A coalition of more than 40 New York City community groups held a press conference outside City Hall on Monday calling for the City Council to cancel a planned delegation to Israel. A diverse group of speakers addressed the city’s progressive politicians, asking how they could reconcile their opposition to racism and state violence at home with support for Israel’s policies against the Palestinians.
Around 50 people gathered in the near-freezing rain for the event, which was introduced by Brandon Davis of Jewish Voice for Peace. Davis denounced the “flagrant disregard for justice” displayed by the delegation, “in our streets” as well as in Palestine. A recurring theme of the remarks that followed was the link between the current movement to end racist policing in U.S. cities and the struggle against Israel’s apartheid in Palestine. Connections were mentioned between the New York Police Department and the Israeli security establishment, including the opening of an NYPD branch in the Sharon District police headquarters at Kfar Saba.
Organizations that have joined the campaign include the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, the Direct Action Front for Palestine, and Jews Against Islamophobia. The Council’s nine-day trip, scheduled to begin on February 15, is sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) and the United Jewish Appeal (UJA) Federation of New York.
City Council members participating in the delegation to Israel are Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Mark Treyger, Brad Lander, Antonio Reynoso, David Greenfield, Rafael Espinal, Darlene Mealy, Mark Levine, Helen Rosenthal, Corey Johnson, Ritchie Torres, Andrew Cohen, Donovan Richards, Eric Ulrich, and James Van Bramer. The trip would be Mark-Viverito’s second such junket, the speaker having made a JCRC-funded visit to Israel in 2012. “New York City and Israel share many cultural, business, and educational ties and this trip with members of the Council will help strengthen them,” Mark-Viverito told The New York Daily News. “We’re looking forward to a productive and informative trip.”
Speakers at the press conference wondered how informative such a visit could really be. Would the Council tour the West Bank separation barrier, asked criminal defense attorney Bina Ahmad, or Gaza’s ruined homes and schools? How could those who have taken a stance against domestic discrimination, she demanded to know, go on to contribute to normalizing systematic racism against an entire people — “gross hypocrisy,” in her words. Ahmad, who works with the Legal Aid Society in Staten Island and represented police chokehold victim Eric Garner, analogized Israel’s occupation of Palestine to the NYPD’s presence in communities of color.
Donna Nevel of Jews Against Islamophobia criticized Council members for publicly opposing anti-Muslim discrimination and then visiting Israel under the auspices of the JCRC, which fervently backed Police Comissioner Ray Kelly after the revelation of NYPD spying on Muslim communities. “It is clear that the JCRC has helped undermine the basic civil rights and liberties of our city’s Muslim residents,” according to a letter from the anti-Islamophobia coalition to the Council, “and we hope that you agree with us that it is a most inappropriate organization to lead such a trip.”
Other speakers emphasized the unprogressive nature of a trip that would entail crossing an international picket line. CUNY activist Conor Tomás Reed mentioned labor groups around the world that have heeded Palestinian civil society’s call for a boycott. An official visit to Israel, with its segregated workforce and wage discrimination along ethnoreligious lines, amounts to an anti-labor stand, he suggested.
Last to speak was David Galarza, a Puerto Rican activist who helped create the solidarity group Boricuas for Palestine during last summer’s assault on Gaza. Galarza warmed up the freezing crowd with a chant “to get the blood flowing” — Puerto Rico, Palestine, / occupation is a crime — before delivering a forceful challenge to Mark-Viverito, who before her speakership was a committed activist against the U.S. Navy’s bombing of Vieques: “What has changed?” Galarza likened the four boys killed on the beach in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge to the four girls who died in the bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Alabama; where, he wondered, was Charlie Hebdo-style solidarity in the case of the murdered Baker children? Photographs of the two bombings were held up as Galarza declared his identification with the eight victims, alternating Palestinian and African-American names.
The event concluded with Brandon Davis reading a statement from New York-based participants on a solidarity delegation in Palestine, organized by the national anti-racist organization Dream Defenders (full text at the end of this article). During the q-and-a, a man who identified himself as a freelance photojournalist asked Davis about Hamas’s killing of innocent Israelis, and Mahmoud Abbas’s declaration that no Jews will live in a future Palestinian state (not Abbas’s actual position). “Which is the real apartheid state?” the man demanded. After the event was over, he approached Galarza and declared that, as an experienced and well-sourced reporter who has worked in the Middle East, he knew the deaths of four boys on the beach in Gaza were staged.
The press conference began around noon and lasted until 12:30. As I left City Hall at 12:45, two dozen people were still standing and talking in the cold and the rain.
Statement from New York-based members of the Dream Defenders delegation:
For the last 10 days over a dozen artists, activists, educators, and organizers have been traveling across Palestine witnessing power, heartbreak, apartheid, occupation, state violence and grief. It is a binding grief, due to parallel experiences with state violence, that brought us to Palestine. It is also this binding grief that makes the New Yorkers on this historical delegation concerned about the nature, scope, and intent of some New York City Council member’s planned trip to Israel.
We stand in support of Palestine, in support of the international BDS movement, and against Zionist beliefs. We believe this City Council trip would be a dangerous symbolic gesture of normalizing Israeli’s apartheid state. We were able to witness this first hand at the check points in Ramallah, and in the settlements surrounding Bethlehem. It is not completely unfamiliar to us to live in a country where you can be profiled and denied humanity. We know Israeli training forces have a long mentoring relationship with NYPD, and if you stand with oppressed people and against police brutality here at home, you must stand with oppressed people and against state violence abroad.
Marc Lamont Hill