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Standing firm: Ra’anan Gissin. Photo by John Whipple.

No Middle Ground

Controversial UAlbany appearance by Israeli official goes off without incident—and without changed minds

Yes, that is good, you can raise the signs,” Dr. Ra’anan Gissin, senior advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said to the protester who held up a sign with the slogan “Free Palestine” at Gissin’s speech on University at Albany’s uptown campus Monday night. “Yes, that’s the broken record you’ve been harping for the last 30 years, and look what it’s brought you—more suffering.”

Gissin spoke as part of a national movement by Jewish ethnic and religious groups called Caravan for Democracy, which brings prominent Israelis to lecture on college campuses across the United States. Gissin said he brought “a message of peace,” but a number of student demonstrators faulted UAlbany for allowing student groups to cosponsor a man who, to them, represented genocide.

“In all respects, [Sharon] is an indicted war criminal,” said Yunus Fiske, leader of the campus chapter of Stop U.S. Aid to Israel Now, and one of the protest’s leaders. “People would think it would be inappropriate for a senior advisor for Milosovich to come and talk about the occupation of Bosnia.”

A total of roughly 25 to 30 activists protested outside the event, and a smaller number of pro-Israel students countered on the other side. A handful of anti-Sharon students later disrupted Gissin’s lecture.

Gissin’s speech came at a time when tension was already high between UAlbany’s Jewish community and activists protesting Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

“There has been some chalking, some flyers being ripped down, a couple of anti-Israel slogans that were written onto one of the flyers at the student Hillel office,” said David Liebschutz, executive director of SUNY’s chapter of Hillel, a nationwide Jewish community organization.

“Remember Jenin” was one such phrase, and “Zionism is just another dirty word” showed up in more than one spot.

“Graffiti is the coward’s way out,” said Shelly Shapiro, director of community relations for the United Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York. “Caravan for Democracy is about dialogue.”

All anti-Sharon activists interviewed denied any involvement with the chalking.

“There’s a lot of backlash against us,” Fiske said, “and [the university is] trying to get rid of us as a group. . . . They’re saying that we’re anti-Semitic. . . . We have Jewish members, and I believe that both sides are terrorizing the other.”

The student groups backing the event—Hillel, Hamagshimim, and Tagar—and Jewish community leaders said they hoped the event would foster discussion.

For much of the time, the two groups, standing on opposite sides of the small fountain in front of the Campus Center, just chanted slogans at each other.

“Hey hey, ho ho,” they shouted, with each side respectively finishing with “Arafat . . .” or “Sharon . . . has got to go.”

Civil dialogue eventually took place among a few individuals, but both camps also had one or two people who did not seem interested in talking. Metroland photographer John Whipple said that as he tried to take a photo of speakers from opposing sides talking calmly, a protester from the pro-Israel side blocked his view with a sign and refused to move.

As Gissin began to speak, Fiske remained standing with his hand raised in a victory sign. Gissin said Israel wants peace with its neighbors, but added that the rest of the world often unfairly questions its legitimacy, and he said he has found he must spend most of his time justifying Israel’s existence to its detractors.

“Before I can explain the policies of Ariel Sharon or Barak, I have to explain why I exist,” he said.

Six other protesters joined Fiske in the back of the audience, numbering roughly 400 people. The protesters shouted slogans such as “End the occupation,” “End apartheid,” and “The occupation is terrorism,” and Gissin spent much of his time addressing the protestors directly, often seeming to identify them as Palestinians themselves.

“You can try to reason with people,” Gissin began at one point, referring to his claim that Israel has made every effort to negotiate with Palestine.

“Not with Sharon,” a protester cut him off.

“You know, we have been surviving you and other people like you for 4,000 years before your people walked the face of the Earth,” Gissin shot back, drawing thunderous applause.

“I feel like after the guy who held up the banner made his point, [Gissin] made us the target for the rest of the time,” said one of the seven speech protesters, who asked to remain anonymous. “I don’t feel that [Gissin] made any points. He pretty much made anybody in the opposition out to be a Palestinian.”

Gissin said that while Israel has always worked for peace, terrorism must be confronted and fought. He compared the fear many Western nations now have of terrorism to Israel’s fight with Palestinians and other Arab nations. Gissin said he hoped more of the world would recognize that fighting back against terror is necessary. He also defended Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory as provoked by suicide bombings, and downplayed the United Nations’ criticism of Israel’s actions in the occupied territories.

“In Jenin, we applied the highest military standard that no other military has applied,” Gissin said.

After violent protests against pro-Israeli speakers in Berkeley, Calif., last year and in Montreal this year, the event’s organizers had some safety concerns. In fact, private security accompanied Gissin, and campus police milled around the protest. But the event ended peacefully. While anti-Sharon protesters condemned the suicide bombings that Gissin spoke about, their leaders were not persuaded by his speech, and while pro-Israel demonstrators said they understood Palestine’s desire for a homeland, they were unmoved.

“It took a lot of courage for these people to be out here, but they’re really missing the point,” said Julien Andrew, who demonstrated on the pro-Israel side.

“We got our message across,” said Usman Farooq, vice president of the Muslim Student Association and a protest leader. “Obviously, we can’t go to Israel and change what is going on, but this is the least we could do.”

At around 10 PM, Farooq mentioned that he had been protesting outside since noon, and could no longer feel his toes in the cold weather.

“But you have to stick with what you believe in,” he said.

—David Riley

Spend now, save later: Michael Connors. Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen.

Take Your Kids to Work

Albany County has not been spending all of its available grant money for child care for the poor

Over the past four years, Albany County’s Department of Social Services has wasted more than $2 million available from the state of New York to provide child care for the poor, according to one county official.

“What we do does not meet the test of common sense or dollars and cents,” said Michael Connors, Albany County comptroller. “The negative opportunities that are presented by not putting poor mothers to work or to school because we didn’t use the day-care funds is just plain stupid, wasteful and downright sinful.”

Subsidized child care is offered to families in New York state who are striving for self-sufficiency and who could use the services to be able to work or attend school. Families receiving public assistance are guaranteed these services, but the program is not exclusive to welfare recipients. Families living at twice the poverty level and families transitioning from welfare to independence may also receive child-care support.

According to documents from the New York state Office of Children and Family Services stating the amount of money given to counties by the state to provide subsidized child care, Albany County has been receiving more day-care resources than it uses. In 1999, the county rolled over $1.7 million of unspent state grant money for child care, and in 2000 the county did not use more than $750,000 allocated for these services.

Jim Plastiras, DSS communications director, said the money from 1999 was used the following year when the need was greater, but Connors said that is an excuse for the fact that DSS has not developed and encouraged new ways to spend child care money when it is allocated.

“If a million dollars isn’t spent and you use $4,000 as the cost to provide child care, you’re saying that 250 kids aren’t going to get day care this year that could’ve gotten it,” Connors said. “That also means there are a number of moms on welfare that didn’t go back to work.”

Prior to publication, DSS officials did not provide information stating whether Albany County spent all of its 2001 allocation. Information for 2002 won’t be available until the end of the calendar year, but DSS officials said they are on pace to spend the entire allotment.

Albany County receives the majority of its subsidized child-care funding from the New York state Child Care Block Grant. The counties are given an allotment based on past expenditures, and are then given an additional reserve allotment. The more than $750,000 that went unspent in Albany County in 2000 was reserve fund money.

The state further gives counties the opportunity to spend more on subsidized child care by reallocating unspent reserve money to municipalities that have used both their initial and reserve allocations. In 2000, when Albany County did not use its reserve fund allocation, Schenectady County spent all it was given and then more. According to Susan Antos, staff attorney for the Greater Upstate Law Project, an advocacy group compiling a report on the state of subsidized child care statewide, Schenectady County was given an additional $670,000 in the year 2000 on top of its initial and reserve-fund allocations.

“Schenectady has always spent all of their money,” Antos said. “They turn nobody away for child care. In terms of meeting the need of eligible families, not only does Schenectady County spend all their money, but they serve every eligible person who applies, and their eligibility levels are higher than any other city in the Capital District area.”

Connors described the reserve funds and constant reallocations as encouragements for counties to spend more on child care, but Albany County DSS officials disagree.

“It is more accurate to look at the reserve fund as a cushion historically,” said Ed Shannon, executive director of planning and contract management with DSS. “There has been no lack of services, so I see no need for carrot or a stick. There’s more of a need for a safety valve.”

“It is easy for a guy making $75,000 to talk about the poor being used as part of the cushion for a political budget that fails the poor and the taxpayers as well,” Connors said. “It takes shortsightedness into blindness.”

While Shannon said DSS services are not being withheld from those who need them, Antos said her group’s report will show that “need” is difficult to define. According to a draft version of the report to be released on Nov. 22, “the Office of Children and Family Services maintains no data on the numbers of eligible children in need of child care subsidies . . . nor does it require social services districts to do so.”

Welfare reform of the late 1990s resulted in the counties having to bear more of the burden for providing child care services to the poor. But the reforms also brought increased funding to the counties, a jump in funding which DSS said it was unprepared to handle.

“The child-care block-grant money was new in 1999-2000, and a lot of the counties had problems weighing up to that,” said Shannon “There is a maintenance of effort requirement, which we always meet and spend more than.”

The spending requirements Shannon said DSS has been meeting and exceeding are prerequisites to receiving the state funds. Albany County’s spending requirement, just more than $1 million, was based on total child-care expenditures in 1998. Spending from 1998 is less than half of what is spent at present, approximately $10.5 million. This means that less than 10 percent of the total currently spent on subsidized child care in Albany County is paid for by county taxes. Considering the county’s minimal required contribution, Connors said he disapproves of DSS’s “prudent” approach to spending money handed out by the state.

“The major fault is that social services in Albany County looks at this from an examiner’s point of view rather than a caseworker’s point of view,” said Connors. “The examiner is happy if they get to knock a guy off the rolls so we save money. The caseworker’s point of view is, we’ve got to get this guy back to work so he is generating income and protecting his family and generating taxes for society.”

The caseworker’s point of view may be more difficult to find in Albany County, considering that the number of caseworkers has declined, according to a union leader working in the department. David Kircher, president of the Children, Youth and Family Services unit for Civil Service Employees Association, said that the total number of caseworkers working in the child-care unit has dropped, almost by half, since 1996 even though total spending on subsidized child care in the county has more than doubled during that period.

“We’ve always been understaffed,” said Kircher. “We have had vacancies in the child-care unit that haven’t been filled, and people have left the child-care unit and been transferred. It is a constant shuffling of people to meet current crises.”

Connors agrees with Kircher that better staffing could help the problem, but thinks a general change in philosophy would be more helpful.

“The state of New York holds the counties responsible through the state constitution to provide care for the indigent,” said Connors. “Sometimes you have to spend more today to avoid spending more down the line.”


Teri Currie

From Here to D.C.

Hundreds of local protesters rallied last Friday in Albany to voice dissent against a possible U.S. invasion of Iraq. The group of more than 300 demonstrators, including singers, speakers, sign-holders, drum-bangers and an array of activists, peacefully converged on the steps of the Capitol and then marched up Washington Avenue to Townsend Park, where a two-hour protest took place. Later that night, five busloads of demonstrators headed down to Washington D.C. to join tens of thousands of people in what officials are calling the largest antiwar demonstration since the Vietnam War.

Let’s Make a Deal

A spokesman for New York’s largest gay-and-lesbian advocacy group said its gubernatorial endorsement of incumbent Gov. George Pataki was influenced by last week’s announcement that the Republican-controlled Senate will vote on New York’s gay-rights legislation in a December lame-duck session.

“The vote [in December] was part of the calculation in looking at the endorsement, but it wasn’t the sole factor,” said Joe Tarver, spokesman for the Empire State Pride Agenda. “There was a real record of accomplishments to the gay-and-lesbian community on Pataki’s behalf. [Former Gov. Mario] Cuomo supported the bill for 12 years but he never got it through.”

A hail of criticism from Democrats, conservatives and Albany watchers followed Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno’s (R-C-Troy) declaration that the Senate will vote on the legislation for the first time in the bill’s 31-year history. A Bruno spokeswoman said the “timing is right on this issue,” but it is timing of the Republicans’ announcement that is in question.

“I never try to dwell on the motivation of politicians,” said Blair Horner, legislative director for the New York Public Interest Research Group. “But I’d be surprised if politics was not a factor in this decision. The governor has publicly called for the Senate to vote on it, which is Albany politics.”

The Sexual Orientation Non- Discrimination Act, first introduced in the Legislature in 1971, would grant New York’s gay-and-lesbian community the same civil rights benefits and protections provided to people based on age, race, religion, color, national origin, sex, disability and marital status.

“It adds just two words to the state human rights law: sexual orientation,” said Tarver. “[The bill] provides lesbians and gay men with the same protections that everyone else has, the right to have a job and not be fired because you’re gay, to sign a lease and not be denied because you’re a lesbian or gay. It gives the basic civil rights that everyone else in the country takes for granted.”

According to Tarver, the changes in state law since Pataki has been governor have been “very emotional and symbolic” to the New York’s gay-and- lesbian community.

“Before he was governor, sodomy between consenting adults was still a crime,” Tarver said. “We had no protections against hate crimes. He pushed for health benefits for domestic partners of state workers and state benefits for domestic partners of 9/11.”

But considering that the bill has never appeared before the state Senate in its more than three decades of existence—even after being passed each of the last 10 years by ever-widening margins in the Assembly and, for the first time this year, by a majority of Assembly Republicans—some observers think this particular quid pro quo could have a happy ending.

“The dependency on elections sometimes motivates politicians to change positions,” said Gerald Benjamin, dean of liberal arts and sciences at SUNY New Paltz. “None of them is free of political motivations in their behavior, nor should they be. If elections lead the government to deal with important issues and make decisions on them, then that is a good thing.”

—Travis Durfee

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