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

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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

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