14th Street Y Abruptly Cancels BDS Group


After agreeing months ago to host a group that supports targeted divestment from Israel, The Educational Alliance’s 14th Street Y last week slammed the door on the group’s event with less than 48 hours’ notice.

The cancellation seems to have come after the event transformed from a low-key gathering to one that might generate media attention.

The Alliance cited safety and security concerns.

The May 27 “Go and Learn” event, which was instead held outdoors in a nearby park, was organized by Young, Jewish And Proud (YJP), the youth affiliate of Jewish Voice for Peace. The latter group is the only Jewish organization to be branded anti-Israel by the Anti-Defamation League.

In March, the Jewish Federations of North America rejected YJP’s request for a table at TribeFest, the second annual young leadership event in Las Vegas.

Sunday’s event was to be an opportunity for participants to “develop their own opinions” about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement intended to compel Israel to withdraw from the West Bank, says organizer Liza Behrendt, 23, who is a national board member of Jewish Voice for Peace and a recent graduate of Brandeis University.

It was at Brandeis last year that the campus Hillel declined to accept a JVP chapter at its facility.

YJP signed a contract in March to use a room at the Y for the nonprofit rate of $250 and had paid a $100 deposit for the event.

But at 8 p.m. Friday night, Behrendt received a call from Steven Hazan Arnoff, director of the Y, saying the center’s board had decided to cancel and citing concern about overcrowding, she said, noting that only about 30 people had signed up and the room’s capacity is 75.

“The subject matter scared the Y like it has scared others at Hillels and federations in other cities across the country,” she told The Jewish Week Tuesday.

The program called for several members of YJP to provide background information about divesting from companies they say profit from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

The cancellation followed an inquiry about the event by a reporter for The Forward on Friday afternoon, which was cited in Arnoff’s call to Behrendt.

In response to calls from The Jewish Week to the Y and Educational Alliance, the Alliance’s director of marketing, Linda Adams, sent an e-mail message Tuesday citing security concerns brought on by media attention.

“We cancelled this space rental for safety and security reasons,” wrote Adams. “At the time of the booking, Go and Learn told us that this would be a training for up to 35 people, but then they issued a press release last Friday (May 25) and we started getting calls from the media about it. We were concerned about large crowds that the press coverage would attract.”

Adams did not immediately respond to The Jewish Week’s inquiry about whether the Alliance and the Y were fully aware of the nature of the organization and its goals at the time they accepted the booking.

Behrendt said she had made the arrangements with other staff members at the Y but had not spoken to Arnoff before Friday.

The Y’s retreat from the program comes as activists are trying to pressure the Jewish Community Relations Council, which runs Sunday’s Celebrate Israel Parade, to exclude organizations that support the BDS movement or have any ties to it.

An online petition by JCCWatch, an informal group, urges the public to call the JCRC and UJA-Federation and “[tell] them that you do not want to march alongside radical anti-Israel groups like New Israel Fund, B’Tselem and Rabbis for Human Rights.”

The parade is the nation’s biggest pro-Israel demonstration of the year.

Michael Miller, executive vice president of the JCRC on Tuesday declined to comment on how many people had called his office with that message.

According to its website, Jewish Voice for Peace members “are inspired by Jewish tradition to work together for peace, social justice, equality, human rights, respect for international law and a U.S. foreign policy based on these ideals.”

In October 2010, the ADL listed the organization among 10 anti-Israel groups. While agreeing that JVP’s agenda was not substantially different than that of some other left-wing Jewish groups not included on the list, ADL National Director Abraham Foxman told The Jewish Week then that “The fact that they speak in the name of Jews to groups that are hostile to Israel, and in some cases to Jews, makes them more of a problem.”

Also in 2010, members of JVP heckled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the JFNA’s General Assembly in New Orleans, protesting a loyalty oath for Israeli citizens proposed by some Knesset members.

Behrendt said the goal of Young, Jewish and Proud is to provide “a place in the Jewish community for people to critically engage with Palestinian movements.” She added that the 14th Street Y was chosen because “we wanted to be in a place accessible to the New York Jewish community, where people would feel comfortable coming.”

Arnoff did not entertain the idea of rescheduling the event, or limiting participation in deference to concerns about the crowd, said Behrendt.

An abbreviated version of the event took place in nearby Stuyvesant Square Park after the participants assembled outside the Y and tried to persuade the staff to reconsider the cancellation.

“We weren’t able to get as deep into the discussion,” said Behrendt. “It was hot, and there were a lot of dogs around.”