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.