Queens Pride House history: the June 2013 Israel/Palestine forum
Queens Pride House has hosted many public forums, quite a few of which I organized. By far the most controversial was “Israel/Palestine is an LGBT issue,” our first-ever forum on Israel and Palestine. Our June 2013 forum might never have come about had it not been for the LGBT Community Center in Manhattan and its expulsion and banning of the Siege Busters Working Group in February 2011.
When the Center banned the Siege Busters Working Group in February 2011, it provoked a storm of controversy and a two-year struggle over the right of Palestine solidarity activists to meet there; and it propelled me into Palestine solidarity activism, to my surprise and perhaps the surprise of my friends and colleagues.
Distinguished Professor of English at the City University of New York (CUNY), Sarah Schulman teaches at the College of Staten Island (CSI) is one of the leading figures in the LGBT community, not only in New York but nationally. She has written scores of books and plays, most recently, “Israel/ Palestine and the Queer International” (Duke University Press). I had met Sarah before the controversy erupted, but it was through the struggle over the Center that we got to know each other. She appeared at the same March 13 community forum at the Center in 2011 and lambasted the Center’s decision to cave into the intensely bigoted Michael Lucas and ban ban the Siege Busters as well as any discussion of Israel/Palestine. Sarah helped organize the first US tour of a delegation of LGBTQ Palestinian activists in 2011, and she worked with them to help organize the first US LGBTQ delegation tour to Palestine in 2012. Sarah invited me to join the delegation and that tour was perhaps the most important trip I’d taken since coming to the United States from Korea at the age of eight months old.
It was indirectly as a result of my participation in that delegation tour that led to the June 4 forum, but the first Palestine-related event at Queens Pride House was actually when I hosted a Siege Busters Working Group screening of a documentary about Julian Mer-Khamis in May 2011 only a few months after the Siege Busters were expelled from the Center in Manhattan, and that event had caused not a ripple of controversy at Pride House. But of course, the June 2013 forum was different, because it was a Queens Pride House event not only hosted but sponsored by the organization; in fact, the June 4 forum was the very first forum in the history of the borough that featured LGBT speakers critical of Israeli occupation and apartheid, and in putting on the forum, we made history.
The Queens Chronicle covered the event (“Pride House forum slams Israeli policies,” by Mark Lord, 6.6.13), which noted that our forum drew over 30 people to Pride House, which is as many as we ever get for a panel discussion on public policy issues. In response to our forum, the Chronicle ran a rather misguided editorial (“An attack on Israel, here in Queens“) that was full of inaccuracies and misconceptions that prompted a letter to the editor from Queens Pride House in response (“It’s about free speech“); our letter to the editor explained the purpose of the forum and the need for LGBT community centers to host and sponsor public forums on controversial issues, including Israel/Palestine, in order to foster open discussion of those issues and their implications for the LGBT community, which at least some members of the community clearly understand (“Israel is no democracy“).
Internally, the only real dissension manifest itself on the Facebook pages of Queens Pride House, where I posted notices about the June 4 forum (without any additional editorializing). There is a another Facebook page — Queer Support for Israel — and on that page, one of the group members posted a message informing the other members about the June 4 forum at Queens Pride House, encouraging them to post comments attacking the organization for putting on a forum that he characterized (falsely, of course) as an ‘anti-Israel hate fest.’ Queer Support for Israel members proceeding to ‘swarm’ our Facebook page, posting scores of hostile comments, to which I responded politely, inviting them to come to the forum to listen, learn and share their perspectives, though not a single one of them did attend the event.
I also posted a very simple notice on the Facebook page of the Queens Pride House English-speaking men’s group, which prompted furious responses from two members — one a regular attendee and another a member whose attendance has been quite irregular, from all reports. One of the members even accused me of a conflict of interest, though I made very clear to him that the organization was taking no position on the interest — a point I made to Mark Lord, the reporter who came to cover the forum, when he interviewed me about it the day after the event, as well as at the forum itself. I was struck by the fact that no one had accused me of a conflict of interest for having organized a forum on May 1 on the human trafficking of Asian women in Queens, even though I am myself an Asian American woman living in Queens.
And in response to the member of the Queens Pride House English-speaking men’s group who had accused me of a conflict of interest, I also pointed out that as a member of the board of directors (secretary at that time), I had organized a forum on the New York State Dignity for All Students Act when the DASA bill was still pending and when, as chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA) and a member of the steering committee of the NYS DASA Coalition (which was leading the campaign for the bill). I was organizing a statewide tour that included forums on DASA in other cities around the state; at no time did anyone accuse me of a conflict of interest in organizing a forum on Dignity and using that forum (which took place at our site on Woodside Ave.) as an opportunity advocating for that legislation, despite the fact that I was, in effect, wearing two different organizational hats while doing so.
While I am a founding member of the New York City Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, I have never used my position as either president of the board of directors or acting executive director to serve the interests or agenda of QAIA. But as both president of the board of directors and acting executive director it is not only my right by my responsibility to organize public forums on topics of interest, concern and importance to the members of the LGBT community of Queens, and it would be difficult to argue that the issue of Israel/Palestine is not of any interest, concern or importance to them; indeed, the intensely personal and vituperative reaction of two members of the English-speaking men’s group would seem to attest to the interest, concern and importance of the issue to them. And the focus on ‘Israel/Palestine as an LGBT issue’ would seem to be inarguably geared to explaining Israel/ Palestine to the members of the LGBT community of Queens.
Clearly, the charges of conflict of interest had no merit and were simply a smokescreen for the real objection to the forum, which was that the two speakers on the panel were speaking from a perspective critical of Israeli government policy. And in that regard, it would be extraordinary if Queens Pride House as a community center were to announce and impose a policy banning criticism of any foreign government; that is, in effect, what the Center in Manhattan did from February 2011 until February 2013, the leadership of that organization learning that the price to be paid was the opprobrium of many in the community, who rightly saw that policy as contradicting the Center’s own stated mission. For any LGBT community center to prohibit speech — including banning criticism of human rights abuses of both LGBT and non-LGBT people — would run directly contrary to the very core mission of any community center that wishes to call itself a community center.
The intense hostility from the gay Zionists critical of the June 4 forum, in my view, has to be understood as part of a larger phenomenon — the organized campaign of harassment and intimidation that the Israel lobby directs against anyone critical of Israeli government policy, including Israeli occupation and apartheid. No other foreign government is exempt from criticism in the United States of its actions and policies except that of Israel, and it is difficult to imagine any of the critics of the June 4 forum at Queens Pride House supporting a ban at Pride House on criticism of the governments of the Russia, the People’s Republic of China, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Uganda, or Jamaica — all of which have been guilty of gross violations of human rights — including those of LGBT people. But with Israel, there is a double standard, of course, and so a forum critical of its human rights abuses would come in for attack in a way that a forum critical of the human rights records of any of those other regimes would not only not be criticized but most likely applauded by those critical of our June 4 forum.
It is striking to me that none of those critical of our forum actually came to the event on June 4; could it be that they were afraid of hearing information that might compel them to re-evaluate their uncritical support for Israel? Rather than respond to their vituperation and threats, I chose to take the high road and invite those critics to come to the forum and ask questions of the speakers and share their perspective with the audience during Q&A; but none of them came.
At the forum, Sarah Schulman gave an eloquent presentation on the history of her involvement with the anti-Israeli apartheid movement and I gave a presentation about my participation in the first US LGBT delegation tour of Palestine in January 2012. In doing so, and in refusing to capitulate to the campaign of harassment and intimidation directed against me and the organization, we made history.
After the forum, NYC QAIA member wrote a letter to the editor of the Queens Chronicle:
“Israel is no democracy”
June 20, 2013
I was surprised and disappointed by your editorial denouncing the Queens Pride House for its sponsorship of a public forum that was critical of the Israeli government’s continued occupation of Palestinian territories, especially since your article reporting on the event was a perfectly straightforward and honest account of what happened (“An attack on Israel, here in Queens,” June 6).
Your labeling and name-calling does not help foster an atmosphere of debate and open discussion. For instance, calling Sarah Schulman “anti-Israel” because she put forth an articulate criticism of Israeli government policies makes me wonder if you would call me un-American since I am critical of several policies our own government pursues every day.
You also make it sound as if pink-washing does not exist. It is true that our LGBT Jewish sisters and brothers in Israel have secured some important civil rights, and it is also true that other nations in that region have terrible records in relation to LGBT people. But none of that negates another very important fact: Every day the rights of all Palestinians, queer and straight, are assaulted by the brutality of the Israeli occupation.
Additionally, one cannot dispute the fact that the Israeli government has been on a public relations campaign to clean up its image internationally, and one component part of that is to promote Israel as a haven for gay people. Their image has been sullied because of their horrendous treatment of the Palestinian people for decades. This is the context in which many of us have been speaking out against pink-washing by the Israeli government.
I also disagree with your assessment that Israel is a functioning democracy. Yes, there are important democratic rights granted to those who are Jewish. But if you are not Jewish, most of those rights disappear … even if your family has lived there over several centuries. You cannot claim to be a democracy when significant portions of your own population are denied access to all of the rights accorded others, all based on religious identity. That’s not my idea of democracy, whatever nation it takes place in.
As a lesbian, as a person committed to ending military occupations everywhere, and as a citizen of the world who supports the struggles for full social, political and economic rights here in the U.S., in the Middle East, and wherever they are being carried out, I say thank you to the Queens Pride House for hosting this event. I hope they will invite us to other forums like this in the future and not shy away from what might seem to be controversial issues.
Leslie’s letter prompted five comments, including one from the editor:
JayM100 Jun 21, 2013 6:48pm
If you don’t like chicken in a restaurant and you tell the chef “I love your restaurant but don’t like your chicken” that’s “critical”. When you say “I don’t like your chicken and you’re restaurant shouldn’t exist” that’s being anti-the restaurant. Schulman isn’t just critical of Israel, she wants it to cease from existence. That’s what one would call “anti-Israel”. I never heard Schulman say “let’s encourage a 2-state solution so both people’s can live in peace”. Her narrative is that Israel is an oppressor, the Palestinians are oppressed and Israel needs to shut down”.
People such as Leslie, Schulman, and Park never talk abt what a democracy looks like in their proposed one-state solution (which they all encourage), because they are unsure themselves what will happen to the Jews and the gay community under the ruling of the non-Jewish state they fantasize about. But that’s the point, they don’t especially care.
Thankfully, no matter how much they try, Israel will continue to flourish and be the great democracy that she is.
bbridges Jun 22, 2013 2:35pm
Leslie, you’ve obviously never been to Israel (or the Middle East). You’re views are vastly misinformed. Israel is a vibrant democracy; its Arab and other non-Jewish citizens have rights unparalleled in the entire Middle East. They have a right to vote, they are serve in the parliament and on the supreme court. They are represented in the universities and all the professions.
The PA is not a democracy; Abbas is in year nine of his five-year term. Hamas has driven out all opposition in Gaza, and they have stripped women, LBGTQ, and non-Muslims of rights they previously had under Israel. If you want to see what you’re one-state paradise will look like, you only have to look at Lebanon and Syria to see.
The PA, Hamas, and other Arab regimes engage in “Palwashing”, using the Palestinians plight to cover their own human rights abuses, while they systematically deny Palestinians of the rights afforded to every other refugee group in history. That is the real crime, and one in which you choose to be complicit.
smaglott Jun 24, 2013 4:05pm
Thank you Leslie Cagan for stating the obvious. We cannot be strong-armed by foreign governments into looking the other way when it comes to human rights abuses. I am also a strong critic of violence from Hamas, but the State-sanctioned violence and human rights abuses from the Israeli Government are unacceptable and an outrage. We must continue to put pressure on the American government to withhold money used to support the Israeli Apartheid. Not with my money, not in my name!
Cathy K Jun 24, 2013 4:18pm
Okay, first, I don’t understand why anyone would denounce an organization for holding a public forum on any topic at all. There is nothing as open and transparent and fair as a public forum. People ought to be allowed to express an opinion or a belief or facts without being denounced! Is it disrespectful of one group of people to disapprove and/or be outraged by the abuse and oppression of another? My own ancestors (and those of many of my fellow Americans) were guilty, in fact, of the same things; in their case, it was Native Americans who were oppressed and abused. Reflecting on that past, and realizing how very wrong it was and how uncivilized it was, I wonder why anyone could simply watch the same thing happen all over again: people being pushed out of more and more land, people being denied basic human and civil rights. And of course it has happened in other places as well. But I am actually not, in a comment on a newspaper’s web site, going to bring about world peace; not even peace in the Middle East. I do think it rather atrocious that the editor of a newspaper, presumably with a background in journalism (which I understand to involve fair and unbiased reporting) should attack an organization for daring to hold a public forum to even discuss matters regarding Palestine and Israel. This is, after all, the United States; with all our faults, we are entitled to freedom of speech, and a public forum actually represents the foundational rights of our Constitution. So I will give bbridges and JayM100 their place in this particular forum, of course; and here is my response to all three people I see represented here thus far: those two and Leslie Cagan. I do not believe that discussing and questioning Israel’s policies and actions is an “attack” on Israel. If Israel feels that is an attack, there is something faulty in Israel’s understanding of its nationhood. With nationhood, of course, comes responsibility. I don’t see that being part of how Israel treats the Palestinians. It’s time to acknowledge everyone’s rights and dignity. It seems simple enough to me.
You know, our editorial pretty much spoke for itself, and I don’t necessarily need to get into the weeds in the discussion it prompted. But there are two things that should be said.
1. Fair and unbiased reporting is for straight news articles, like the one we had on the event at Pride House. The letter to the editor you’re responding to here came in response to our editorial, which is by definition an opinion piece.
2. Supporters of the Pride House event keep likening the boycott-divestment-sanctions movement to regular criticism of a government and attempts to change its policies through persuasion. But BDS is not like writing your congressman, or holding a rally, or making phone calls — it seeks to deprive Israel of concrete economic resources in order to force a change in policy. Sanctions, in fact, are the last step taken against nation-states short of the use of force (see “Iranian nuclear program”). Claiming BDS is the same as simply petitioning a government for a redress of grievances is just inaccurate.
OK, thanks to commenters of all views.
bbridges Jun 26, 2013 11:01pm
1) BDS advocates want an end to Israel; Arabs have made it clear what will become of Jews in the region without Israel.
2) The Palestinian Arab population of Israel has increased since 1948, as have their life expectancy, education, health outcomes, etc. This is completely the opposite of the case of Native Americans (and, in fact, several tribal leaders have agreed that Israel is the return of an indigenous population and have asked Palestinians not to highjack their narrative). The real Apartheid and ethnic cleansing is that of the Arab states against Jewish communities who had been living there for millenia (look up Jewish Nakba and the Farhud).
3) Finally, Pauline Park abused her role as director of Queens Pride House to advance her own anti-Israel agenda and explicitly refused to have any Zionist or pro-Israel voices at her “forum”. The Queens Pride House’s resources and energies would be better spent focused on issues like lethal homophobia in Arab countries, including forced gender reassignment or the anti-LBGTQ laws in Russia or the recent anti-trans government actions in Greece.
I feel it necessary to make a few points here about the comments. First, while I have great respect for Peter Mastrosimone, his comment about BDS is not well informed: BDS was used to bring about an end to the apartheid regime in South Africa and the BDS campaign did not precede any ‘force’ or military intervention of any kind. I would note here that the Chronicle’s publisher Mark Weidler is a fervent Zionist supporter of Apartheid Israel, as is Bryan Bridges, the ‘B Bridges’ who posted two comments after Leslie Cagan’s letter. Even the Zionist board of directors of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah (CBST) which he left in a huff in 2014 felt obliged to respond to Bridges’ misleading statements about CBST (“CBST and Israel: The Table Essay and the Reply
,” 20 Aug. 2014); as CBST’s president of the board of directors Dr. Nathan Goldstein wrote in that letter, neither CBST nor Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum have ever taken a position criticizing Israel’s illegal occupation and of course a Zionist who will brazenly lie about other Zionists (as Bryan Bridges clearly has) would have no hesitation in completely mischaracterizing the situation on the ground in Israel/Palestine.
Far from being a ‘vibrant democracy’ as Zionists falsely mischaracterize Israel, it is an apartheid state that has institutionalized discrimination against its own Palestinian citizens by enacting more than 50 different laws reducing them to worse than second class citizenship; and that is within Israel’s internationally recognized borders. In the illegally occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, Palestinians have lived under Israeli military law — which has been illegally imposed on them since 1967 — while Jewish Israelis living in illegal settlements exercise full rights under Israeli civil law. And — as Sarah Schulman and I pointed out at the forum — LGBT/queer Palestinians in the occupied territories are subjected to the same brutal military rule as their non-LGBT Palestinian siblings; and the situation for Palestinians in the illegally occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem has gotten only worse since the forum in 2013 even as Israel has accelerated its pursuit of genocide in the Gaza Strip.
No one who thinks about it for a New York minute will wonder why no other LGBT community center in the United States has ever organized and hosted a public forum on the pinkwashing of Israeli occupation and apartheid, which only makes our 2013 forum look even more historic in retrospect.