N.Y. musicians’ union shuts down debate over Israel/Palestine

Israel/Palestine
on 12 Comments

Rich Siegel has been a member of Local 802, Associated Musicians of Greater New York, for 25 years, and lately resigned. Below, his explanation, followed by his letter of resignation to the president of the union as well as to the editor of the union paper, Allegro.

There has been an ongoing struggle and controversy about the publishing of letters on this issue at local 802 for awhile. It began with an article about a member bringing a music program to Palestinian children on the West Bank. The article was a human interest story which did not get into the politics at all. Even so, predictably, a Jewish member wrote in complaining about Anti-Semitism. I responded to that, as did Tom Suarez, and our letters were published.

This began a fire-storm of responses, a couple were published, and then the union decided to stop publishing letters on the subject, so no rebuttals, and nothing at all on the subject for several months. With a new administration in place at the union, I was able to get a letter published asking members to respect BDS. Another fire-storm.

Another member, cellist Aaron Minsky, organized a letter writing campaign, not to disagree with me, but to shut down all mention of Israel in our union paper. He succeeded. The union published one letter as a rebuttal to my letter, and is now refusing to publish any letters on the subject at all. Additionally no further articles relating to Palestine have been published after that one article two years ago. I don’t know whether this is a matter of policy or not.

It should be noted that this paper regularly features articles on political issues, regularly publishes letters to the editor on political issue, and endorses candidates. An entire issue was dedicated to the endorsement of Obama prior to the 2008 election.

To the Editor: 

I am writing to notify you of my decision to resign from local 802 effective immediately. As I have been a member since 1984 with one short interruption, as I have served on the hotel committee, and as for many years I was busy working on local 802 contracts, I think my contributions to the local warrant your publishing my statement about my reason for resigning. 

In the June issue Tino Gagliardi stated the following: “We have a very long and proud tradition of printing in Allegro almost every letter – if not every single letter – we receive.” He went on to state that he would not be publishing any more letters about the Israel/Palestine situation. Subsequently he has refused to publish a very relevant letter written by member Tom Suarez, which Tom has brought to my attention.

If an open forum in a union paper is referred to as a “proud tradition” then what possible reason could there be for limiting it in regard to one issue? Perhaps because up until now, union positions have been easy. Just stay to the left and you’re safe. Support civil rights, oppose wars from Vietnam to Iraq, oppose apartheid South Africa. But here is this nasty Israel/Palestine issue which has people who identify as “progressive” at odds with each other, and many of the people on one side are people from my background: Jews, the survivors of the holocaust, people whom you don’t want to offend because of past history.

The pro-Israel line is heard everywhere. I grew up deep inside it, as a former teenage Zionist youth group president, and remained with it as an adult, as former house pianist at the Plaza Hotel in Tiberias, Israel. But many of us have investigated the issue and are no longer satisfied with what we have identified as the propaganda-filled mythology we were raised with. This is particularly relevant today as our country gives Israel $15 million per day while our economy is in the toilet, and while Israel is urging us to attack Iran, after having encouraged us to invade Iraq.

By failing to allow discourse in Allegro about the controversy, local 802 is betraying the core purpose of a union: to protect the weak from the abuses of the powerful, and it has done this on three levels: 1) by failing to address a human rights emergency, 2) by failing to allow discussion about solidarity with foreign workers by not patronizing those who abuse them, and 3) by failing to protect the rights of our own colleagues to not be shouted down by aggressive members.

Instead of cutting off discourse on Israel/Palestine, local 802 should be discussing the possibility of participating in BDS (boycott,divestment,sanctions) as some unions have done, and should be discussing making a statement and taking a stand on this issue. Instead, you are caving in to members who want to shut down people like myself and Tom, and as such you will be their union, and not mine.

Rich Siegel

12 Responses

  1. Citizen
    September 28, 2010, 8:27 am

    This bears repeating:

    “The pro-Israel line is heard everywhere. I grew up deep inside it, as a former teenage Zionist youth group president, and remained with it as an adult, as former house pianist at the Plaza Hotel in Tiberias, Israel. But many of us have investigated the issue and are no longer satisfied with what we have identified as the propaganda-filled mythology we were raised with. This is particularly relevant today as our country gives Israel $15 million per day while our economy is in the toilet, and while Israel is urging us to attack Iran, after having encouraged us to invade Iraq.”

    And then, there’s our resident faux-liberal zionist who says instead that it is MW that is lop-sided–as if MW is Pravda and MSM is Samizdat.

  2. Avi
    September 28, 2010, 8:38 am

    Even so, predictably, a Jewish member wrote in complaining about Anti-Semitism.

    It’s anti-Semitic to humanize Palestinians because it impinges on Israel’s propaganda, the myth, that all Palestinians are subhuman animals.

    If the Palestinians are human like you and me, then Israel will have to make some serious concessions. Who wants that? No. It’s better that the Hasbara that which grips the United States remains in tact.

  3. Chu
    September 28, 2010, 9:17 am

    Rich, I remember you story about the bumper sticker incident.
    I only hope there are many more like you that are realizing what they have led themselves to believe is wrong and misguided.
    What will it take for others to walk out? I think it will take many more years until we start to see significant cracks in the ice regarding this issue.

    This paper is afraid to print these stories, as they are aware of the repercussions that ensue. AIPAC may be the political force in Washington, but there are other smaller local powers that can shut down debate like Aaron Minsky. Minsky’s aim is to stop the any mention of Israel – now that sounds a man who opposes open and democratic ideals. Does he have any power beyond his letter writing campaign, and could you not do the same to counter this type of person?

    • richpiano
      September 28, 2010, 9:26 pm

      Minsky is a member, with no special status that I know of. After I got a letter published about BDS I was made aware that he was circulating a request for members to write in and demand that discussion of Israel/Palestine not be allowed in the union paper. I suppose I could have organized a letter-writing campaign to go against him. However, in my experience musicians aren’t really very active politically, sorry to say. I suppose the Zionist members are which is why Minsky seems to have had some success. It occurred to me that the most effective thing I could do would be to quit, and do it as publicly as possible, so that’s what I did.

      • Chu
        September 29, 2010, 9:16 am

        rich, I see your point. why do you need to organize a letter writing campaign against someone who is likely more motivated? But, most musicians are peaceful and desire harmony in life, and I believe they would side with you if it came down to it. But do you really want this battle to escalate to the next tier? It’s a big task. As always, thanks for the news. Wish you well.

  4. potsherd
    September 28, 2010, 9:43 am

    I’d like to know if they print this.

  5. Les
    September 28, 2010, 9:49 am

    It was also a problem for union members who wanted their local to speak out against the Vietnam War. Then, as now, those in charge said it wasn’t relevant to union business.The only solution is to keep plugging away and continue to make your own opinions known to other union members. Further discussion will win others over and it will help you to improve your arguments. Silence is no answer. It is, in fact, a sure sign of defeat.

  6. Sumud
    September 28, 2010, 12:46 pm

    That resignation letter was absolutely pitch-perfect.

  7. Keith
    September 28, 2010, 8:19 pm

    Rich Siegel represents how unions ought to be. Local 802 represents how unions actually are. Some local unions are decent, many are not. The internationals are generally bad. The AFL-CIO is a travesty, with a long history of working hand in glove with the State Department and CIA to
    undercut progressive Third World unions and to destabilize targeted Third World governments. Also, the AFL-CIO is staunchly pro-Israel, and many union pension funds have unwisely invested in Israel bonds. How different might things be if the US had a strong independent union movement worthy of the name?

  8. richpiano
    September 28, 2010, 9:27 pm

    Thanks everybody for reading and for the great comments! -Rich Siegel

    • Citizen
      September 28, 2010, 11:45 pm

      Thank you, Rich, for sharing–we appreciate it and you.

  9. eljay
    September 29, 2010, 6:54 am

    Great post, Mr. Siegel. I admire your true humanism.

    It’s unfortunate that RW will undoubtedly show up at some point and soil this thread with a spew of self-important but fraudulent blather.

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