A New Consensus on Public Space and 'Free' Speech on Israel/Palestine in New York City
A Queers Against Israeli Apartheid protest in Toronto. Photo by Loozrboy via Flickr.
New York City’s elected officials must be suffering from widespread whiplash after the last few weeks of statements, retractions, threats, denunciations and grandstanding on the subject of free speech and the discussion of the controversy over Israel and Palestine at public and community institutions. At lightning speed, the unstated policy consensus—which excluded some politically unpopular views from publicly supported venues—was forced out into the open, countered and reformulated.
This particular story begins and ends at New York City’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center on 13th Street. Two years ago, the Siege Busters Working Group, an activist group with many queer and Jewish members that supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and opposes the Israeli blockade in Gaza, found itself at the eye of a ferocious storm over the center’s space rental policy. After meeting there frequently for months with no objections, the organization scheduled a fundraiser during Israeli Apartheid Week that drew the attention and ire of pro-Israeli activists. Notorious self-described Muslim-basher (he once said “I hate Muslims”) and adult entertainment producer Michael Lucas led the charge, threatening to organize a donor boycott if the center did not bar Siege Busters from meeting there. The center caved to this demand, flip-flopped briefly to permit an allied organization, Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QAIA), to meet there and then caved again.
Letters, statements, protests, sit-ins, wide publicity and a town hall meeting held at the center in March 2011 ensued. At the meeting, the center proffered a series of morphing reasons for an indefinite moratorium on Israel/Palestine-themed events. After testing out the argument that the membership and goals of Siege Busters were not “gay” enough, then too “controversial”—an unusual disqualifier for an LGBT institution—the center administration settled on a policy of calling the center a “safe haven” protected from conflicts that might make some individuals or groups feel unwelcome. The center successfully waited out the turmoil and settled into business as usual with the moratorium in place, purportedly balanced to protect both Arab and Israeli “safety,” but in effect a ban on Palestinian solidarity organizing. Meanwhile, members of Siege Busters and Queers Against Israeli Apartheid members as well as supporters of a ban (prominently including Stuart Appelbaum, openly gay president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union) kept New York City’s elected officials in the loop. After all, the center is a community nonprofit institution with significant public financial support. According to its fiscal year 2010–11 tax form 990, almost $2.8 million of its $7.5 million receipts were from government grants.
The consensus that emerged among political campaign and nonprofit funders who lobbied on the issue, New York City politicians and the center’s board and staff around the moratorium was a quiet one—the threat of a donor strike, and the stress of managing a controversy raging within its walls, justified a ban on one particular set of controversial groups and topics. This consensus came back into public view—and into wider contestation—during the melee surrounding the Brooklyn College political science department’s co-sponsorship of a student-organized event featuring supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which opposes the Israeli occupation of Arab lands. In response to the planned event, New York state and city elected politicians signed two widely circulated letters, one calling on Brooklyn College to withdraw sponsorship of the event, and another threatening to withhold funding from the college if the sponsorship went forward.
Oh my, did they get a public spanking! After considerable uproar over government interference in campus affairs, and a strong defense of the decision to sponsor from Brooklyn College’s President Karen Gould, two signers of the letter that threatened financial retribution, Stephen Levin and Letitia James, withdrew their names, and the signers of the other letter sent a new one backing down from the demand to withdraw sponsorship. A New York Times editorial supporting academic freedom and a sharp rebuke from Mayor Bloomberg left the involved elected officials with egg on their faces, looking like craven pandering pols, as the event went off without a hitch.
As this battle raged, the organization Queers Against Israeli Apartheid requested space at the LGBT Center for a reading by prominent lesbian writer and CUNY distinguished professor Sarah Schulman from her new book, Israel/Palestine and the Queer International. In keeping with the moratorium, and oblivious to the shifting climate of opinion, the center denied the request without explanation. Savvy organizers from QAIA and their allies rapidly publicized the denial all over social media, activist and writer Tom Leger created an anti-censorship petition on Change.org, and a number of journalists, including Duncan Osborne at Gay City News, began to follow the story. Recently stung pols, notably including presumptive mayoral candidate, current City Council speaker and out lesbian Christine Quinn, got on the case with the center’s board and administration. Within minutes of each other on Friday, February 15, the center announced an end to the moratorium, and a group of New York City politicians with ties to the gay community, including Quinn, State Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, State Senator Brad Hoylman and City Council member Jimmy Van Bramer, issued a statement supporting the reversal.
It looks like a quick and decisive victory for the champions of free speech. But was it? Well, yes and no. The new consensus, evidently palatable to city politicians and the center’s major donors, now includes stated support for free speech and open discussion, sans demands and threats against public and community institutions that sponsor politically controversial events. But this openness comes with the ongoing requirement that public officials and community institutions ritually invoke their solid support for Israel’s policies and their disgust at critiques of those policies, critiques that are seen as always already underwriting anti-Semitic bigotry and hate speech.
When the groups and events being targeted by bans were perceived as marginal, no figure with any power in city politics spoke up in defense of their free speech rights. The bullies got a free pass to close down discussion. But the growing visibility of the BDS movement and increasing US public support for critiques of Israeli occupation and expanded settlement on Palestinian land, along with the participation of highly visible public figures such as Judith Butler and Schulman, has drawn these groups and events into the protected zone of speech that can—and even should—be defended. And again, that defense must be paired in public statements with either the direct denunciation of their point of view, or the clear implication that their point of view can be equated with bigotry and hate speech. These developments are hardly an indicator of principled support of open discussion. The crucial issue here, as the QAIA statement in response to the lifting of the moratorium points out, is who will decide what speech is hate speech. What is allowable disagreement and what views constitute “bigotry”? When powerful groups, lobbyists or elected officials can successfully label their critics as bigots and back their wishes up with material threats, this is highly curated “free speech,” doled out to those with clout and structured according to the exigencies of financial interests and political campaigns.
The pathways of money and power on nonprofit boards and in city politics are far from transparent. Secrecy and confidentiality shield political decision making from public consideration of the roots of this new consensus. Meanwhile, back on the ground at the LGBT Center, Queers Against Israeli Apartheid has applied again for space for Schulman’s reading. The policy announced with the lifting of the ban requires that groups pledge not to engage in bigotry and hate speech. That of course leaves the door open for another round of protests and complaints, alleging yet again that critiques of the Israeli occupation are anti-Semitic, and should be banned rather than heard. The door to free discussion may now be open, but, in the name of safety and protection of some—but not others—from offense, it can still be closed.
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