Once again, anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism have been conflated, and this time it’s in the Windy City.
Haymarket Books, the left-leaning Chicago-based publishing company, is under contract to purchase property for its new offices in an old mansion in Chicago’s Buena Park neighborhood on the north side, but it had to get a zoning variance to buy the building. The Center for Economic Research and Social Change (CERSC)—Haymarket’s parent–was listed as the applicant. CERSC is also the fiscal sponsor of Mondoweiss, which some residents argued is an anti-Semitic website. You can read about the controversy in dnainfo.com here, and in the Chicago Reader, here. Writing about ourselves is tricky, because we are obviously biased, but the politics surrounding the variance are our issue, and for that reason I followed the deal closely and went to a couple of meetings in the neighborhood.
The controversy apparently ended yesterday in victory for Haymarket. A referendum of the building’s neighbors approved the purchase; and it is expected that officials will heed the local vote in further actions on the variance application.
The mansion is at 800 West Buena Avenue. Haymarket needs a special-use permit for the site to be able to host author readings and other events in the mansion. Anyone purchasing the building for any reason other than a single-family home would need this same permit. When the purchase became controversial five weeks ago, Alderman James Cappleman decided to give his decision on the permit to neighbors, and limited voting to the 500 or so people who live within 250 feet of the property.
Voting ended Tuesday, and yesterday the results were announced: 50 to 30 in favor of the special use permit (with another 220 people voting who were deemed to be outside the perimeter).
Tomorrow, July 21, Cappleman’s office said he will recommend approving the permit at a meeting of Chicago’s Zoning Board of Appeals. (His full press release is below.)
The controversy began in earnest at a June 14 meeting in the Buena Park neighborhood to answer questions about Haymarket’s plans as it applied for the special use permit needed to close on the property. At this meeting, some community members accused Mondoweiss of being an anti-Semitic website. Behzad Raghian, Haymarket’s financial director, and Julie Fain, Haymarket’s managing editor, responded.
According to the July 17 Chicago Reader report on the controversy, the issue pivots on the belief that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism:
The opposition, which Raghian estimates was less than half of the people present [at the June 14 meeting], was loud and vehement. Raghian and Julie Fain, Haymarket’s managing editor, tried to answer questions and explain Mondoweiss’s position and that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism were not the same thing. ‘I’m Jewish and I’m also anti-Zionist,’ Fain told one of the protesters. The protester responded, ‘There’s a term for that: self-hating Jew.’
It became clear at this meeting that the issue isn’t only about zoning and special permits. It’s about efforts to silence any type of criticism of Israel, or anti-Zionist thinking. But objecting to CERSC’s ideas made this a free speech issue, of course, and CERSC evidently had a lot of support on these grounds.
Last week, on July 11, a second hearing was held to answer questions about the special permit. The opposition now claimed the issue was one of zoning concerns in the neighborhood, involving gentrification and corporations. Mondoweiss was mentioned only once at that meeting. Rather than focus on issues of free speech as opponents did at the earlier meeting, a few opponents asked specific questions about parking, numbers of people at evening events, and wondering what exactly neighbors would see happening in the building.
Fain replied that people would literally see “readings, offices with computers, staff who are editing books.”
One neighbor stood up and read a letter he had written. He said he has been in the “generational neighborhood” for 30 years. “We want to preserve a residential neighborhood,” he said. “This is a big corporation. Publishing houses are not qualified to be residential.”
A woman then told the crowd that the gentleman had recently put his house up for sale (!), essentially nullifying his argument against Haymarket moving in.
At the same time, a number of residents came out to back Haymarket. One supporter reminded everyone that Haymarket Books is not a large corporation, but a small, left-leaning, independent publisher. “This isn’t Random House,” one person said.
Raghian also gave a sense of Haymarket’s character. “We’re a publishing company,” he said. “We want to provide opportunities for our authors to discuss the ideas in their books.” Raghian emphasized Haymarket’s desire to work with the community. “We’d love to meet with people who want to talk about what the impact would be,” he said. “The last thing we want to be is a bad neighbor.”
A high school history teacher who lives in the neighborhood mentioned Haymarket’s excellent reputation. “This is the type of publishing company that I look for when I’m looking for material for my students,” he said. As a high school English teacher, I feel the same.
The reception for Haymarket has been overwhelmingly positive; its commitment to working closely with the Buena Park community was obvious. The integrity and class the Haymarket folks have shown over the last few weeks has been impressive. It’s a clear indication of how they run their press. It’s outrageous that they’ve had to defend themselves from a few zealous Israel-supporters who are stoking fear, and trying to limit ideas.
I’m reminded that when I was a Zionist I didn’t have to look far for news and books that would perpetuate my pro-Israel thinking. I claimed victim space, too, when my ideals were threatened and the criticism was beyond my understanding. All I knew was to defend, be a victim, and dig in my heels when I was scared. I didn’t know, of course, that the pro-Israel community was churning away to make sure that idealistic young people like me would fall in love with Israel and defend it at all costs.
With the worldview I have now as someone who is very critical of Zionism, it seems impossible that I didn’t know that at the time. And understanding now what individuals have to undergo to try to undo this mythos makes a publishing company like Haymarket all the more vital. And frankly, as a former Zionist turned anti-Zionist, the world could use more discussions about Zionism and anti-Zionism, not less.
“We picked this building because we fell in love with it,” Raghian said. “That’s it.”
In large print on Cappleman’s website, in quotes, a message from the alderman says, “I’m proud to represent one of the most diverse and vibrant wards in the City of Chicago.” Toward the end of the meeting, another neighbor said, “If this purchase doesn’t go through, it’s going to make the neighborhood look awful. It will not look like a place of cultural diversity.”
Cappleman already shifted from support of the purchase to handing off his decision to the neighborhood because of the controversy. But his announcement yesterday affirmed the values so many in his community stood up for.
“While many viewed the politics of this organization as controversial, their community meetings would meet the very same criteria that any Chicago public library uses for allowing such events. In addition, the value of diversity that so many residents desire is reinforced when differing political beliefs are tolerated and respected.”
We look forward to the Zoning Board hearing tomorrow where Cappleman will make his recommendation to the board to move forward with the sale.
Here is Alderman Cappleman’s full statement:
FOLLOW UP WITH 800 W. BUENA: ZONING VARIANCE REQUEST
At the request of Buena Park Neighbors, Ald. Cappleman held a series of community meetings to discuss a special use zoning variance for the Center for Economic Research & Social Change(with Haymarket Books) which would allow a community center within the building located at 800 W. Buena). This location currently has a special use variance for a community center, but a new one is required for a new organization. The residents within 250′ of this proposal voted 50 in favor and 30 not in favor for this special use variance, and the results of this vote were affirmed by an overwhelming support of residents outside the 250′ range. Ald. Cappleman supports this decision because the concerns of the neighbors regarding parking and congestion issues were adequately addressed by having parking available at both Brennemann and Disney Schools and the limited number of evening events they normally host. This special use also helps to protect the historic nature of this home. While many viewed the politics of this organization as controversial, their community meetings would meet the very same criteria that any Chicago public library uses for allowing such events. In addition, the value of diversity that so many residents desire is reinforced when differing political beliefs are tolerated and respected. Ald. Cappleman will work with this organization and the local neighbors to create a Good Neighbor Agreement so that the organization’s events do not put an undue hardship on the surrounding residents.