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New York coalition tries, and struggles, to politicize free Israel trip for legislators

Activism
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Every few years, New York politicians jet off to Israel on the dime of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) to tour the region–including West Bank settlements–and bolster New York-Israel ties. The trips garner attention in the local press, but there is usually no visible opposition.

On February 15, a group of New York City Council members, including members of the Progressive Caucus, will go on what has become a ritual trip. But what has changed this year is that activists are trying to make the free tour of Israel an issue.

A vocal coalition has arisen to call on New York City Council members to spurn the free trip organized by the JCRC, an influential communal organization with close ties to government officials.

64 groups ranging from Jewish Voice for Peace to Al-Awda NY to the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence have held press conferences on the steps of City Hall and sent letters to legislators to denounce the trip in an effort to generate public pressure.

The activists say it is unseemly to tour Israel following the summer attack on the Gaza Strip, and have pointed out the history of partnership between the New York Police Department (NYPD) and Israeli security forces at a time of national ferment against police brutality, protest sparked in part by the death of Eric Garner, who was choked to death by a New York cop. A separate letter from the Jews Against Islamophobia Coalition urges City Council members to stay away from the trip because of the JCRC’s endorsement of anti-Muslim practices, like the NYPD’s surveillance of Muslim communities.

The campaign is trying to politicize support for Israel–a heavy lift in New York (and the U.S.), but one that is gaining traction, particularly among Democrats and young people. 

“We think that it is inappropriate for people elected in New York City to act–for whatever level of government–to act as if part of their job is to defend Israel, when in fact there are many points of view in New York City on the Israeli occupation,” said Leslie Cagan, a member of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, which is part of the coalition. 

None of the five City Council members I contacted for an interview agreed to one. The members going on the trip are: 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 coalition of groups has, at the very least, shone a light on the trip.

But it is unlikely they will have much of an impact on the City Council members who plan to go on the trip–including the progressive members that are a particular target of the demonstrators. Some activists involved in the campaign have met with a small number of City Council members to talk about the trip. But no legislator has heeded the call to not go.

The City Council members who accepted the trip likely see no upside in being the first politician to spurn a trip to Israel. The movers and shakers in New York are fulsomely pro-Israel, a stance reinforced by an equally pro-Israel press. Donations from pro-Israel donors to local campaigns are also commonplace.

And some coalition members say that an action held on January 22nd did not help in furthering their goals. Outside City Hall that day, demonstrators held forth on why legislators should not go on the trip. Inside, protesters from the Direct Action Front for Palestine disrupted legislative proceedings. Demonstrators shouted “Palestinian lives matter, ”dropped a banner and yelled at the legislators for going on the trip. The disruption came as the City Council was voting to commemorate the liberation of Nazi concentration camps, though the protesters say they had no idea that was happening at the moment. Watch a video of the disruption here:

The reaction among City Council members was swift. City Council Democrat David Greenfield garnered the most attention for an impassioned speech on the floor denouncing the protesters as “anti-Semitic.” 

“I have to tell you, I’m still shaken to my core. I am upset. I am angry,” he said, adding later on that he was “pleased that we finally see what this is all about: good old fashion Anti-Semitism.”

Melissa Mark-Viverito, the Speaker of the City Council and the leader of the Israel trip, also blasted the disruption in a statement sent out later that day. “At a time when the Council was voting on a resolution commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, this outburst was offensive, outrageous and counter to the values of the City Council,” the statement read.

The activists part of the coalition offered differing statements in the aftermath of the City Council disruption, opening a window into tensions within the coalition. Jewish Voice for Peace’s New York chapter was contrite, saying in a statement that the timing of the disruption was “completely unintentional. JVP-NY regrets disrupting this vote, as we respect without qualification the solemnity of the Holocaust and honor all victims of genocide.” Cagan told me that the action “did give the David Greenfields of the world an opportunity to blast us” and that “the timing was unfortunate.”

But the recently formed Direct Action Front for Palestine said in a statement that while the disruption’s “timing was purely coincidental,” the action honors “the victims of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and their memory by reminding politicians that when we say ‘Never Again,’ it means ‘Never Again for Anyone.’”

Amin Husain, a member of the Direct Action Front, told me that the criticism of the disruption from fellow activists like Cagan was “nonsense” because they would have been called anti-Semitic anyway. Still, Husain said he understood that JVP’s and the Direct Action Front’s tactics may differ.

Husain said he planned to continue organizing against the trip.

“We need to keep up the pressure and be as persistent as the occupation is–and hold politicians accountable,” he said. “We’ll do whatever it takes to continue and make them pay a price. We think the mood is such that it will hurt them with their constituencies.”

Alex Kane

Alex Kane is a freelance journalist who focuses on Israel/Palestine and civil liberties. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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9 Responses

  1. amigo on February 5, 2015, 4:11 pm

    “At a time when the Council was voting on a resolution commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, this outburst was offensive, outrageous and counter to the values of the City Council,” the statement read. ”

    Holocaust, Holocaust, pogroms,Jew hatred, driven into the sea, Holocaust , anti semitism blah blah blah.

    So it is about timing eh.When would a good time be madame speaker to raise these issues.

  2. CloakAndDagger on February 5, 2015, 5:30 pm

    Now that the tide is turning, a lot of us are noting who these vipers in our midst are. When the day of reckoning comes, and it will come, they will rue their shortsightedness on this day as this cowardly world that they have built around them, on the hides of the underprivileged and the wronged, comes crashing down on their wretched skulls and crushes the life force out of their uncaring corpses.

    Let them eat cake, indeed.

  3. PeaceThroughJustice on February 6, 2015, 10:31 am

    Off Topic:

    Jewish community of Golders Green puts George Galloway on trial for “antisemitism,” and the BBC plays along —

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=guAjF0csFI0
    “BBC Question Time – 5th February 2015” (second half)

  4. clenchner on February 6, 2015, 11:10 am

    snip –
    Amin Husain, a member of the Direct Action Front, told me that the criticism of the disruption from fellow activists like Cagan was “nonsense” because they would have been called anti-Semitic anyway.
    — snip

    Ah, Amin Husain you old coalition builder! Part of me suspects you have no idea who Leslie Cagan actually is.
    It is impossible to understand how hard it is to oppose Israeli policies without also understanding how awful the radical edges are at actually doing politics. Yes, there are more people willing to listen to Palestinian rights advocates. But then this sort of shit happens and it all goes to hell.
    And let’s not forget the competing stories of assault from the Barclay’s Center last year involving the same Front.

    If only this energy was hitched to a political strategy capable of winning something. WIN STUFF is actually a good name for a better strategy.

    Given all the anger at Bibi among Democrats, why not pressure folks like Charlie Rangel to boycott his upcoming Congressional speech, following in the footsteps of John Lewis? That might actual work, since Rangel has no more elections to run.

    • Mooser on February 6, 2015, 3:43 pm

      Ah, some nice concern trolling.

      • clenchner on February 7, 2015, 5:11 pm

        Coming from you Mooser, that’s a compliment! As if trolling isn’t your primary function these days….
        Why you are practically speechless. Have you no compliments for the timing of this action? Or support for calling Leslie Cagan’s words “nonsense”?

  5. annie on February 6, 2015, 4:22 pm

    hi alex, in the other article here about this action someone linked to the full video of the entire meeting that day as archived by the state. http://legistar.council.nyc.gov/MeetingDetail.aspx?ID=374401&GUID=4E0FDF23-2136-4813-BABB-474E01DA3C46&Options=info#

    as it turns out, the resolution honoring auschwitz was not interrupted although after all the resolutions were introduced the chair then called all of the resolutions swiftly for yeahs and neys (it went really fast) and you couldn’t hear the protestors, but it was the chair who interupted the reading of the list of resolution titles and say “quiet in the chambers” .

    and then she read off the rest and then the protest began in earnest. plus and more importantly, directly after the protest there was a person who was the rep interrupted, citing MLK, who then incorporated the sentiments of the protestors ..so that came directly on the heels of the protest, not Greenfield. from my notes in the other thread:

    then res 544 re..woman right to choose roe vs wade legalization ..abortion ..health care woman equality act 53:40 restrict gov intervention, congress not able to act…

    then the floor asks “any other speakers on any other resolutions another speak 54:27
    peace week resolution”

    house asks “any other speakers?” 55:14

    531 cervical health care treatment to youth hpv cancer, combo co chair a hearing 55:52 cervical anal cancers denial cancers, resolutions important 56:28

    so at this pt we are already over 5 minutes past the introduction of the auschwitz, resolution.

    (which lasted about a minute compared to a LONG TIME dedicated to fallen officers)

    then the chair says “any other” at 56:34 and then “now we vote peace week say aye”

    and this is where i think the protestors might have attempted an intervention but we don’t hear them we only hear the chair ticking off the past resolutions calling for “aye” and the first time we hear the chair say “quiet in chambers” was between

    “opposed abstention congress protect health 57:44…70th anniversary ..escort quiet in chambers, please remove 58:59 MLK” “quiet in chambers salute officers 1:00:58 hero rookies”

    then there is a very loud big gap 1:05 and it picks up with MLK:

    “quiet

    addresssing war in vietnam, were going to clear the shall “occupy” 1:10:02\\ aparthoed clear the hall chambers, clear the balcony,..1:10:26 loud commotion. 1:10:42 wow, really getting loud screaming. 1:11:11 big commotion really loud 1:11:29 palestinian people and you’re going to israel!!! 1:12:14 palestinian lives matter palestinian lives matter (chanting over and over) 1:12:42. clapping

    (check 1:12 27 to hear quiet..israel in microphone)

    congresswoman barren, citing MLK “having some powerful words and we can remember MLK a man who was shunned by many because he was addressing the war in vietnam ” i am sad to say the nation is a supreme culprit ..unjust war vietnam and we are criminals of that war …committed more war crimes as we 1:13:44 not just here in this city but a city across the world our lives begin to end when we become silent and about matter (before us, speaking about protestors) my position is we need an we need an even hands policy ME and palestine in terms of 1:14:16 bringing up the rallying cry for black lives matter. “

    – See more at: http://mondoweiss.net/2015/02/protesters-disrupted-defense#comment-743994

    so congresswoman barron’s comments regarding martin’s words referencing the protestors and palestinians , went on the record immediately following the protest in an affirmative way imho. it really sounded like the chair was not going to recognize the protestors or the action at all but it became part of the record that day incorporated into the introduction of a resolution for MLK, which i think is great.

    someone should contact Inez Barron Dist 42 http://council.nyc.gov/d42/html/members/home.shtml
    i think this is her, and get her exact words on the record. she was the person interrupted and it didn’t seem to bother her in the least.

    plus, i could not hear any disruption from the protestors during the introduction or the vote, on the recording, for the auschwitz resolution. is anyone sure this was not a pre planned set up response by members of the legislature including the chair? because that is what it sounds like from the recording where you can clearly hear the protestors actions seem to begin between health care and MLK:

    “opposed abstention congress protect health 57:44…70th anniversary ..escort quiet in chambers, please remove 58:59 MLK” “quiet in chambers salute officers 1:00:58 hero rookies”

  6. Emmaia on February 6, 2015, 10:28 pm

    I wish journalists would stop posting that video as if it shows a resolution (or anything specific at all!) being interrupted. It does not. It shows a different wave of the protest — in fact, a wave that happened long after anything to do with the memorial resolution. The reason the video has made the rounds is because Jacob Kornbluh at the the Jewish Press posted it in order to spin it as something it was not. He doesn’t need Mondoweiss’ help with that, I’m pretty sure!

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