The Israel lobby in the San Francisco Bay Area has once again attempted to censor discussion of Zionism and the Palestine issue – this time by apparently pushing Oakland city officials to force a public event featuring the controversial Gilad Atzmon out of a city-run arts center.
The Israeli-born Atzmon – a world-renowned saxophonist, an outspoken critic of the lobby and all forms of Zionism , and most recently author of a book on Jewish identity politics called The Wandering Who? – was scheduled to appear on Saturday, Feb. 25 in a program of poetry, music and conversation with Dennis Bernstein, host of the Flashpoints show on Berkeley-based KPFA radio. On Feb. 6 organizers of the event, a benefit for the March 30 Global March to Jerusalem, had reserved a hall at the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts (MCCA), a downtown Oakland facility operated by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. The next day the organizers sent a check for the rental fee and began advertising the location.
Two weeks later, on Feb. 21, the San Francisco branch of the Anti-Defamation League issued a statement condemning the event, accusing Atzmon of “demonizing Israel, Zionism and Jewish culture and identity.” While the the ADL claimed it did “not question Atzmon’s right to speak,” it challenged city officials to “react as forcefully” to his visit as they would “if a virulently racist speaker were coming to town.” (To longtime Bay Area activists, the ADL’s pose as an opponent of racism was particularly ironic because in 1993 the District of Attorney of San Francisco released 700 pages of documents implicating the organization in a vast spying and informing operation directed at critics not only of Israel but also of apartheid South Africa.)
Two days after the ADL statement, just 48 hours before the event was to take place, the city indeed reacted forcefully, if deviously: the arts center informed organizers that it had suddenly found a “problem” with their room reservation. Claiming that it lacked “the proper permit” – although events are routinely held at the center without a special permit – they insisted that the meeting be postponed. Effectively, postponement would have meant cancellation of the event, because Atzmon, on tour to promote his book, is in the Bay Area for only a few days, but management refused to budge.
Fortunately, this maneuver didn’t succeed in killing the event. The Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California, located just a couple of blocks from the original site, had a beautiful room available, and management there courageously agreed to rent it for the evening – even after being warned that doing so would surely spark controversy. Indeed, about 20 activists from StandWithUs and other hard-core Zionist groups showed up – first at the MCCA, then at the Islamic Cultural Center – to protest, and attendance at the event was less than expected, no doubt partly because of the last-minute change of venue.
Still, both organizers and 35 or so attendees were pleased to have circumvented the attempted censorship, and everyone appeared to enjoy the program, especially the music of Atzmon and his accompanist, Daniel Raymond, and poems Bernstein read from his recently published collection Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom.
Granted, Atzmon is truly controversial, not only among ardent Zionists but even within the Palestine-solidarity community. But as the American Civil Liberties Union puts it, “The First Amendment exists precisely to protect the most offensive and controversial speech from government suppression.” In this case, Oakland officials chose to disregard the Constitution and instead collaborate with the ADL’s outrageous attempt to block a speaker simply because they don’t like what he has to say.
Organizers of the event have issued a forceful statement on the incident, under the headline “SHAME on You MCCA Management – You Dishonor Malonga Casquelourd.” Some excerpts:
Malonga Casquelourd was a world famous Congolese dancer, drummer and teacher. After spending years in Europe and New York he came here to Oakland where he played an inspirational role in developing the Congolese Dance and Drum Workshop and Alice Center for the Arts.
Malonga fought for culture, peace, and equality. He championed the preservation and development of ethnic culture against city bureaucracy wanting to gentrify Oakland. Tragically, Malonga died at age 55 in a car crash in 2003. The former Alice Center for the Arts was renamed in his honor.
A great dishonor to Malonga’s name and spirit was done this week….
We do not know if it was through bribery or threats but one way or another, ADL and its supporters corrupted the integrity of Oakland Parks and Recreation, which manages the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts. The 1% has again demonstrated its influence and insidious power.
Shame on you, MCCA and Oakland Parks and Recreation management.
Want to comment or tell them what you think? Call Director of MCCA Darrin Hodges at 510.238.7526 or Oakland Parks Manager Karis Griffin at 510.597.5027.