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Queens Museum Cancels, Then Reinstates Israel-Sponsored Event After Accusations of Antisemitism

Fallout from the cancellation and reinstating of the event, organized by Israel’s ambassador to the UN, raises concerns about how museums might do business in light of recent anti-BDS legislation.

The Queens Museum (photo via modesto/Flickr and used under CC BY 2.0 license)

Earlier this week, the Queens Museum cancelled an on-site event organized by Israeli officials to commemorate the 70th anniversary of their nation’s founding. Now the celebration is back on the schedule, following a decision by the institution yesterday, after swift backlash from many — including Israeli and New York politicians — who accused the museum of antisemitism. While Israel and the museum have seemingly made peace, the situation brings up concerns that this turn of events may set a precarious precedent for how museums conduct business — particularly in light of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s recent executive order mandating state agencies to boycott institutions and companies that support the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement, and as the State Assembly considers signing anti-BDS bills into law.

Organized by Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon, the November 29 event will be a reenactment of the UN’s 1947 vote for the partition of Palestine to form Israel. That vote occurred at the site of the Queens Museum, which was then the temporary home of the UN General Assembly. As the Jerusalem Post‘s Danielle Ziri reported, museum director Laura Raicovich had informed Danon this week that she was reversing her decision to allow the restaging, apparently citing concerns from “Palestinian friends of the museum.” The museum had reportedly notified the Israeli Mission that it had approved of the event in June; Raicovich’s message to Danon said that the board had voted not to hold a “political event.”

Cover of ‘Assuming Boycott: Resistance, Agency and Cultural Production,’ published by OR Books (cover by Josh MacPhee, image courtesy OR Books)

Danon, however, believed the decision to be an extension of Raicovich’s personal agenda and called for her immediate dismissal, declaring, “It is unacceptable for BDS activists to single out Israel and ban our event.” As evidence, he singled out Raicovich’s authorship of the book, Assuming Boycott: Resistance, Agency and Cultural Production, which includes a chapter on BDS and the cultural boycott of Israel. Published by OR Books, the title focuses on cultural boycotts in a vast array of situations, including those related to anti-apartheid struggles and the detention of asylum seekers unable to enter Australia.

New York officials, too, expressed support for Danon while decrying Raicovich, including Councilman Rory Lancman (D-Queens) and Assemblyman Michael Simanowitz (D-Queens), who issued a joint statement that described the museum’s decision as “a disgrace and a violation of law”; and comptroller Scott Stringer, who said it sent “a disappointing message,” particularly at a moment “when bigotry is on the rise.”

Following what it described as a “productive conversation” with Danon, the museum then decided to reverse its decision. The “Queens Museum will work with the Israeli Mission on the proposed commemoration of the 1947 vote,” the museum said in a statement to Hyperallergic. “We are deeply committed to all the communities we serve through our meaningful arts programming and we are looking forward to making this a successful event.” A spokesperson did not respond to Hyperallergic’s inquiries about the exact reasons behind the initial decision to cancel the event or those behind the reversal of that decision.

But some observers believe that the museum and Raicovich are targets of reckless reasoning and are rallying to their defense. OR Books’ co-publisher John Oakes, for one, was surprised to find Assuming Boycott at the center of Danon’s argument framing Raicovich as antisemitic.

“Danny Danon has been taking lessons in vitriol from Donald Trump,” Oakes told Hyperallergic. “Very quickly the Ambassador, with no evidence to hand, brought in accusations of antisemitism, and then callow local politicians piled on. No one who had bothered to look at our book could fairly call it even implicitly anti-Semitic, or even for that matter focused on Israel, which is just one of the examples discussed.

“Besides: the BDS movement is premised on the idea that we are all equal under the law, and that we each have the right and responsibility to withhold or to grant our time and our cultural and material resources as we see fit.”

In an email to Hyperallergic, co-editors of Assuming Boycott Carin Kuoni and Kareem Estefan defended Raicovich, asserting their belief that all her decisions are motivated only by her commitment to the museum’s mission. (For their part, they suspect that this most recent reversal was prompted by President Trump’s widely criticized response to the violence wrought by white supremacists in Charlottesville.) They, too, condemned the statements made by New York politicians as what they see as not only gross but also harmful misrepresentations of the BDS movement.

“Regardless of the eventual outcome of the event, what remains chilling is the immediate condemnation of a conscientious, well-respected museum director by NYC public officials who unthinkingly equated the boycott of an Israeli-sponsored event with antisemitism,” Kuoni and Estefan wrote. “The BDS movement is a nonviolent campaign rooted in international human rights principles, which stands against all forms of racial discrimination.

“It is utterly disingenuous to imply, as some NYC public officials have, that nonviolent actions carried out with ethical concern and solidarity for an oppressed population are in any way analogous to the violent bigotry of neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members, and all manner of apologists for slavery and Jim Crow segregation,” they added. “It is like comparing those courageous activists who took part in the Montgomery bus boycott and the Freedom Rides with those who beat them bloody in the streets.”

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