What would an arts-funding season be without a little controversy surrounding our favorite political arts organization, the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center? On August 17, the Express-News reported that a feud was on between Esperanza and its north-central neighbor, the Reform congregation Temple Beth-El, over Esperanza’s championing of the Palestinian viewpoint in the ongoing Middle-East conflict. The word “anti-Semitic” was introduced, although not by the Temple’s Rabbi Barry Block, who put the train in motion with an op-ed he submitted to the daily.
Rather than publish Block’s commentary immediately, the Express-News asked whether they might pass it along as a tip to their news department, which then ignited a virtual media firestorm with a story that managed to gore everyone’s ox without ever describing the alleged anti-Semitic material in question. (The E-N has since told Block that it will publish his commentary, and it may be in print by now.)
By Sunday, E-N columnist Susan Yerkes was reporting that the Esperanza had sued former City figurehead Ed Garza over a similar issue (Howard Peak was actually the offending mayor in 1997 when the Esperanza was defunded because of its lesbigay-friendly programming, resulting in a lawsuit, Esperanza et al. v. the City of San Antonio, and a half-mil settlement for Esperanza), and E-N flamethrower Roddy Stinson was stoking the blaze. The latter inspired the coinage of this gem:
Stinson’s Choice Stin-sunz choyce n (2006) : An uncomfortable position that results when a kneejerk conservative must choose between the lesser of two liberals. Can be salved with circular logic.
We’re not kidding about the lesser of two liberals, either. Block, who says that he agrees “with the overwhelming majority of Esperanza’s agenda,” devoted one of his sermons during the 2005 High Holidays to encouraging his congregation to reject Prop 2, the amendment to the Texas Constitution that banned same-sex marriages when it passed last November. When the City cut the organization’s funding in ’97, Block donated money to Esperanza. Block is also a former board president of Planned Parenthood of San Antonio and South Central Texas. Planned Parenthood’s President and CEO, Jeffrey Hons, served on the Esperanza’s board (along with this writer) in the the early ’90s, and Planned Parenthood and Esperanza have collaborated on a series of films that support women’s reproductive rights. (p.s. rumors spawned by the August 17 story that Planned Parenthood is seeking to distance itself from Esperanza are not true, says Hons.) As in most San Antonio affairs, there are two degrees of separation (on a windy day), and lots of love. So what gives?
The reporter of the original E-N story quoted the current mayor and former judge, Phil Hardberger, on point: “The line between art and politics is obscure, but I think that Esperanza runs the risk of losing its (city) funding if it gets too far into the political arena,” he said — not necessarily a legally defensible position, but more on that later.
Esperanza has always pursued its mission — to give voice to the marginalized — through literature, performance, film, and visual art. Consequently, the art it supports often makes people uncomfortable and angry. Because it receives public money for some of its programming from the City of San Antonio, Esperanza is easily targeted by critics through the political and volatile arts-funding process — exactly what happened in 1997, when anti-gay activists convinced the City that they should pull Esperanza’s allowance. Adding to the combustibility of the situation, Esperanza also engages in purely political activities, and publishes a monthly newsletter, La Voz, that includes essays covering topics from human rights to Westside history to “the lark of the border,” Lydia Mendoza.
La Voz, which receives no City monies according to Esperanza Director Graciela Sanchez and Office of Cultural Affairs Director Felix Padrón, is the proximate cause of Block’s ire.
“I read essays in La Voz that were extremist anti-Israel essays, to the point that they were saying Israel should not exist,” says Block. A brief excerpt from “Dardasha,” an article by Nadine Saliba in the July/August 2006 issue: “For decades now … Palestinian women have played a central role in alleviating the socio-economic devastation of the Israeli occupation and in addressing the … psychological wounds visited upon the Palestinian people as a result of Israeli atrocities and indiscriminate violence.”
Block adds that he was concerned that Esperanza was presenting only one viewpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as far back as 2001, when Esperanza first began introducing issues related to the Middle-East, but says that his offer to meet with Sanchez at the time went unanswered (Sanchez says she doesn’t recall the invitation). On this point, it’s worth noting a Peer-Panel comment regarding the Esperanza from the 2004 City funding cycle: “Program gives voice to the marginalized but no aesthetic participation from other elements that they want to be able to speak to — internal dialogue amongst marginal groups.”
More recently, Temple members offered to provide Jewish voices for the Mid-East dialogues Esperanza has held this year, but they were rebuffed, Block says. “They said no, we have our own Jewish voices,” recalls Block. “So they have some people who happen to be Jewish but have no affiliation with the Jewish community.”
Sanchez says that Esperanza is simply doing for Palestine what it has done for people of color and the queer community: “We’re very much about trying to find connections, trying to bridge rather than creating walls.” In the case of the Middle-East conflict, she says, that includes understanding the purported enemy. “Why are they terrorists? What is their story?
“Where is the place the Esperanza is working to wipe out the Jewish community?” she adds. “I would say that the Esperanza supports the existence of Israel — but the existence of Palestinians in Israel as well.”
Sounds like yet another issue on which Esperanza is within negotiating distance of Block, who says he represents a Jewish community that “is concerned about the ongoing welfare of the Jewish people, which requires a secure and Jewish state of Israel living in peace beside a secure Palestinian state with defensible borders.”
So this might be just another intractable and seemingly endless debate between neighbors over details and blame — the right to free speech front-and-center, please — if it weren’t for the City arts funding.
“What I know is that some of this programming, and much of what I see in La Voz, is unrelated to art,” says Block. Sanchez repeats that La Voz is not funded by City money, but at Esperanza the threads are not so easily sorted out. Saliba’s essay, “Dardasha,” billed as part of the “Uprooted Series,” is an excerpt from a roundtable discussion that is also part of the “Occupied Peoples” series that Block criticizes as one-sided.
The “Uprooted Series,” parts of which Sanchez says are eligible for City funding, also includes the ongoing painting exhibit by Salwa Arnous, “They Uprooted the Palestinians, Now They’ve Uprooted the Olive Trees,” a poetry workshop with Pushcart-Prize-winner Steve Kowit, who La Voz billed as “a committed anti-Zionist whose poem ‘Intifada’ `on the Esperanza website` decries the theft of the Palestinian homeland,” and an upcoming appearance by the parents of Rachel Corrie, the American activist who was killed by an Israeli Defense Forces bulldozer in Gaza in 2003.
Kowit, perhaps, could be our poster artist for this entire flap: “a committed anti-Zionist” who is not “affiliated with the `San Antonio` Jewish community,” but also a bonafide artiste whose work is founded in his political views. Who’s got the stomach to fund that?
Well, the City for one, its mettle steeled by Esperanza v. City of San Antonio, which effectively says that if the government is going to fund a type of thing, it can’t pick and choose among those things based on content alone — in legalese, it can’t privilege one view over another. Not unlike the public library, perhaps, where you might find Mein Kampf as well as The Diary of Anne Frank. Office of Cultural Affairs Director Felix Padrón declined to comment further on the issue, noting that agencies receiving funding, including Esperanza, have been through a review process for their current grants, and have just completed a new-and-improved panel review for the 2006 funding recommendations. “The new process has a mechanism in place to really focus on arts and culture,” he says. “That conversation takes place and that’s part of the review process.”
Who else might — if grudgingly — write a check for some of Esperanza’s activities? Theoretically Block, who says of Arnous’s paintings, “I feel very saddened by it and it’s disturbing to me, but I think that the fact that it’s disturbing to me doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be funded.
“That’s what Nazis and communists and jihadis do: they judge art by its content rather than by its quality.”
What all the fuss apparently comes down to is this: Block would simply like the Esperanza to include progressive pro-Israeli voices in its Middle-East dialogues. Then the combatants in this local tussle might be able to step away from that equally intractable debate, What is art? l