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Can a Blog Supposedly Dedicated to Free Speech — But Supports Muzzling Its Opponents — Be Taken Seriously?

MuzzleWatch, a project of the Jewish Voice for Peace, states its mission as, “Tracking efforts to stifle open debate about US-Israeli foreign policy.”  With such a slogan one would expect the editors to be First Amendment purists.  Yet, JVP recently (and again) gave a hollow ring to their stated values.  Here is what happened.

Last month, JVP’s Seattle chapter participated in a successful effort to pressure the Seattle LGBT Commission, a sub-committee of the Seattle City Council, to cancel a planned program at Seattle City Hall that would have hosted a visiting delegation of Israeli LGBT activists.  Here is the headline on the JVP website:

In part, the letter stated:

“LGBTQ Palestinians and Jews and their allies will deliver a thank you letter signed by 3461 people to the Seattle LGBTQ Commission in appreciation for the brave decision they made to cancel a meeting with a one-sided, government-sponsored propaganda tour of LGBT Israelis. Local activists took issue with the rightwing sponsorship and cooptation of LGBTQ issues to divert attention from Israel’s abuses of human rights and violations of international law.”  (emphasis added)

The letter’s reductionist pigeon-holing language worked: Israeli LGBT civil rights activists were effectively muzzled in Seattle’s most public space, and JVP was quite proud of this achievement.  (For further reading on what anti-Israel activists call “pinkwashing,” see Scott Piro’s critique of this accusation in his ‘Pinkwashing’ Deconstructed at the HuffPost Gay Voices site.)

Fortunately, the story didn’t end there.  After the Greater Seattle Business Association, the largest LGBT chamber of commerce in the US, issued a statement expressing its “outrage” over the decision to “silence LGBT voices by cancelling the City Hall event with a delegation of Israeli LGBT civil rights leaders”, the Seattle LGBT Commission (to its belated credit) issued an apology that included this sharp rebuff to the organizers of the muzzling campaign:

“We also have heard from many who celebrate the cancellation of this event. We flatly reject the suggestion that there could be any joy or celebration in this outcome.”

Peter Beinart cancels in Berkeley: Muzzling or miscommunications?
At the same time that JVP was supporting the muzzling of Israeli LGBT activists in Seattle, they were condemning the cancellation of a talk to be given by The Crisis of Zionism author Peter Beinart in Berkeley.  Here is the headline from JVP’s site:

First the facts as best as I can piece them together. The Beinhart event was to be co-sponsored by the East Bay Jewish Community Center and the uber left-wing radio station KPFA.  Unbeknownst to the East Bay JCC, KPFA recruited Penny Rosenwasser to be the program’s moderator.  Rosenwasser is a member of JVP’s board and she works as Special Events Coordinator for the anti-Zionist Middle East Children’s Alliance.  Again without the East Bay JCC’s knowledge, KPFA began circulating announcements that this event was being co-sponsored by the East Bay JCC, and JVP!  Having been blind-sided by KPFA, the East Bay JCC decided to drop its co-sponsorship.

The program was not cancelled at this point, however.  Rather, Beinart decided on his own to drop out.  He told the Bay Area’s JWeekly that once the East Bay JCC pulled out of the program, “there was no sponsor that shared my opposition to full BDS and my commitment to Israel’s existence as a democratic Jewish state — I felt that speaking under those auspices would send the wrong message given that the core argument of my book is that we need to help Israel survive as a democratic Jewish state.”

So, while JVP’s MuzzleWatch was brandishing its incendiary headline decrying “McCathyism in the Jewish World,” the reality was far different.  It was Beinart himself who chose not lend his name to the anti-Zionist cause.  Meanwhile, a few weeks later across the Bay Beinart was hosted by the San Francisco JCC in a major program before an audience of some 200.  (See Peter Beinart waves the Zionist flag in JCCSF talk in the JWeekly).

The muzzle puzzle takes shape
As noted, the moderator chosen by KPFA for the cancelled Beinart talk was Penny Rosenwasser, who has one foot each in MECA and JVP.   The ideological affinity of JVP and MECA is quite close: both promote the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that seeks to isolate and dismantle Israel.  Secondly, there is a history of a close institutional relationship between the two groups, with MECA having once served as JVP’s fiscal agent.  This is important as we consider the next piece of the muzzle puzzle.

On May 5, 2008 MECA’s executive director, Barbara Lubin, was part of a group of some two dozen protesters that invaded the San Francisco JCC and held a noisy demonstration in the JCC’s lobby.  For two hours this group effectively shut down a seminar on the occasion of Israel’s 60th anniversary, organized by San Francisco’s Jewish Community Relations Council (full disclosure: at the time I was JCRC’s Middle East Affairs director).  Additionally, the protesters severely disrupted operations at the JCC that day, creating an intimidating environment for the JCC’s numerous clients including preschool children and seniors.  It took a large contingent from the SFPD (at taxpayers’ expense) to arrest the invaders and clear them from the JCC’s property.

Barbara Lubin, MECA Executive Director, (center in black) part of noisy demonstration that disrupted an "Israel at 60" seminar at the San Francisco JCC, May 5, 2008.

Needless to say, MECA’s Lubin never issued an apology and JVP’s MuzzleWatch, which by this time was already two years old, said nothing about this brazen act of muzzling and physical intimidation.

This was not Lubin’s first foray into muzzling speakers with whom she disagrees.  In November 2000 she was a principal organizer of a raucous demonstration in Berkeley that forced the cancellation of a speech by Benyamin Netanyahu, at the time a Member of Knesset and former prime minister.  The San Francisco Chronicle reported:

“The chief organizer of the protest, Barbara Lubin, executive director of  the  Berkeley-based Middle East Children’s Alliance, agreed Netanyahu had a right to  speak, ‘but we also have a right to try to stop him.'”

The protesters used physical intimidation to prevent the talk from taking place.  One eyewitness account reported in the San Francisco Chronicle:  “‘Never in America have I waited, and been turned away from a paid lecture that was unofficially canceled by a mob shouting accusations at me,’ wrote ticket-holder Judy Norris. ‘Harassed, hassled, with accusations shouted at me and my friend.'”

Lubin also said about her successful muzzling action, “If people are really interested in what Mr. Netanyahu has to say, they can open up the New York Times.”

Defending free speech, Berkeley’s mayor countered: “I don’t want to hear what Netanyahu says through something else. I think people have a right to hear him directly, to see him, to experience him.”

How does this relate to JVP and MuzzleWatch?  As noted, in 2000 Lubin’s MECA was serving as JVP’s fiscal agent, meaning donations to JVP were funneled through MECA as JVP was not yet registered as an independent non-profit organization.  Not surprisingly, JVP was silent on their fiscal agent’s muzzling free speech in Berkeley, home of the iconic Free Speech Movement.

Copying MECA’s penchant for disrupting the free speech of others, JVP through its Young, Jewish and Proud operation also engages in disruptions of programs organized by Israel supporters.  Whether it be a Birthright gathering (see their video here), or the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, or disrupting an AIPAC workshop, JVP sees no contradiction with their muzzling the free speech rights of others and their MuzzleWatch project.

Yet, JVP complains when the same organizations whose events they disrupt refuse to give them information booth space at their national gatherings!  In their statement complaining about the Berkeley Beinart cancellation, JVP wrote:

“Just last week, the Jewish Federations of North America rescinded authorization for our youth-led wing, Young Jewish & Proud (YJP), to operate an exhibition table at Tribefest, the Jewish Federations’ annual youth gathering. In response, YJP circulated an open letter to JFNA’s CEO and President Jerry Silverman urging him to rethink his locking of the gates.”

You do have to admire their chutzpa.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention that JVP itself once suffered a disruption.  In late 2010, a group of Bay Area pro-Israel activists inappropriately invaded and disrupted a JVP meeting in Berkeley.  During the commotion, one of the pro-Israel activists used pepper spray on some JVPers under circumstances that are still in dispute.  JVP cried foul, and rightly so.  After all, disrupting the meetings or programs of your political opponents is a form of muzzling and is fundamentally anti-democratic.

Right?

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