Plus ça Change for Israel-Linked Event at Chicago LGBTQ Conference

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Protesters accused A Wider Bridge of “pinkwashing,” a term anti-Israel activists have coined to draw attention to what they say is Israel’s promotion of its welcoming policies and attitudes toward the LGBTQ community in order to deflect attention away from what the activists claim is the continued mistreatment of Palestinians.

 

About 200 protesters filled the halls outside a reception room of the Hilton Chicago. Their purpose: to disrupt an Israel-centered event by chanting slogans like “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” and “No justice, no peace” during the National LGBTQ Task Force Creating Change conference on Jan. 22.
 
The conference is the largest LGBTQ gathering of its kind in the nation, with roughly 4,000 people in attendance this year. 
 
The demonstrators were protesting A Wider Bridge, a San Francisco-based organization that forges relationships between Israel and the LGBTQ community.
 
They objected to the event, accusing A Wider Bridge of “pinkwashing,” a term anti-Israel activists have coined to draw attention to what they say is Israel’s promotion of its welcoming policies and attitudes toward the LGBTQ community — both in the country itself and to international tourists drawn by those attributes — in order to deflect attention away from what the activists claim is the continued mistreatment of Palestinians.
 
The group of mostly independent protesters held up signs and chanted anti-Israel slogans like the former — the same one Yasser Arafat and other Palestinian nationalists used —viewed by some who heard them as anti-Semitic. No arrests were made at the protest, which was held to ostensibly oppose the only country in the Middle East that recognizes LGBTQ rights. 
 
The Task Force originally canceled A Wider Bridge’s reception a week prior when talk of a protest began, but the event was reinstated a few days later after some urging from community leaders and social media.
 
Arthur Slepian, founder and executive director of A Wider Bridge, said about 100 people were in the room, and about 50 people were trying to attend but couldn’t even make it past the protesters.
 
A Wider Bridge was sponsoring the reception for Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance (JOH), an organization that is trying to develop a LGBTQ community in Jerusalem, which is no easy task.
 
Leaders from JOH intended to share their stories and talk about the way they’ve helped the Israeli community heal from last year’s stabbings and murder at Jerusalem’s annual Gay Pride Parade.
 
Slepian said this is a story everyone would have wanted to hear, but after he began his opening remarks, about a half-dozen protesters managed to enter the reception room. 
 
They took over the stage, and some guests exited through a side door.
 
As a result, hotel security completely shut down the event because the size of the crowd outside the room became a fire hazard.
 
JOH “is an organization that works with Palestinian gay people, and religious gay people and secular gay people,” Slepian said. “I think their values are really very similar to the values of the community of Creating Change. They should have been welcome, and instead these folks got caught in the firestorm of the protests.
 
“It seemed like the only thing that really mattered was that they were from Israel and that they were there at Creating Change with A Wider Bridge. I think that the main message is that the protesters want to silence any conversation about Israel except the ones they want to have.”
 
Slepian has privately reached out to some protesters and organization leaders but has not heard back, he said.
 
“[JOH] was not there as representatives of the Israeli government, and we were not there as representatives of the Israeli government,” he continued. “We were there to tell a story about LGBT life in Israel. That’s our mission — to build these kinds of connections and help people learn from one another and support one another. I think that the value of our work has truly been underscored by all of these events.”
 
Jason Landau Goodman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Youth Congress, attended the reception but also left when he heard the commotion of the protesters.
 
He was distraught from what transpired and said it was unprecedented in the way it un-folded.
 
“I think it is a very heavy conversation that’s happening within the larger LGBTQ community, of which there are certainly LGBTQ Jews who are a part of it,” he said. “I think we really are having a wake-up call to the civil discourse that needs to take place about all of these issues and making sure there’s a safe space for all points of view.”
 
There were about 30 other Jewish organizations at Creating Change, and Goodman said they have always held a Shabbat service.
 
But Goodman said the services are not exactly unified. There were two services — one was fairly normal in procedure, while the other was anti-Zionist.
 
“It just broke my heart that we couldn’t even pray together,” he added.
 
Groups can fund their own receptions after Shabbat services, which A Wider Bridge did for JOH and other guests.
 
There were no protesters at either service.
 
Although Creating Change is all about communication and open forums, Goodman said it was not a safe space emotionally that day.
 
This was Goodman’s seventh time attending Creating Change, and he hopes in the future, they can work together in a peaceful manner.
 
“It’s a fight that is happening within the LGBT movement right now,” he said, “and so there are important conversations in this part of the community, but I think as we’re able to deal with them, hopefully, we can deal with them in broader society as well.”
 
Mark Segal, founder and publisher of Philadelphia Gay News, heard about the protest while at the conference.
 
Segal has been an advocate for social justice since the age of 13, and he was disappointed in the LGBTQ community, comparing the chants at the protest to those of Kristallnacht.
 
“I’ve been doing what I’m doing now for almost 50 years, and it was a low moment in the gay movement,” he explained. “We are a very peaceful community, and usually we can dialogue within our community and do it on a very peaceful level. I have never seen anything of this magnitude in my life in the LGBT community. It was disgraceful.”
 
He thinks protesters were probably amateurs who did not know how to organize a peaceful protest.
 
The demonstrators were an unorganized group of ad hoc protesters, some of whom did belong to the Gay Liberation Network of Chicago, Segal noted.
 
The Jewish Exponent reached out to the Gay Liberation Network but did not hear back from a representative.
 
On the network’s Facebook page, the organization is described as “not a narrow, ‘gay rights-only’ group. While we focus on LGBT rights, we recognize that ours is truly a rainbow community, of all genders, races and religious beliefs (or lack thereof). As such, we offer direct solidarity to those fighting oppression, whether they are LGBT or not.”
 
If anything can come from this, Segal said, it is a learning experience.
 
“My personal belief is that a lot of people were misled and had no idea what slogans they were shouting,” he said. “They didn’t realize those slogans meant the eradication of Jews. They had no idea. Now that you’ve seen the monster, it’s time to tame that monster or train that monster or educate that monster.”
 
He said this occurrence will change the gay rights movement in a powerful way.
 
“You can’t support a Palestinian state that says ‘Death to homosexuals,’ ” he added. “You can complain about the treatment of Palestinians by the Israelis, that’s one thing. But you cannot support a Palestinian or any state that supports death to gays. And up to this point, some gay people were. I think that will now change.”
 
In Philadelphia, Segal said he is planning a forum to talk about what happened in Chicago, but within the context of LGBTQ rights as opposed to outside issues that the protesters focused on.
 
Additionally, next year’s Creating Change conference will take place in Philadelphia.
 
“I think Creating Change is about a dialogue of all issues. You don’t create change in a society unless you talk and communicate,” Segal said. “I was a sponsor at last year’s and I will be a sponsor of this coming year’s, and I will assure you there will be a workshop on anti-Semitism.” 
 
Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0737
 

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