In the wake of last night’s angry protest at Town Hall — and after meeting for several hours this morning in executive session — the Greenburgh Town Board emerged today from behind closed doors to hold a five-minute “special meeting” to approve without discussion, explanation or prior notice to the public an interim “building use” policy that limits use of Town Hall meeting rooms for the balance of 2015 to “town-appointed boards, councils, committees and commissions, as well as any other group already appearing on the town’s meeting calendar as of October 2, 2015.”
In keeping with the Town’s hastily-conceived action, the agenda for the meeting was not posted until this morning and no copy of the actual resolution creating the interim policy was ever made public.
Town councilman Francis Sheehan remarked that the Town would now begin to work on a more long-term building use policy, and promised to implement it quickly.
The Town Board action came less than 24 hours after the pro-Israel “Jewish Rapid Response Coalition” organized around 150 people to protest Town Supervisor Paul Feiner’s decision to allow a non-Greenburgh Westchester-based political action group free use of Town Hall last night to host an anti-Israel fundraiser featuring two prominent speakers opposed to Israel’s policies against Palestinians.
Mr. Feiner yesterday gave protesters promotional flyers on official Town letterhead saying he had to allow the anti-Israel group to have free use of Town Hall for its fundraiser because he had never implemented a building use policy for any Town Hall meeting rooms and feared violating the group’s First Amendment rights of free speech if he denied them access.
In fact, after 9/11, Mr. Feiner barred use of Town Hall by the Antenna Review Board with whom he was feuding at the time — forcing the board to meet outdoors in the Town Hall parking lot. But after Mr. Feiner was ridiculed a few months later into allowing the board back into the building, no formal building use policy was ever adopted. The issue arose again in 2012, after Republicans called for an investigation of Mr. Feiner after he was caught allowing the Obama campaign free use of Town Hall to conduct phone canvassing.
The fear of more Feiner-inspired lawsuits against the Town was not unrealistic. Town taxpayers are already footing the bill for a $6.5 million settlement — the largest against a municipality in U.S. history — after Mr. Feiner was found guilty of violating the constitutional rights of a church in a land use dispute.
Town Hall closed for business early yesterday at around 4 p.m. — without notice to the public — so that police could sweep the building for explosives, install metal detectors at the door, and set up barricades and cones to control the crowd and allow those attending the meeting and fundraiser to enter the building.
Despite efforts to prevent a confrontation, protesters from the pro-Israel group did manage to gain entry to the packed Town Hall meeting room where the anti-Israel group was meeting and a video of the encounter was widely circulated today among pro-Israel groups that had supported the demonstration. In the 45-minute video, a portion of which is shown above, angry protesters bearing large signs were seen heckling one of the speakers — bringing the meeting to a halt — with many in the crowd singing, “We Shall Overcome.”
The video also shows a prominent political supporter of Mr. Feiner from Hastings appearing to block the aisle so that protesters would not be able to get close to the event’s organizers or its featured speakers.
Several Greenburgh residents who saw the video said they were embarrassed that Mr. Feiner would have allowed such a meeting to take place on town property, calling it an especially “cringe-worthy” moment in the history of Mr. Feiner’s 24-year tenure as town supervisor.
In the meantime, videos taken by those who participated in the anti-Israel meeting also began circulating today on the Internet. These videos (four of which are on the enclosed link) show one of the two speakers, Gideon Levy, confronting the hecklers.
Mr. Levy, an Israeli columnist for the Ha’aretz newspaper, is an outspoken supporter of an international economic, cultural and intellectual boycott of Israel.
“Levy’s speech was frequently disrupted by pro-Israel activists,” read one account of the meeting. “The police refused to remove the hecklers on free-speech grounds, and the crowd was too left-wing to do much beyond singing We Shall Overcome and standing in front of the hecklers in an effort to maintain order.”
This was not the first time in recent years that Mr. Feiner’s actions as town supervisor have upset Jewish groups. In 2012, Mr. Feiner registered a public protest with Metro North after it allowed pro-Israel billboards to be posted at the Hartsdale Train Station that were critical of Islamic extremism. Mr. Feiner claimed the billboards were “anti-Muslim” and demanded that Metro North warn its customers that the views were not those of the transit agency.
The Metro North billboards were posted by a pro-Israel group after a pro-Palestinian group posted billboards at Metro North stations that were critical of Israel which, the pro-Israel group pointed out, Mr. Feiner did not object to.
“Why didn’t Feiner react as viscerally when the same kiosks had vicious blood libels posted about Israel?,” a sponsor of the pro-Israel ad said at the time. “Feiner is OK with anti-Jewish ads. His bias is showing.”