BY PAUL SCHINDLER | A March 5 demonstration outside the LGBT Community Center by groups critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the territory it controls provided a stark warning about the difficulties the Center may encounter at an open forum it called for March 13 to discuss its recent cancellation of a room reservation for a pro-Palestinian fundraiser.
The crowd of roughly 150 who turned out for the early evening protest voiced angry criticism of the Center for its decision 11 days before to bar a fundraising party by Siege Busters. The event would have provided money for a new flotilla to challenge the Israeli navy’s blockade of the Gaza Strip.
The party, scheduled for the time when the protest instead took place, was one of a number of New York events marking Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW), an annual international mobilization by critics of the Jewish state’s Palestinian policies.
The Center’s cancellation came abruptly in the wake of threats by Michael Lucas, a producer of gay adult films and a frequent critic of Islam, to organize a donor boycott.
Though Lucas can fairly be characterized as a conservative –– based in good part on columns he has written for the Advocate –– the Center’s decision was backed by a number of leading gay progressives, including Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, and Steven Goldstein, who chairs Garden State Equality, New Jersey’s LGBT advocacy group –– both of them speaking for themselves and not their organizations.
Spokespeople for the protest reiterated arguments advanced by Siege Busters and its supporters since the moment Lucas declared victory in blocking the fundraiser.
“The idea that the Center’s core mission does not include concern for queer Palestinians is a very odd definition of a core mission,” said Naomi Brussel, speaking for Siege Busters. Glennda Testone, the Center’s executive director, said in a February 22 release that controversy over the party had begun “to distract from our core mission.”
Echoing a widely held sentiment among Testone’s critics, Brussel said, “The Zionist lobby in the weird form of Michael Lucas stepped in to stop this. The Zionist lobby has been able to do this everywhere. The Center is conflating the state of Israel with Jewish people.”
Lucas charged that Siege Busters and their allies responsible for other IAW events are “anti-Semitic” –– a claim a number of well-known Jewish critics of Israel hotly reject.
Some who support Lucas have made the argument that Zionism cannot be separated from Jewish identity, that an attack aimed at de-legitimizing the state of Israel comes very close to being anti-Semitic.
Brussel argued the Center had gotten the worst of the controversy, saying, “They hit up against something they did not expect. I think they stepped in a pile of something I can’t say in Gay City News”
She explained that Siege Busters rejected the Center’s suggestion of a forum to be held March 5 when the party had been scheduled because of restrictions on the right of the press and videographers to cover the event.
“A town meeting that is essentially closed we would not want to get involved in,” Brussel said.
Testone, who met with reporters as the protest was happening, said the Center was open to negotiations about press coverage but could not agree to the Siege Busters’ demands that it be able to control the meeting and raise money at the door.
“We said, ‘Look, it can’t be both a town meeting and a fundraiser,’” Testone said.
There are no restrictions on press or recording devices at the March 13 forum.
Hannah Mermelstein, on hand at the protest to speak for Adalah-NY: the New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel, talked about the larger IAW goals and charged Israel manipulates LGBT opinion in the West by “pinkwashing,” an effort emphasizing the Jewish state’s pro-LGBT policies in order to put “a gay-friendly mask over Israel’s occupation of Palestine.”
Asked about anger among Israel’s supporters toward the use of the word “apartheid” –– which they see as a wholly inappropriate analogy to the pre-1994 racist regime in South Africa –– Mermelstein said, “Apartheid is not an analogy, it is a definition.”
Israel and the former South African government, she said, have many differences as well as similarities, but, pointing to examples such as differential treatment at checkpoints and color-coded distinctions on identity cards and license plates, she argued Israel’s treatment of Palestinians meets the international definition of apartheid.
For Testone and the Center, however, the toughest challenge could come from critics such as Rami Al-Bakri, a 22-year-old Palestinian who has been in the US for the past four years studying (he declined to say where).
Pointing to daily humiliations he and his family endure at home, he said, “Then I come to New York and experience the same thing at the Center. It’s something I expect from the Israeli state, but not from the Center.”
Asked about the treatment of queers by Palestinian leaders and whether pro-Palestinian activists in the US can credibly claim to be speaking for LGBT people in Gaza and the West Bank, Al-Bakri, who is affiliatged with alQaws for Sexual & Gender Diversity in Palestinian Society, responded, “Queers and women have always been part of the struggle for Palestinian rights. As a Palestinian identified as queer, I’ve always been part of the movement since I was a kid.”
Al-Bakri acknowledged, however, that “Palestinian society [is] in good part conservative,” even as he said he never felt his life was in danger as an openly gay man there and noted problems the LGBT community experiences everywhere.
“Am I giving up on my society to be gay? No,” he said, emphasizing his determination to stay with the cause in his homeland. “In Palestine, I fight for my right to be queer in the Palestinian movement. Here, I fight for my right to be Palestinian in the queer movement.”
Asked to respond to the alienation Al-Bakri expressed over the Center’s decision, Testone said, “The Center is considered a home by so many people. That’s part of the reason we’re having the forum –– to get community input.”
Still, Testone made no effort to hide just how tough the previous two weeks had been.
“We didn’t want to be pulled into taking a stand on the issue of Israel and Palestine,” she said.
Asked whether the cancellation of the Siege Buster event wasn’t in fact taking a stand, she replied, “Yes, well that’s the thing. That’s why we tried to ask them to move the event.”
Repeating a point she has made several times, Testone said after reviewing information about the fundraiser and Siege Busters itself, her team concluded that neither was “LGBT-focused,” a standard others in the community have argued is difficult to define and rarely, if ever, invoked. “The event was not about queer Palestinians,” she added.
Siege Busters’ leadership includes many queer-identified people, including Brussel, and among the 1,600 who have signed a petition protesting the Center’s actions are many prominent LGBT leaders.
Responding to the suspicion her decision was forced on her by powerful donors after Lucas raised his flag, Testone said, “We heard from some members on both sides, with some saying they would withhold money if we cancelled and others who said they would stop giving if we let the event happen. I want to be very clear –– it was not any one individual’s input that determined the outcome here.”
Another challenge the Center could face on March 13 stems from a sobering political reality –– leadership on both sides of this issue may not have an interest in seeing it resolved.
Asked about the composition of the March 5 protest crowd, Brussel said many participants were likely drawn not because of their position on Israel but rather because of their opposition to the way the Center handled the matter. The issue of Palestinian rights has received far more attention in the LGBT community in the past two weeks than it could ever hoped to garner had the party proceeded uneventfully.
Michael Lucas, meanwhile, has a name inextricably linked to the films he produces. He is an ardent critic of barebacking videos, probably the only type of porno that consumers might boycott. Absent that factor, for a businessman like Lucas, there is really no such thing as bad publicity.