Protest Hits Ongoing Ban on Israeli-Palestinian Debate at NYC LGBT Center

Marking one year since New York City’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center barred Siege Busters, a group that opposes Israeli government policies toward Palestinians, from meeting there, roughly 100 people protested that eviction and a later Center policy that bans all groups that organize around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“It’s forgotten its history,” said Judith Butler, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, to the crowd that gathered in the Center’s lobby for the March 3 protest. “It’s forgotten its commitment to social justice. It has sold out.”

The protest, which was organized by Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QAIA) and about 20 other groups, began with protesters packed into the lobby. QAIA did not contact police prior to the event, but officers from the Sixth Precinct in the West Village had set up a pen on the street outside the West 13th Street building. Protest participants ignored the pen.

The protest inside lasted for roughly an hour as speakers pilloried the Center for the ban and called for solidarity with the Palestinian people.

“We usually fight the oppressors who squelch free speech,” said Heidi Boghosian, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild, a group of progressive lawyers. “By succumbing to the outspoken in power, this Center betrays its historic mission.”

Glennda Testone, the Center’s executive director, was in the building during the protest, but did not engage the participants. The Center did issue a statement.

“Our priority must be to ensure that all LGBT people feel comfortable coming here,” the statement read. “Providing space for organizing around the Israel-Palestine conflict strains resources and undermines our ability to ensure a supportive and neutral environment for everyone. That’s why the moratorium will continue. The Center respects everyone’s right to free speech and to organize, but on this issue we are simply asking both sides to take this organizing elsewhere.”

To sustained applause, one of the speakers addressed that very point during the protest in the lobby.

“We’re not proud when our safety is used as a cover to not deal with human rights issues,” said Carolyn Klaasen, a member of Young, Jewish and Proud, an affiliate of Jewish Voice for Peace, whose website calls for “an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem.”

Siege Busters held regular meetings at the Center beginning in August 2010, but when it planned a March 5 party last year to mark the end of Israeli Apartheid Week, Michael Lucas, the owner of Lucas Entertainment, a porn studio, threatened a donor boycott. The group was banned.

On May 25, the Center allowed QAIA, which also opposes Israeli government policy toward Palestinians, to rent space for three meetings. The group had one meeting there on May 26.

While Lucas was the most visible opponent of allowing Siege Busters and QAIA to meet at the Center, others, notably Stuart Appelbaum, the openly gay president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, joined him.

Opponents of QAIA spent the week after May 25 urging groups, individuals, and Center donors to contact the Cetner and ask it to reverse the decision. On June 2, the Center announced a ban on all groups that “organize around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

QAIA continued to meet at the Center despite the ban. It held meetings in the lobby into the fall.

The Center’s space rental policy, which effectively holds that it may refuse to rent to any group for any reason, has rarely been controversial. Only decisions to bar the North American Man Boy Love Association (NAMBLA), the New Alliance Party, and parties for men organized according to their HIV status have caused any community debate in 28 years. The Center hired Ritchie Tye Consulting last year to help it craft a new space rental policy, but no new policy has been issued.

Following the protest in the lobby, participants moved to the sidewalk, again ignoring the police pen, and chanted and cheered as others unfurled banners from a second story window.