On March 5th, following its bi-weekly leafleting protest in front of the Google offices in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, ten supporters of New Yorkers Against the Cornell-Technion Partnership (NYACT) accompanied me to the nearby Fulton Auditorium, where Manhattan Community Board 4’s (CB4) monthly general meeting was being held.
During the meeting’s Public Session, when members of the public are permitted to stand up and address the Board and audience for an allotted two minutes, I approached the front of the room along with three NYACT supporters who held signs critical of Mayor de Blasio’s recent expression of fealty to Israel and AIPAC. When my turn arrived, I began reading from a prepared speech about Google’s gratis assistance to the Cornell-Technion Partnership, but was peremptorily cut off after only one minute by CB4 Chair Christine Berthet and Public Session Chair Hugh Weinberg. (Prior and subsequent presenters, on different topics, were allowed to speak for at least two minutes.)
Fortunately, I did manage to convey several crucial points about the Cornell-Technion Partnership, including its New York taxpayer funding; the grant of prime real estate it received from New York City and the ensuing destruction of a public hospital its construction is necessitating; the free classroom space it has been given by Google until 2017; the behind-closed-doors decision-making which enabled the Cornell-Technion Partnership’s very formation while obscuring the Technion’s deep implications in war crimes and other crimes against the Palestinian people and neighboring Arab countries; and the Partnership’s violation of Cornell’s own bylaws and motto. NYACT supporter Carol Yost followed with a short extemporaneous presentation covering some of the points disallowed by my discriminatory cut-off.
Shockingly, following these presentations, which received a modicum of applause from the audience, Community Board 4 Member Brett Firfer, who is visibly Jewish, approached the microphone holding a large camera. “This is the face of anti-Semitism,” he said, referring to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS), with which NYACT is affiliated. He referred to NYACT as “the enemy,” and, in the context of remarking what one does to one’s “enemies,” proceeded to snap a group photograph of all ten of us seated in the second and third rows of the auditorium. As Firfer spoke, one audience member shouted, “Shame! Shame!” and “You’re the antisemite!” but was quickly silenced by Berthet and Weinberg.
While Berthet and Weinberg were wrong to deny me my right to speak for a full two minutes before CB4, Firfer’s explicitly offensive behavior was downright reprehensible, inexcusable, and unbecoming of a New York City government official. New York City residents who wish to exercise their democratic right to address their local government in a peaceful and orderly manner should neither be intimidated nor subjected to unreasonable invectives, not least at a public gathering at which critical challenges to the status quo are purportedly the norm. NYACT’s experience at CB4 suggests, however, that ideological and political limits to such challenges–in this case as enforced by a government official hurling racist slurs–are firmly entrenched when directed at Israel and Zionism and in support of Palestinian rights.
NYACT will continue to protest the Cornell-Technion Partnership until it has been dissolved, or until a genuine and lasting peace is reached in Palestine/Israel, when the Partnership may no longer be implicated in illegal acts.