City Council trip to Israel stirs controversy over officials' rejection to hear from constituents

LGBTQ activists question why LGBTQ leaders ignored calls for dialogue about trip to Israel that violates human rights boycott

By LOUIS FLORES

Source :  Progress Queens/Photo Illustration

Source :  Progress Queens/Photo Illustration

Before a delegation of 15 New York City Councilmembers departed on Sunday for a trip to Israel paid for by two lobbying groups, anti-apartheid activists calling for peace and equality in Palestine attempted to meet with Councilmember Ritchie Torres (D-The Bronx), an LGBT member of the Council’s Progressive Caucus, who was scheduled to take part in the trip.

After activists reached out to Councilmember Torres, he closed the door to any possibility of engaging the activists, reportedly writing in an e-mail, according to a report published in Gay City News, “What would be the purpose of a dialogue ?  To persuade me that Israel has no right to exist ?  To dissuade me from going on the trip ?  Neither scenario is possible, so a dialogue would be a waste of their time as well as a waste of mine.”

The rejection by an elected official, such as Councilmember Torres, of appeals to have a discussion with a coalition of anti-apartheid activists that were comprised of over 60 community groups are driving a wedge between grassroots reform activists, who have expected self-described progressive elected officials to deliver on an aggressive reform agenda, on one hand, and elected officials, who boast about their progressive politics, but have little to show for it.

The trip by the 15-member City Council delegation to Israel is being paid for by the Jewish Community Relations Council, or JCRC, and the UJA Federation of New York, or UJAFNY.

The JCRC lobbies government officials for grants and programs for Jewish issues, and the UJAFNY lobbies government officials in respect of issues and budget allocations for Jewish causes.

Some of the anti-apartheid activists have complained that it was a blatant conflict of interest, and possibly could be construed to constitute ethics violations, for elected officials to accept junkets paid for by lobbyists.

From a purely governmental standpoint, the City Council practice of accepting travel paid for by lobbyists was called “disgraceful” and “unethical” by Pauline Park, a member of the group NYC Queers Against Israeli Apartheid.

“These are lobbyists that lobby our government,” Ms. Park said.

Under the charter of the City of New York, elected officials are forbidden from accepting valuable gifts from firms with business before New York City, and, likewise, firms that lobby elected officials are banned from making valuable gifts.

To some government reform activists, the lobbyist-paid junket to Israel by City Councilmembers resembled a pleasure trip that promoted tourism to Israel rather than one that purported to conduct official city business.

Ms. Park added that Councilmembers traveling to Israel “need to be open to talking to constituents,” calling into question the character of elected officials, who shut down attempts to engage in debates with voters, saying of Councilmembers, “If they really cared about policy, they would be willing to listen to all sides and not shut out critics.”

Members of NYC Queers Against Israeli Apartheid have also supported expressing solidarity with the movement that calls for boycott, divestment, and sanctions, or BDS, against Israel until the nation ceases occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, ensures equality for Palestinians, and provides for the safe return of Palestinians to Palestinian territories.  The concerns about ending discrimination, segregation, apartheid, and violence against Palestinians have driven elected officials to run away from reform activists.

When asked about Councilmember Torres’s refusal to meet with anti-apartheid activists, Ms. Park said, “It is a complete abdication of his responsibilities as an elected official.”

Since Councilmember Torres was traveling in Israel, his office said it was unable to make him available for an interview with Progress Queens.  A question, about his decision to refuse to meet with activists was asked to be relayed to Councilmember Torres, but no response was ever provided to Progress Queens.

Many activists, especially from the LGBTQ community, have found Councilmember Torres’s acceptance of the paid trip to Israel problematic.  LGBTQ activists have been amongst those, who, based on their own experiences with oppression and injustice, have undertaken actions in solidarity with the BDS movement.  LGBTQ activists active in the BDS movement have said that they see duplicity in Councilmember Torres’s decision to travel to Israel.

Councilmember Torres has hedged his decision to violate the boycott against Israel on the basis that Israel has supported LGBTQ equality, an assertion that Ms. Park refuted, noting that three openly gay activists-turned politicians, namely, Councilmember Torres, Councilmember Corey Johnson (D-Manhattan), and Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Queens) should know, given how much power, privilege, and influence they have in shaping issues of equality on behalf of the LGBTQ community, that in Israel there is no such right to seek political asylum for Palestinians escaping persecution over their sexual orientation or gender identity.  Efforts to obtain comments from the offices of Councilmembers Johnson and Van Bramer were unsuccessful.

In contrast to offering freedom to those LGBTQ Palestinians, who may attempt to seek asylum in Israel, Ms. Park said that Israeli security forces use the sexual orientation and gender identity of Palestinians to force them to collaborate with the Israeli security forces, a situation that places LGBTQ Palestinians in great physical danger.

“Councilmember Torres claims to have the support of the LGBTQ community, but he won’t meet with LGBTQ activists on this issue,” said Ms. Park, who has written for The Washington Blade about the promotion of Israel as a haven for LGBTQ community in the Middle East as an excuse for that nation’s human rights abuses of Palestinians, the conflation of which has been termed “pinkwashing,” after she had taken part in the first U.S. LGBTQ delegation tour of Palestine.

More examples of duplicity can be found, LGBTQ anti-apartheid activists claimed, when  Councilmember Torres issued a joint statement that was critical of the failure of a Staten Island grand jury to return criminal charges against an NYPD officer, who placed Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold and when Councilmember Torres participated in a walkout by Councilmembers in solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movement.  Anti-apartheid activists say they see hypocrisy in Councilmember Torres’s selective choices in fighting for justice in equality for some communities but not for all.

Ms. Park, one of New York’s most visible advocates for transgender equal rights, said that Councilmember Torres, as a gay person of color, was hypocritical to take to the streets in a protest walkout by Councilmembers after the Eric Garner grand jury decision, claiming that Black lives matter ; yet, the same Councilmembers fail to relate to the oppression of Palestinians.

“Are they willing to say that Palestinian lives matter ?” Ms. Park asked, pointedly.  “What is progressive about traveling to a country that is defending apartheid ?” 

In an unfortunate coïncidence for the anti-apartheid activists, a direct action that was carried out inside the City Council chambers was seized by Councilmember David Greenfield (D-Brooklyn) as an opportunity to falsely portray the anti-apartheid movement to be anti-Semitic.  In a rage following the unfurling by activists of a Palestinian flag from the upper balcony inside City Council chambers, Councilmember Greenfield worked himself up into an outburst that was both sarcastic and angry.

“The reason I’m pleased is because we can stop pretending that this is about Israel, when the reality is that every Middle Eastern country that is in existence today is not democratic and persecutes people of other faiths and persecutes gays and persecutes people, who disagree with them, and persecutes people on Twitter, and persecutes women, who drive,” Councilmember Greenfield shouted, banging one of his hands on his desk, adding, “except the State of Israel.  And so what you saw here today was naked, blind anti-Semitism.  That’s what you saw, and that’s what you watched, and that’s what you witnessed :  People, who were upset for one reason.  Do you want to know why they were angry ? Do you want to know why they were unfurling that flag today ?  Because Hitler did not finish the job.”

When asked about how Councilmember Greenfield reacted, Ms. Park said that Councilmember Greenfield was manipulating the situation.  Councilmember Greenfield claimed that the Palestinian flag was unfurled at the time that the City Council was reading a resolution to commemorate the anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camp at Auschwitz, a claim that Ms. Park denied.

Ms. Park told Progress Queens that the activists, who were able to sneak into the upper balcony had no idea that the City Council had planned to read the Auschwitz commemoration resolution on that day.  Ms. Park said that when activists asked for the agenda of that day’s proceedings of the City Council, the agenda provided to them was blank.  Ms. Park said that none of the activists had any objection to the Auschwitz commemoration resolution, saying that, “It was absurd to blame the coalition [of activists] for what happened.  It was a very strange coïncidence,” Ms. Park said, that the City Council decided to read the Auschwitz commemoration resolution on the same day as the day of the protest by the anti-apartheid activists.  Moreover, Ms. Park disputed Councilmember Greenfield’s assertion that the flag was unfurled at the time of the reading of the Auschwitz commemoration resolution.  Activists would simply not have given critics of anti-apartheid activists the ammunition to accuse them of such insensitivity.

When asked by Progress Queens about accusations by Councilmember Torres and Greenfield that anti-apartheid activists sought the destruction of the State of Israel, Ms. Park said, “Saying that to criticize Israeli policy is to be against the State of Israel is like saying that criticizing American policy is to be anti-American,” Ms. Park said, pointing out the fallacy in making such an argument.

Ms. Park mentioned that the administration of former President George W. Bush wrongly and belligerently used to accuse his critics of treason simply for criticizing his policies.

On the related subject of the commission of war crimes, Ms. Park said that the State of Israel was in violation, in her view, of, at the very least, the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions, which regulates the treatment of prisoners of war and bars a nation from transferring its own population from within its own borders into occupied territories, respectively.  According to a finding by the United Nations, the State of Israel was pressed to answer its violations of the Fourth convention.  

By traveling to Israel at a time when the state has not been held to account for accusations of its violations of the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions, City Councilmembers could surreptitiously be endorsing war crimes and possibly even apartheid in occupied territories, such as the West Bank, for example, Ms. Park said.

How locally-elected, New York City officials could, in an unauthorized manner, engage in the making or expressing of U.S. foreign policy, is not known.  Like Councilmembers Torres, Johnson, and Van Bramer, Councilmember Greenfield did not answer a request to be interviewed for this article.