Speaker Mark-Viverito authorized trip to Israel, as Councilmember Torres rejects calls to meet with human rights activists

By LOUIS FLORES

The approval for a controversial trip to Israel made by a delegation of 15 City Councilmembers and paid for by lobbyists was arranged for by the office of Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (D-Manhattan), said one of the Councilmembers who made the trip.

Speaker Mark-Viverito arranged for the waiver of conflicts of interest rules that would normally forbid city officials from accepting gifts from lobbyists, Councilmember Ritchie Torres (D-The Bronx) told Progress Queens.

A request for a copy of the waiver approval was made by Progress Queens to Speaker Mark-Viverito early Tuesday evening.  As of Wednesday at noon, no response had yet been received.

A trip paid for by lobbyists would typically be forbidden by the city’s lobbyist gift rule.  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.

The trip to Israel was paid for by the Jewish Community Relations Council and the UJA Federation of New York, two groups that lobby government officials in respect of issues and budget allocations.

The trip to Israel sparked controversy amongst New York City’s activist community due to a finding by the United Nations that the State of Israel had violated the Fourth Geneva Convention, a treaty which bars a nation from transferring its own population from within its own borders into occupied territories.  The violations stem from settlements in the West Bank.

New York activists had urged that the City Council cancel its trip to Israel in light of a boycott by international human rights activists following abuses stemming from, most recently, the summer 2014 military operation by Israel that led to the deaths of over 2,000 people and injuries to over 10,000 people.

Before the start of the trip, one group of activists, the NYC Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, had demanded transparency about the trip and had requested meetings with three openly-gay City Councilmembers, who were scheduled to make the trip to Israel, as part of the group’s broader efforts to demand a cancellation of the trip.  Councilmember Torres was one of the officials with whom the activists had sought to meet, but Councilmember Torres publicly closed the door to any possibility of engaging in a dialogue with human rights activists by rejecting a request for a meeting.

In an interview with Progress Queens on Tuesday, Councilmember Torres again rejected the notion that he should meet with activists now that the delegation had completed their trip and had returned to New York.

“I think it’s a waste of time,” Councilmember Torres told Progress Queens.

Councilmember Torres asked Progress Queens to explain the nature of the meeting requested by human rights activists ; however, Progress Queens would not speak on behalf of activists, referring the Councilmember back to the activists, who were seeking to establish a dialogue with his office.  Councilmember Torres further intimated that he perhaps saw a distinction between having an obligation to meet with voters from his district and having an option of meeting with voters outside of his district, a worldview that activists summarily rejected.

“The City Council as a body was represented in Israel at this press junket.  It is certainly true that Councilmembers should feel an obligation to meet with their constituents.  But when he was in Israel and Palestine, he was not simply representing his district.  He was a member of the City Council.  The City Council represents the City of New York and has a relationship with the government of the State of Israel.  What that means is that the significance of the trip goes beyond simply the representation of his constituents,” said Pauline Park, a member of the group, NYC Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, one of the over 60 groups that belonged to a coalition of community groups, which had called for the cancellation of the trip to Israel.

Ms. Park pointed to statements made by Councilmember Torres in an article published by Gay City News in which Councilmember Torres rejected calls to meet with activists.

“He didn’t say, ‘I refuse to meet with people, because they are not my constituency,’ ” Ms. Park said.  Instead, Ms. Park said, “He said point blank, ‘I refuse to meet with anyone critical of the tour,’ and presumably that included his constituents,” noting a further contradiction in the statements by Councilmember Torres :  “He’s not even standing, in effect, by the quote he gave to Gay City News.”

In his interview with Progress Queens on Tuesday, Councilmember Torres repeated a complaint he made in the Gay City News article, in which he erroneously claimed that human rights activists were calling for an end to the State of Israel, a charge that human rights activists have repeatedly denied.

“It’s an absurd assertion,” Ms. Park said.  “If you can find any statement that any of us have ever publicly made calling for the destruction of the State of Israel, I’d be interested to see it, because no one in our group is advocating that.  There’s nothing on our Web site.  We’ve never put out a statement to that effect.  That’s not what we are about.  So, he just seems to be making it up.”

In her view, Ms. Park said that Councilmember Torres might be being motivated by “power and access to money,” she said, noting that Councilmember Torres was aligning himself with influential lobbyists.  “Politicians on the make align themselves with the wealthy and the powerful,” Ms. Park said, adding that there was an alternative to being seduced by the corruptive influence of lobbyists, namely, that honest, elected officials should be interested in hearing a perspective other than that which lobbyists are paid to spread.

Of real concern to human rights activists, Ms. Park said, was the failed framework that has resulted in the abuses of human rights, particularly of those being murdered and injured in Israel.

At one point during his interview with Progress Queens, Councilmember Torres asked Progress Queens to prove that his office had even received a request to meet with activists before the start of his trip, a charge that activists found incredulous, because, as activists had told Progress Queens last week and against this week, members of the coalition had made “repeated efforts” to request meetings with all three openly gay City Councilmembers, who traveled to Israel, and that included Councilmember Torres.

Another member of NYC Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, Brad Taylor, told Progress Queens that he was certain that voters in The Bronx expected all Councilmembers to be accountable and accessible to constituents.  Mr. Taylor added that Councilmember Torres’s actions, such as his demeanor toward activists and his decision to shut the door on any opportunity for dialogue, could be construed to be disingenuous.

“I expect that somewhere he is a fine, young fellow,” Mr. Taylor said of Councilmember Torres.  Mr. Taylor said that when Councilmember Torres coyly invoked ignorance in the face of activists wanting to help him to understand their concerns, it appeared as if Councilmember Torres was turning a tin ear to activists by saying,  “ ‘I don’t know what they want from me.’ “

In his interview with Progress Queens on Tuesday, Councilmember Torres also appeared to reject the notion that he should be expected to meet with LGBTQ activists in New York City, essentially telling Progress Queens that he was his own activist.  Councilmember Torres pointed to, for example, his ability to secure $1,5 million in funding for the LGBTQ community in all five boroughs through an allocation in the City Council slush fund in the Fiscal Year 2015 budget.

“The fact that he uses his position as Councilmember to get funding for a few already extremely wealthy and well-funded social service providers does not absolve him of responsibility to be accountable to the LGBTQ community,” Ms. Park said, adding, respectfully, that, “Neither the Center in Manhattan nor SAGE USA speaks for the entire LGBTQ community.”

(Some activists have noted that, for unknown reasons, many worthwhile LGBTQ community groups and social services providers do not any receive funding from the LGBT delegation of City Councilmembers.)

In the face of continued refusals from Councilmember Torres to meet with activists, some members of NYC Queers Against Israeli Apartheid nevertheless remain optimistic about their cause for human rights.

In the history of other boycotts for human rights, boycotts have begun small in size and have generally taken time to grow, even without support from the United States government, some activists told Progress Queens. 

Mr. Taylor told Progress Queens that the government of the United States, for example, had “bet against the South African boycott for as long as it could,” before apartheid was ended in that country.

Also aiding the cause of LGBTQ activists was their record of voting out of office politicians, who stood in the way of progressive reforms.  In 2013, the mayoral campaign of former New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn was defeated, for example, after activists rejected her brand of neoliberal politics, sources told Progress Queens.