Pro-Israel groups are calling on residents throughout the New York metropolitan area this weekend to assemble at Greenburgh Town Hall this Monday at 5:30 p.m. to protest Town Supervisor Paul Feiner’s decision to allow a non-Greenburgh Westchester-based political action group free use of Town Hall to host at 6:30 p.m. that night a two-hour “evening” and fundraiser with two prominent speakers opposed to Israel’s policies against Palestinians.
Mr. Feiner is reportedly allowing the event to occur over the objections of Greenburgh police chief Chris McNerney who may have to devote substantial police resources and tax dollars to ensure the event and protest remain peaceful.
Ever since 9/11, when Mr. Feiner was ridiculed for unilaterally banning groups he did not like, such as the Town’s Antenna Review Board, from meeting in Greenburgh Town Hall – a decision he was subsequently forced to reverse — he’s been told year after year that the Town must enact a building use policy that imposes reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on who may use the taxpayer-financed building and when such use may be denied.
It happened as recently as two years ago, when local Republicans called for an investigation after Mr. Feiner was caught allowing a pro-Obama campaign group free use of Greenburgh Town Hall to conduct phone banks to canvass voters.
To prevent taxpayer-funded facilities from being host to controversial political events that are likely to consume substantial tax dollars in police protection and security costs, most municipalities and school districts in America have enacted so-called “reasonable time, place and manner” building use policies that, for example, do not permit outside private organizations to use government facilities for their events unless the organization is a not-for-profit entity which has a local branch in which 50% of more of its members are residents. Many municipalities even go further and do not permit outside organizations to use government facilities to engage in fundraising.
Because Mr. Feiner has failed for decades to enact any such policies, there does not appear to be any Greenburgh policy in place governing use of Town Hall (although there are restrictions in place for the library and for the Town’s recreational facilities).
Consequently, because he neglected to enact any building use policies, Mr. Feiner claims he would be denying the Westchester group its First Amendment rights of free speech if he denied them free access to Town Hall to host and raise funds for their anti-Israel event.
In short, the event – and the protest against the event – are taking place because Mr. Feiner is afraid he and the Town will be sued if he doesn’t allow free use of Town Hall.
His fear of a lawsuit is not unreasonable since, as a result of Mr. Feiner’s inaction, the Town has no “content-neutral” policy to prevent such events from taking place, and Mr. Feiner himself has already been found to have violated the constitutional rights of a church, which resulted in taxpayers last year having to pay a $6.5 million settlement – the largest such settlement of its kind in the country.
And the fallout from Mr. Feiner’s unlawful conduct continued this week, when a state appellate court unanimously held that because of the Town’s bad faith, it could not legally correct a Town’s zoning map to prevent a single-family residential parcel from being erroneously included in the Town’s commercial zone.
The two speakers scheduled for this Monday evening at Town Hall are Gideon Levy, an Israeli columnist for the newspaper Haaretz, and Suheil Khalilieh, the head of the Settlements Monitoring Department of the Applied Research Institute in Jerusalem.
Mr. Levy believes that Israel is a “violent and dangerous country” and has called for an international economic, cultural and academic boycott against Israel. Mr. Khalilieh often speaks on Israeli settlement activities and Israeli Army practices and policies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The event will be moderated by Natalie Kabasakalian, a New Rochelle-based attorney involved in human rights issues and member of the Westchester chapter of “Jewish Voice for Peace” – a Palestinian rights group which seeks to have Israel’s borders restored to what they were in 1948.
The host for the event, Wespac, Inc., says on its website that it will be asking for contributions at the meeting in order to defray the costs of getting the speakers to attend and to pay them a speaker’s fee. Westpac calls itself a “leading force for progressive social change in Westchester County, New York, since 1974.” Among its causes are “anti-fracking/anti-nuclear and pro-safe energy, solidarity with Indigenous Peoples, an end to militarism and drone warfare and a just resolution to the Israel/Palestine conflict.”
Greenburgh residents began receiving emails earlier in the week asking them to assemble at Town Hall 5:30 p.m. Monday – an hour before the program is to start – to protest Mr. Feiner’s allowing the organization to use Town Hall at all for this purpose.
A group calling itself the “Jewish Rapid Response Coalition” said it will be holding a “rally” to protest the event. Organizers say the rally “is designed to send a message to our government officials, community members, and citizens across the nation that anti-Semitism and hate speech are not welcome and that we will not be silent when it occurs.”
“The elected officials of the Town of Greenburgh are permitting taxpayer-funded facilities to be used gratis for an event sponsored by anti-Semitic organizations that promote the destruction of Israel,” organizers said in one email blast being circulated.
“The featured speakers and sponsor organizations . . . promote the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement as their ‘agent of change’ for the terrorists murdering Israeli citizens on a daily basis. BDS proponents hope to replace Israel with a Palestinian state ‘from the river to the sea.’”
Organizers of the protest have also accused Mr. Feiner of trying to sabotage their efforts, claiming he’s made calls to try to discourage people from attending the protest Monday.
One website warned that Mr. Feiner’s “mismanagement is becoming a national news stor, adding, “There’s no question that Paul Feiner has made some pretty terrible decisions in the past, but hosting haters who defend Hamas terrorism while undermining protests against their hate is about to make his poor decisions of concern to people around the country and around the world.”
Organizers of the protest have also taken out ads in local newspapers, including in Friday’s Scarsdale Inquirer.
Mr. Feiner meanwhile is posting on these websites that he himself is “pro-Israel,” that he has visited Israel several times, and has a relative living there.