City Council Trip to Israel Draws Fire From Critics of Jewish State

Brandon Davis, a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, opens the January 12 City Hall press conference. | GAY CITY NEWS

Brandon Davis, a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, opens the January 12 City Hall press conference. | GAY CITY NEWS

With City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito due to lead 14 of her colleagues on a trip to Israel paid for by two New York Jewish organizations, critics of the Jewish State’s policies toward Palestinians are stepping up their criticism of the eight-day trip, scheduled for late February.

“We stand here today in outrage and disappointment that 15 of our City Council members, including nine members of the Progressive Caucus, have decided to participate in a delegation to Israel sponsored by groups known for promoting Islamophobic public policies,” said Brandon Davis, a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, in opening a rainy press conference outside of City Hall on January 12.

Davis was joined by six other speakers representing a coalition of roughly 50 groups calling on the Council members to cancel their trip.

Among the 15 Council members headed to Israel are three of the six out LGBT Caucus members –– Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer of Queens, Corey Johnson of Manhattan, and Ritchie Torres of the Bronx.

Asked about the coalition's criticism, Torres was blunt in his response, saying in an email message, “Let me be clear, lest there be any confusion: I am not reversing my decision to go on the trip, nor am I changing my core belief in Israel's right to exist. Period.”

The trip’s critics, which include Queers Against Israeli Apartheid and Irish Queers, charge that by traveling to Israel the Council members are giving comfort to a state they say treats Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza in an oppressive manner similar to the former South African regime’s marginalization of that nation’s black majority.

Felice Gelman, a member of Adalah NY –– the New York Committee for the Boycott of Israel, said the coalition’s demands include dismantling of the security wall separating Israel from the West Bank and of the Israeli settlements there, civic equality for Arab-Palestinians in Israel, and the right of Palestinian refugees to re-claim property in Israel.

Among those who attended the City Hall press event were out lesbian Leslie Cagan, a longtime peace activist, and Pauline Park, a leading transgender community advocate.

Speakers at the press conference, pointing to the fact that the trip is funded by the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) and the UJA Federation of New York, said Council members would not get a balanced view of the situation in Israel and the Palestinian areas.

“On this trip they would no doubt be shielded from the checkpoints, the settlements, the separation wall, the refugee camps, the destroyed homes and schools, and all of the other elements that make up the apartheid, colonial state that continues to occupy Palestine,” said Fatin Jarara, a Brooklyn College student who is a member of Al-Awda NY: The Palestine Right to Return Coalition.

Donna Nevel, who is active with Jews Say No!, noted that several years ago, JCRC, writing in Jewish Week, defended then-Commissioner Ray Kelly against charges the NYPD had engaged in far-reaching and potentially unconstitutional surveillance of Muslims in the greater New York area.

Critics of the trip also drew parallels between the heated controversy over police conduct in communities of color in New York and Israeli policies toward Palestinians.

“How can those who have taken a stance on the New York City Police Department's racism participate in something that normalizes racism on an entire people?,” Jarara said. “This is a gross hypocrisy.”

In fact several of the speakers alleged that NYPD contacts with Israel had enhanced what they termed “militarized policing” in New York, though footnoted links in their press release provided no specific support for that perspective.

The group sent an open letter to the 15 Council members urging them to withdraw from the trip, but said they had not yet met with any of them. Mark-Viverito’s office did not respond when asked if she had been contacted by the coalition or if she would be willing to meet with its representatives. According to Sindri McDonald, Torres’ chief of staff, that office received the open letter just moments before the press event.

“We have received dozens of emails not to travel Israel, but zero calls,” McDonald wrote in an email.

The response from the speaker’s office to several questions about the trip went no further than a statement first made to the Daily News when it wrote about the trip in October of last year.

“New York City and Israel have deep and long-lasting cultural, economic, and educational ties and the Speaker and Council delegation are looking forward to a productive and informative trip,” Robin Levine, a spokesperson for Mark-Viverito wrote.

McDonald said Torres’ office had not yet received an itinerary for the trip so she could not say whether any meetings were planned with Palestinian groups separate from the schedule planned by JCRC and UJA.

But in a follow-up email, Torres slammed the door on any possibility of a meeting with critics of the trip.

“What would be the purpose of a dialogue?,” he wrote. “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.”

Torres also wrote, “Which country in the Middle East is most protective of LGBT rights? In which country would I –– as an American, much less a gay one –– feel most at home? The answer to both questions is undoubtedly Israel.”

Without providing any specifics, Johnson suggested his view that meetings with Palestinian groups might be in the offing for the trip.

“As a strong supporter of a Jewish, democratic Israel, and a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I'm eager to hear from a very wide range of voices on our trip, representing the broad spectrum of perspectives and opinions,” he said in an email.

Van Bramer’s office had not responded to Gay City News’ questions by the time of this posting.

The press event by the trip’s critics came at a delicate time in global discussion of the Middle East –– just one day after more than a million people, including dozens of heads of states, marched in Paris in memory of the 12 people murdered by Islamist terrorists at the office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The murder in Paris of a police officer the following day and of four hostages in a kosher supermarket the day after that were being investigated for links to the attack on the magazine.

Media outlets, including the New York Times, have reported that safety concerns among the Jewish population of France about rising anti-Semitism there have led many to consider moving to Israel, though some observers in Paris were critical of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s emphasis on that in his trip to join the march.

One of the press conference’s speakers took a decidedly contrarian view of the events in Paris.

“Since the attacks in France, we have heard many say that they are Charlie Hebdo,” said David Galarza, a Puerto Rican activist from Boricuas for Palestine. While I support free speech and deplore the killings, I personally could never identify myself with a publication that goes out of its way to inflame tensions and drive Islamophobia.”

Asked whether his viewed reflected the position of the coalition, Galarza was quick to emphasize that he was speaking for himself.