Aviv’s 100th anniversary by publishing the following:

Central Park is being handed over to Israel for a day to set up a “Tel Aviv Beach.” The Zionist Tourism Commission says New Yorkers can “experience the fun and lightheartedness of Tel Aviv,” but in reality the event is a celebration of ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Telavivbeach The event itself was contradictory and fascinating (my photos here). I arrived 30 minutes before the official start and found a large patch of sand under a grey, blustery sky. El-Al beach balls (“It’s not just an airline. It’s Israel”) and Frisbees were freely available and kids made use of the toys on the faux beach. Parents and grandparents sat in colourful deck-chairs. Beautiful, bikini-clad, Israeli girls danced in the sand while buff, shirtless young men played paddle-ball. Bad, Israeli pop music blared from the massive, PA system. The bikini-girls soon left the sand, after posing for photos, and danced on the stage. “100 Shaloms from Tel Aviv on our 100th anniversary” read one stand.

A Jewish volunteer, Jonathan, who said he had lived in Tel Aviv as a lawyer for five years, told me that the day was “just a party and about fun, not politics.” When I asked him how Palestinians might feel being excluded, he bristled, said that anybody was allowed to visit and reiterated the importance of not discussing politics. He wasn’t at all comfortable with my line of questioning.

He told me to speak to David Saranga, Israel’s Consul for Media and Public Affairs, a key backer of the event. Saranga, in wrap-around sunglasses, stubble and grey and black clothing, calmly explained that, “Israel and Tel Aviv are a brand and we wanted to connect the city with fun and the beach.” Similar events have taken place in Vienna and Denmark. “It’s nothing to do with politics”, he said when I asked about the absence of Arabs. “We’re just celebrating fun.”

Unlike many Jewish events where the average age is over 60, a young crowd populated the day. They looked healthy, active and engaged. Exactly the kind of picture Zionist Israel wants to send to the world.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a man walk past with a fluorescent orange sign that read, “When do we Jews notice that Israel is insane?”

The counter-protest had begun.

Behind a cordoned-off area, nearly more than yelling distance from “Tel Aviv beach”, around 50 Jews and Palestinians gathered to oppose the celebration. “Tel Aviv built on Palestinian graves”, “Israel is a racist state”, “Ethnic cleansing is no day at the beach” and “Stop US Aid to Israel” were some signs in the area. It was a mixed crowd, young and old, and passionate. One of the organisers told passers-by, while trying to hand out flyers about the “real history of Jaffa and the Zionist theft of the land”, that, “sometimes the truth hurts; there’s nothing to be afraid of. Ethnic cleansing is what they did”. “Long live the intifada”, shouted the crowd in unison. “Terrorists” responded a passing bald man.

The organiser was born in Jaffa, so this was personal. He said that he felt the debate in the US was shifting and opening up but he had little faith in Barack Obama. “He’s no different to his predecessor, more imperialist, but just a prettier face”, he told me.

The protesters, a collection of peace activists, anti-Zionists and Palestinians, made their voices heard. Some Jewish participants in the day’s proceedings came to visit, took photos, gave them the two-finger salute and shouted abuse. They seemed to be saying, “We can’t even come and enjoy a bloody, fake beach without you people slamming our Jewish state. ” The Zionist narrative had few places to hide anymore without being challenged at every turn.

I wandered back to the sand to find two MCs on the stage, a good-looking man and woman, giving away free trips to Israel. They encouraged the already-excited crowd to jump higher and higher and faster and faster to impress them and win tickets. Frenzy in the name of Israel. NYPD counter-terrorism cops and Mossad agents surveyed the crowd.

Chaos near the sand! Bikini-clad women were standing near the beach and held up signs and parasols in pink. Code Pink had arrived. Smeared in mud, a few protesters had messages that read, “Israel: Sand won’t cover your crimes”, “Say no to Israel’s war crimes” and “Israel’s occupation is a crime”. They created a storm, cameras flashed and NYPD approached, asking them to move on and into the counter-protest area. They stalled, stood their ground and signs high.

Benjamin It was clever politics. Code Pink, a feminist organization, would not celebrate the concept of women as objects of gratification, but what if you subverted the idea? Co-founder Media Benjamin (photo right) told me about the “devastation” she had seen in Gaza and I admired her tenacity. She said that after her group’s recent delegation to the Strip, one of her members was physically abused in Israel. Freedom in the Middle East’s only democracy.

After being moved away from the beach, Benjamin was accosted by an elderly American, Jewish woman holding an Israeli and American flag. When asked about the Gaza war, the lady said, “what Gaza invasion?” She rattled off facts about the Qassam rockets fired from Gaza, which Benjamin pointedly condemned, and the necessity of destroying “terrorists.”

Soon after, a man suddenly appeared in the middle of the beach and unfurled a Palestinian flag, shouting, “Free, free Palestine.” “Another terrorist state”, screamed a man in front of me (photo below left).

I spotted Israel’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Dan Gillerman, walking the crowd with his wife. He told me that the beach event made him “proud.” I asked about his attitude towards Obama and he was clear. “I am worried”, he said. Obama is a “little naïve and needs to realise that the world is a dangerous place, such as North Korea, Iran and Pakistan. I wish he would get off the side-lines to support the forces of democracy in Iran.”

His neo-conservative views are nothing new – witness his recent berating of IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei – but the Likudniks are clearly not adapting well to the post-Bush era.

Flagatthebeach I picked up a tourist brochure to “discover Tel Aviv-Jaffa” and read the message from the mayor of the area, Ron Huldai. He writes that, “ancient Jaffa and its rich 3000 year history” is “coming alive like never before.” Furthermore, “Tel Aviv”¦rose out of the sands just a century ago.” The Arabs are air-brushed out of existence. Expressing such beliefs would be almost unimaginable in Western nations today. Ignoring the indigenous inhabitants is an almost impossibility. In Israel, most don’t seem to care.

Two flyers caught my eye. One, from The David Project for Jewish Leadership, offered “Israel for Dummies” classes to speak up for Israel. “Understanding the Arab/Israeli conflict”, “Critical single issues: Iran, global jihad, ”˜apartheid’ and “Advocacy 101.”

The other one advertised a “Summer Gala” from the Jewish heart for Africa. It aimed to bring “sustainable Israeli technologies to rural African villages.” The event “will feature an open bar, kosher African hors d’oeuvres, an African dance performance, and a special guest speaker.”

But here’s the kicker (repeated on the group’s website): “Come support our mission to help Israel and Africa at the same time.” “Improving Israel’s image around the world” is a stated goal. It’s far easier to assist the needy people in Africa than address the problems in your own backyard. And since when is humanitarian work principally designed to make the sponsoring nation look good?

This reminded me of the Jewish protesters for Darfur during the recent Durban II conference in Geneva. In fact, discussing Sudan’s problems was a wonderful way to avoid talking about Palestine and Israel’s own complicity in the problems.

The Tel Aviv beach day was enlightening. It actually didn’t feel like forced fun, but a genuine desire to promote a happy and carefree image of Israel. It was an inverted projection of fears not discussed. It was a masterful display of avoidance tactics.

Al-Jazeera and the web are taking their toll. Propaganda can take many forms and Sunday’s event was undoubtedly clever marketing. Why talk about the conflict with the Palestinians when you can discuss the wonders of beach culture?

The issue isn’t so much the white-washing of Tel Aviv’s birth, but the intense desire to keep Arabs away from any official recognition or role. As Benjamin Netanyahu recently said, Israel is a “nation state of the Jewish people.” That’s a much harder message to sell when 20 percent of the population aren’t Jewish. Instead, Israel is hoping that pretty girls in bikinis are universal.