Blowback For The Bigots

by Philip Greenspan

November 29, 2004   


(Swans - November 29, 2004)   It was late Friday night, November 12. I had just pressed "Get Mail" and "Urgent" caught my eyes, as e-mails were rolling up my computer screen. The message disclosed that Ryan Scott Karben, a New York State Assemblyman from Rockland County, was attempting to close a Palestinian Art Exhibit that had been booked at the Westchester County Center for the evening of November 20.

His press release claimed that "the artists whose work will be displayed at the exhibit glorify terrorism and describe Jews as Nazis. This exhibit does not promote art -- it promotes terrorism and violence . . . he is sure that if Westchester County officials knew of the exhibit's contents, it would not have agreed to allow the group to use the Westchester County Center, a facility that is under the control of the Westchester County Department of Parks, Recreation and Conservation . . . The pieces included in this exhibit are offensive to me as a Jew, as an American, and as a civilized human being..."

Another state legislator and two Westchester county legislators chimed in to support Karben.

As a result the County Executive, Andrew Spano, seriously considered the request.

This controversy was quickly picked up by the media -- local, national and international. Radio, television, and print journalism in nearby New York City, around the country, in Europe, and even in the online edition of Israel's Ha'aretz reported it.

Many a member and friend of the Westchester People's Action Coalition (WESPAC), the organization sponsoring the exhibit, were quick to respond by writing, calling or e-mailing the Assemblyman, the County Executive, the manager of the County Center, and the local newspaper. These communications asserted, among other reasons, that censoring the exhibit would be an unlawful violation of the Bill of Rights.

Recalling the strong opposition that the public had to a rally of the hated German American Bund when the Nazis were riding high prompted me, a member of WESPAC, to e-mail the following to Assemblyman Karben:
Dear Assemblyman Karben:

I well remember February 1939, when the world was already aware of the evils of the Nazis, the American affiliate of the Third Reich, the German American Bund, held a George Washington's birthday rally at New York's Madison Square Garden. Although the Bund was widely despised the rally was not only held but was able to attract twenty-two thousand supporters. Tens of thousands of anti-Nazis turned out to protest. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, whose mother Irene Cohen was Jewish, provided 1,780 policemen to insure that the rally could be conducted peacefully. LaGuardia knew that the First Amendment applied particularly to those who are out of favor and that they must be afforded protection if the Bill of Rights is to have any meaning. Although 29.5% of New York City's population was Jewish, they did not retaliate against the courageous mayor. He won reelection for a third term when he ran again in 1941. As a Jew, an American, and a Rockland resident, I am very disappointed that another Jew and a government official no less should be attempting to deny the fundamental First Amendment rights to a minority group that is now encountering discriminations similar to what we suffered not many years ago. Philip Greenspan
I also called County Executive Spano's office to voice my opinion on why the exhibit should not be canceled.

The prompt and persuasive arguments that were elicited caused the County Executive to realize that the scheduled exhibit should be held and he stood by that decision.

The objectors adamantly refused to withdraw their complaints, yet were unwilling to accept an offer to preview the exhibit. How could they complain if they did not know what they were complaining about?

The powerful pro-Israel lobbyists have consistently been able to gain the support of a vast number of followers who unquestioningly accept their suggestions and recommendations. Accordingly, a sizeable opposition developed when Andrew Spano decided the exhibit would be held as planned.

These staunch opponents of terrorism who can spot it where it does not exist now proceeded to send hate messages to Nada Khader, the director of WESPAC.

I called Nada and suggested that we seek the endorsement of many prominent groups. She was particularly sad that, although many Jews were supportive, not one rabbi was among them...

I sent an e-mail message to Neturei Karta hoping to get their endorsement. They are a world-wide anti-Zionist group of orthodox Jews whose supporters run into the hundreds of thousands. In February 2002 approximately 20,000 of them protested outside the Israeli consulate in New York. At one of the Washington anti-war protests I participated in, they aligned themselves with a contingent of Palestinians. They have been targeted by Zionists who have harassed and confronted them at demonstrations, and their synagogue and personal property have been spray-painted with Stars of David and messages in Hebrew glorifying Jerusalem. I received no response to the request. Since they didn't know me and were probably unfamiliar with WESPAC and the exhibit I assumed they might have been wary of my motives.

Several other groups that I am affiliated with did respond favorably and their endorsements were prominently displayed at the exhibit.

The Journal News editions of Westchester and Rockland counties were in my opinion very fair in their coverage. They accurately covered the story in their news sections. Their headlines -- "Palestinian art exhibit draws furor, rancor," November 13; and "Art event puts Spano on hotseat," November 17 -- summarized the unfolding confrontation.

An editorial on November 18 stated, ". . .Spano is to be congratulated for withstanding pressure to deny rented county space to a Palestinian art exhibit. . . Spano understands . . . 'Whether I agree or disagree with (the exhibit's images), this is a matter of freedom of speech, and you can't make a political decision over a constitutional right'. . . It is not government's place to deny a readily available public forum because it disagrees with a message someone seeks to convey. . . Defending someone's right to express an unpopular or offensive point of view can carry political risk. Far riskier is offending the Constitution. The county executive has made the right choice."

They printed on November 17 many intelligently written letters they received on the controversy, properly heading each with these summarizing phrases: "Exhibit will help those in need," "Let people make up their own minds," "Censorship endangers a free society," "Criticizing Israel not anti-Semitic," "Exhibit will provide needed insight," "Assembly members' remarks unacceptable," and "Don't repress artistic freedom."

Although WESPAC was unable to get the support of a rabbi, Rabbi Lester Bronstein, the president of the Westchester Board of Rabbis, realizing that the exhibit would be held, issued a statement headed "Other side of conflict will be presented," which was published in the Journal News the day before the exhibit. An excerpt follows:
...In the service of free speech (including distorted and misleading speech), I urge the Jewish community not to attempt to stop the show. Instead, Jews will be standing outside the hall with leaflets expressing a more balanced picture of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict (much as WESPAC routinely leaflets outside pro-Israel events). In our version, wrongs have indeed been inflicted on the Palestinians, though not primarily by Israel, but rather through the actions and omissions of Arab states and self-serving Palestinian leaders. In our telling of the story, most of what Palestinians describe as Israel's military brutality is in direct response to some of the most horrifying violence ever directed at a civilian population...
My wife and I arrived at the County Center just before 5:00 p.m. when the doors to the exhibit were to open. There were three police cars parked in front of the building. A sizeable number of attendees were already in the lobby awaiting police security to scan and authorize admission.

We were pleased to see that the turnout exceeded what the promoters had anticipated. When one of our friends arrived, about an hour and one half later, she informed us that fire regulations prevented more people from entering the exhibition room and 80 people were awaiting admission downstairs. We left shortly thereafter so that others could be allowed entry. We saw no protesters with flyers when we entered or when we left but upon reading the news the next morning we learned that many of those opposed to the exhibit did attend.

The New York Times reported it under the headline "Palestinians, Jews and the Art of Getting Bent Out of Shape" (by Peter Applebome, Sunday, November 21, 2004) Some excerpts:
. . .there was a revealing exercise in art, tolerance and the predictable choreography of the cultural amplification chamber in the way an obscure Westchester County art show, which didn't even display the art under attack, became, briefly, an international cause célèbre. In the end, the would-be censors didn't get their way, and a crowd far larger than organizers had originally expected turned out yesterday to see it . . . an event almost no one in Westchester knew about was all over the news and the Internet. By midday Friday, the county had received 367 phone calls and 1,140 e-mail messages, the vast majority opposing the show . . . One oddity was that the show wasn't even remotely controversial in Houston, where it was displayed two blocks from the city's Holocaust Museum. It received favorable news coverage, drew 20,000 people and sparked much discussion. If everything in America these days gets played through a political prism, we in New York are the ones trying to censor -- they're the ones open to viewing the art.
The local Journal News headlined it "Pro-Palestinian art brings heated words and a little dialogue." Excerpts follow:
Hundreds of people came to the show at the Westchester County Center, some waiting downstairs because the exhibit room upstairs was too crowded. . .Rabbi Michael Cahana . . . said he wanted to see for himself what the art was about. . . "The problem is that there's no context. . . While we're talking about the suffering of people, and I understand that suffering, we're not talking about realities of terrorism. We're not talking about the realities of corruption that have really robbed the Palestinian people of their livelihood, their future." Cahana spent a few moments chatting with Nada Khader, the director of WESPAC, after viewing the show and said he was interested in building bridges between the communities. "I think it's the beginning of an important dialogue that needs to happen between the Palestinian and Arab community in Westchester County and the Jewish community." Khader said. That dialogue went somewhat less smoothly outside the county center, as a small group of pro-Israel demonstrators protested the exhibit . . . "Fascist," a man going into the exhibit yelled at the group. A young woman leaving the show came over to the demonstrators and said "You don't know what art is," and walked away. . . Spano's position led to a flood of angry e-mails, 1,140 by late Friday afternoon, to his office. Most came between Thursday and Friday, when news about the controversy was posted on the Web site, www.honestreporting.com . . . about 150 of so of the messages were from Westchester residents, the rest came from across the country and around the world.
I subsequently learned that the Neturei Karta was indeed supportive of the exhibit. Three of them dressed in their traditional fur hats and long black jackets entered at about 9:45 p.m., fifteen minutes before it was to end. For the occasion they had attached Palestinian flags to the front of their jackets. They had just returned from Paris, France, where they showed their respect to Yasser Arafat. Rabbi Dovid Weiss informed those still remaining how amicably Jews and Palestinians lived together before the Zionists arrived to claim their homeland.

Instead of achieving their objective to cancel the show, the pro-Israel legislators suffered BLOWBACK. A local attraction that at best might have attracted 200 or 300 drew between 700 or 800 far beyond the capacity of the exhibition room that was rented. It became a far reaching cause célèbre that enhanced support for the Palestinians. A dialogue between the Jewish and Arab communities in Westchester may emerge.

What happened in Westchester is analogous to what is occurring around the world. The state of Israel, due to its unconscionable actions, is losing support world wide. That 20,000 attended the exhibit in Houston, only two blocks from the city's Holocaust museum, indicates that the tide is turning. Only in areas with a large Jewish population like Westchester and Rockland counties could this controversy arise. But even here many Jews who were strong supporters in the past can no longer be relied on to blindly approve of whatever Israel does.

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Israel-Palestine on Swans

Actions & Ideas to NOT play the Game on Swans


Philip Greenspan on Swans (with bio).

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Published November 29, 2004
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