January 25, 2016 at 11:54 am EDT | by Kevin Naff
Creating Shame: Anti-Israel protest misguided, offensive
Creating Change, gay news, Washington Blade

Protesters on Jan. 23, 2016, gather outside reception at the National LGBTQ Task Force’s annual Creating Change Conference in Chicago that was to have featured two LGBT rights advocates from Israel. (Photo courtesy of Andy Thayer/Gay Liberation Network)

While the East Coast was coping with this weekend’s blizzard, another storm was raging in Chicago at the site of the National LGBTQ Task Force’s annual Creating Change conference.

About 200 protesters forced the cancellation of a presentation by A Wider Bridge, an organization seeking to bolster “LGBTQ connections with Israel.” It was to have featured remarks from Sarah Kala-Meir and Tom Canning, leaders of Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, an LGBT community center. Protesters held signs that read, “No pride in apartheid,” to draw attention to the Israeli government’s treatment of the Palestinians. They also spoke out against efforts to promote Israel’s LGBT rights record, which they regard as “pinkwashing,” or distracting attention from the plight of the Palestinians.

Kala-Meir, executive director of Jerusalem Open House, told the Blade that the protesters began shouting at her and Canning. She said they left the room through a back door. “We did not feel safe in that environment,” she added.

Tony Varona, associate dean for faculty and academic affairs at American University Washington College of Law, attended the event.

“The protestors stormed the doors, shut down the event, and basically blocked those of us who wanted to leave from exiting,” Varona wrote on Facebook. “I was able to squeeze past the crowd blocking the hallway and exit through a back doorway and stairwell but after only considerable effort and, frankly, what can only be described as harassment.” He also claims that Task Force staff watched helplessly from the sidelines as this sorry scene unfolded.

The ugly incident began last week when the Task Force initially cancelled the panel featuring A Wider Bridge after some LGBT critics accused Israel of engaging in “apartheid” and “pinkwashing.” Task Force Executive Director Rea Carey later reversed that decision and reinstated the presentation, after pro-Israeli critics pounced. That set the stage for what transpired Friday.

Staff from the Windy City Times posted videos to YouTube of the protest. Protesters can be heard chanting, “Palestine will be free from the river to the sea.”

It’s not clear whether they understood the context of what they were chanting or if they were merely caught up in the moment. That genocidal chant is an overt call for the destruction of Israel, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Arthur Slepian, executive director of A Wider Bridge, told the Windy City Times he felt there was “a strong undercurrent of anti-Semitism” at the protest.

There is so much wrong with what transpired that it’s difficult to know where to start.

The irony of one underrepresented group shouting down and harassing another is sickening to watch. If you want to promote understanding and “intersectionality” of causes, then you must listen to others and respect their views. Silencing those you dislike isn’t the answer. This sort of group-think creates a mob mentality in which dialogue is impossible.

The organizers of Creating Change had to know something like this was brewing. Yet they had no control over the protest, which easily could have devolved into a dangerous situation.

“The Task Force did very little to ensure that the program …could go on as planned, safely and without disruption,” Varona reported. “Instead, the protestors were allowed to bully the speakers off the stage, and then to bully and harass the attendees out of the room.”

When your invited speakers are forced to flee out a back door, you have failed in your responsibility to ensure the safety of attendees. Task Force staff must do a better job of providing security and of maintaining control over their own events. Ceding the stage to protesters sets an irresponsible precedent.

Perhaps the most regrettable outcome: Kala-Meir and Canning from JOH were silenced and mistreated. Two years ago, I traveled to Israel with a delegation of LGBT leaders from the United States (the trip was not sponsored by A Wider Bridge) and several of us spent an evening at JOH with Tom and others. They were kind and hospitable and even took us out to dinner and to a small gay bar after our meeting. There we saw the important work that JOH is doing, from providing HIV testing services to creating a safe space for Jews and Arabs alike to meet and socialize. Their work is changing lives, but they face grave obstacles. Just five months ago, an Orthodox Jewish man stabbed a 16-year-old girl to death and injured five others during an attack on a Jerusalem Pride march organized by JOH. Sarah, Tom and their colleagues bravely carry out their work amid threats of violence from extremists on both sides of the conflict. They are good people who deserved better from their U.S. hosts.

So why all the fuss targeting these fellow LGBT activists? The misguided protesters don’t like that A Wider Bridge partners with the Israeli government, “including its most violent, right-wing, racist elements — to promote media favorable to Israel,” according to Andy Thayer of the Gay Liberation Network. But this assessment ignores the good work of both groups.

Even a cursory look into the organizations’ respective missions, alliances, donors, and activities will show that they are far from puppets of the Israeli government, are expressly pro-Palestinian in their positions, and both serve and include LGBTQ Palestinians in their work,” Varona rightly observed.

And would it be better if Israel treated its LGBT citizens like its neighbors in Egypt or Saudi Arabia or Syria? There’s a lot to criticize in the Israeli government these days, but its treatment of LGBT people isn’t among the problems. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s provocative policy of building new Jewish settlements has helped derail peace efforts. He has openly opposed a two-state solution. Progress will only come after he leaves office.

I have been to Ramallah and to the edge of the Gaza Strip and even met with a Palestinian negotiator. Life for hard-working Palestinians is undeniably difficult. Many can’t get to work without navigating long lines at dehumanizing checkpoints. This situation should not be allowed to persist and we are right to protest Netanyahu’s tactics that undermine peace.

But things aren’t much better on the other side. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas was elected president in 2005, but his term expired seven years ago. How can Israel negotiate a peace agreement with a partner who isn’t empowered to implement terms of a deal? The leadership vacuum has emboldened Hamas, which has further destabilized the region. The Israeli towns that border the Gaza Strip endure regular — sometimes daily — rocket attacks. There are bomb shelters on every street corner and residents all suffer some form of PTSD.

These problems are entrenched and complicated and have bedeviled every American president for decades. It’s unfortunate they were reduced to such simplistic terms by LGBT protesters in Chicago who seemed to call for the destruction of Israel. If that wasn’t their intent, then they should educate themselves and clarify their demands. Regardless, the good people of JOH didn’t deserve to be demonized in this way. Protest organizers and the Task Force owe them an apology.

And it’s time for a thorough rethinking of Creating Change itself. It’s a long-running, important conference for grassroots LGBT activists, many of whom feel disconnected from the marriage-dominated movement of the Human Rights Campaign. I have attended Creating Change many times and served on panel discussions for several years. It’s refreshing to meet with younger LGBT advocates and Creating Change provides a safe space for them to share ideas and tactics.

But “safe spaces” should refer to protecting the physical safety of attendees. They should not be shielded from opinions and ideas they find offensive. The LGBT movement has much work ahead, from protecting hard-fought victories of recent years to combating stubbornly high rates of HIV infection to ending youth homelessness. Censoring speech and shouting down those we disagree with should not be on our agenda. Creating Change organizers must behave like the parent in the room and establish some basic rules of engagement and enforce them. And there’s clearly much work to be done in educating younger advocates on the history of Israel, the Holocaust and the plight of LGBT people in the Middle East.

Here’s hoping the Task Force can turn the ugly, unfortunate events of last weekend into a teachable moment that fosters understanding.

Kevin Naff is editor of the Washington Blade. Reach him at knaff@washblade.com.

Kevin Naff is the editor and a co-owner of the Washington Blade, the nation’s oldest and most acclaimed LGBT news publication, founded in 1969.

  • scottrose

    The editorial isn’t nearly accurate enough about the underlying conflict.

    Middle Eastern Jews accepted, while Arabs rejected, the two state plan on offer from the U.N. in 1947. Had that two state plan been accepted by the Arabs, there would have been no wars and no refugees.

    It isn’t that in theory, Netanyahu and Israelis wouldn’t be in favor of another Arab state beside it living in peace and in mutually beneficial prosperity — It’s that on the Arab side, there are endless calls for Israel to be destroyed.

    In the recent wave of jihadist stabbings of Jews in Israel and of jihadists deliberately ramming vehicles into Jews at bus stops and elsewhere, Abbas has recorded Arabic videos praising the attackers and calling for more attacks. Abbas says that the attackers are spilling “pure blood for Jerusalem,” that they will be rewarded by Allah in heaven as martyrs and he adds for good measure that the “filthy feet” of Jews will never go near their mosque.

    Israel made what it thought was a land-for-peace deal in withdrawing entirely from the Gaza strip. For the first time in thousands of years, not a single Jew lived in Gaza.

    What did Israel get in return? A majority of Gazans voting for Hamas, whose charter calls for killing Jews, eliminating Israel and replacing it with an Islamic theocracy. Abbas formed a Palestinian unity government with THAT (beside making murderous incitements against Jews himself).

    As a matter of Realpolitik, if the “Creating Change” protesters achieved their goal of eliminating Israel, what would that most likely mean for LGBTers now living in that land?

  • sffoghorn

    Israel is losing legitimacy and and as Israel is being delegitimated, it is losing its composure. Had Israel not been perpetrating a crime spree of titanic proportions, then it would not be facing boycott, divestment and sanctions.

    Apartheid is offensive. Zionists replicating fascist patterns is offensive. Forcing Americans to pay for this crime spree is offensive. Perpetrating a crime spree in the name of all Jews is offensive.

    • The well known Zionist Nahum Goldmann wrote eloquently and instructively on that topic.
      http://www.islamicity.org/3020/zionist-ideology-and-the-reality-of-israel/
      [http://www.islamicity.org/3020/zionist-ideology-and-the-reality-of-israel/]

    • Bryan Bridges

      What apartheid? What fascism? I don’t think you understand what those words mean. Arabs in Israel have the right to vote, they serve in every level of government including the Supreme Court, they are doctors and patients in the same hospitals, professors and students in the same universities, eat in the same restaurants and ride the same public transit, etc.

      Israel has repeatedly tried to hand over Gaza and the West Bank (or,more accurately, over 90% of it with land swaps) in exchange for peace (just as they returned 91% of all the land gained in 1967 when they returned the Sinai to Egypt after Nasser indicated a willingness to make peace). The majority of Israelis support a withdrawal and the establishment of a peaceful Palestinian state, but that takes two sides to accomplish. Would you prefer that Israel just unilaterally separate and declare borders?

      Obviously, 0.25% of the world’s population (Jews) living on 0.0001365% of the world’s land (Israel) is a huge LBGT issue.

    • Daniel Leyva

      Anti-semitism is offensive.

  • Hmmm

    I need to challenge the assertion that A Wider Bridge partners with the Israeli government “including its most violent, right-wing, racist elements — to promote media favorable to Israel.” There is absolutely zero evidence for that statement. A Wider Bridge just isn’t in that space, that’s not what its business is about. And believe me, the Israeli government doesn’t need any help from tiny organizations like A Wider Bridge to promote whatever media it wants. This is just one of many convenient lies used to escalate the rhetoric and whip up anti-Semitic sentiment. It plays right into that old canard of Jews allegedly controlling the media. It’s offensive and just plain bigoted.

    • uhhuhh

      A Wider Bridge’s own website makes clear what it’s primary mission is: suppressing any boycott action toward Netanyahu. So it’s a tool for limiting critics to mere “talking” while Netanyahu completes the colonization and settlement of the West Bank.

      • Daniel Leyva

        Who’s paying you to troll this page?

        • Ryan Perry

          It’s not trolling to challenge specious assertions with facts.

      • scottrose

        You lying sack of antisemitic excrement.

        HERE is A Wider Bridge’s mission statement, copied from its website:

        OUR MISSION

        A Wider Bridge is the pro-Israel organization that builds bridges between Israelis and LGBTQ North Americans and allies.

        We focus on programming that builds personal connection, providing individuals and organizations, both in Israel and America, with opportunities for engagement, education and experience.

        We believe two kinds of outcomes will result from this work. First, through this unique LGBT path to Israel, more LGBT people in North America, both Jews and non-Jews, will find meaningful connection with Israel and Israelis. Second, through communication, learning about each other, and sharing of knowledge and best practices, the LGBT communities in both Israel and North America will grow stronger and better capable of advancing their goals.

        OUR VALUES

        Israel – We believe, that all Jews, both straight and LGBT, have a stake in Israel, in learning about its past, experiencing its present, and helping to shape its future. We believe there is a unique and powerful connection that LGBT people, both Jews and non-Jews, can have with Israel.

        Engagement – We believe in the intrinsic value of being in the conversation, of building relationships, of people learning about each other, sharing, and working together.

        Pluralism – We are open to a wide range of political perspectives and religious views. We promote the welcoming and inclusion of people of all sexualities and gender identities. We aspire to a world in which the lives of all people are celebrated.

        Communal Responsibility – Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh BaZeh (All Israel is responsible for one another) – We believe all Jews share a fundamental connection, and we see our work as part of the broader project of building creative new relationships among the Jewish people globally.

        Justice – We believe we are all obligated to do our part to create a better world, and we seek to empower LGBT Jews to be agents of social change in Israel, throughout the global Jewish community, and beyond.

        NOT A WORD ABOUT “suppressing any boycott action toward Netanyahu.”

      • scottrose

        No, the website says no such thing.

        Have you ever heard of fact checking?

  • Daniel Leyva

    This type of anti-semitism is dangerous. No one of us would like a group of conservatives to come and close your event, and take away your right to talk, just because you don’t like the people or the cause. This is reprehensible and the Task Force better conduct an investigation. Preventing anyone from exercising their first amendment rights is disgusting.

    • uhhuhh

      You repeating talking points straight from the Netanyahu-loving AIPAC is offensive.

      • Daniel Leyva

        LOL, I just don’t like anti-semitism. You know well who the anti-semites were in Germany, and this kind of action makes one wonder who really is behind all this… just saying. If you are trying to insult me, you gotta get better, because there is nothing worse than hating an entire group the way you people do.

        • Ryan Perry

          “You people”? Who people? You are equating criticism of Israel’s practices and policies with hating. That’s absurd, really. Where did you find hate?

          • scottrose

            Intimidating a gay rights group out of giving a presentation it was invited to give, and which nobody was being forced to attend, is not “criticism of Israel.”

            It’s harassment and intimidation of the gay rights advocates who were harassed and intimidated.

            The Nazis doing the protesting made clear that they want Israel eliminated. As a group, they chanted “Palestine will be free, from the river to the sea.”

            That is not criticism of “policy” or “practices.”

            That is siding with Hamas and Islamic Jihad against Israel.

  • uhhuhh

    What an intelligence-insulting piece of AIPAC propaganda.

    • AMartin123

      You can’t respond with facts, so you just get angry. Here’s a fact: Israel is heads and shoulders more free for gays and women and Christians and Arabs too, not to mention Jews, than any other place in the Mideast.

      • Ryan Perry

        …”more free” unless you happen to be Palestinian. In that case, Israel is as barbaric in its repression of ‘the other’ as any other repressive state has been throughout history. Comparing Israel in this way, as a means of justifying its horrendous human rights record…is like saying in 1980 that South Africa is more advanced than the rest of its neighbors in the way it treats gays and women and so therefore…what, exactly? It gets a pass on its apartheid policies?

        • scottrose

          Israel does not kill known homosexuals only for being homosexual; Hamas does that, Hamas in the West Bank also does that sometimes in the West Bank.

          This is the insanity of your position.

          There is an enemy that wants to eliminate Israel and replace it with an Islamic theocracy.

          In your opinion, Israelis should just sit down with folded hands and wait for jihadists to eliminate them.

          Anything other than that, is cause for you to lambaste Israel.

          Meanwhile, although the topic of the post was something that happened at a LGBT rights conference, you haven’t said anything at all here about LGBT rights.

          It seems as though you are exclusively interested in Israel bashing, and have no other motivation to be commenting here.

    • Daniel Leyva

      You are just a hateful troll, nothing else. People like you give a bad name to the LGBT people.

      • Ryan Perry

        Ad hominem attack contributes nothing to a discussion of issues.

  • WorldPeace46

    Of course, if the conference in Chicago had been of a National LGBTQ-P Task Force, the A Wider Bridge organization would never even have considered bolstering LBGTQ-P connections with Israel.

  • lyn17

    A Wider Bridge promotes rights for Jews only (this from their web site). Yes, it promotes rights of Jewish women to pray at the the Wailing wall, but in supporting Israel it excludes the rights of Palestinians to pray in any part of Jerusalem. It promotes Jews coming and supporting Israel and becoming citizens, by I, as a non-Jew, am excluded because I’m not a Jew (not that I actually want to leave my country). However much I favor all rights for gays, I also favor equal rights for all persons regardless of ethnic background. A Wider Bridge is only about crass ethnic supremacy, and when Naff repeats the pro-Israel tropes, it merely proves he’s dishonest.

  • ChrisBarghout

    Ok, I’m here as a gay Palestinian to share my views on this post. Pink washing is when one elevates Israel in an attempt to “Build bridges between the US LGBTQ community and Israel” in such a way to obscure Israel’s mal-treatment of Palestinians.
    Does this article do that? Where are how? At the center of the protest are two organizations , A Wider Bridge, based in the US and trying to build stronger relationships with Israel as mentioned above, and the second group, Jerusalem Open House, which is located in Jerusalem. So here is the where and how. Jerusalem Open House is allowed to maintain that it “serves and includes Palestinian LGBTQ people” without a rebuttal. No, Palestinian LGBTQ persons are served by our own organizations such as Aswat, that have a strongly negative relationships to Jewish supremacist organizations such as the JOH. We don’t work with them as they work with and for Israel’s apartheid policies that deny us virtually all human and basic rights. It is right and correct to boycott and demonstrate against their events, not because they are Jewish or Israeli, but because they work with and undermine the basic human rights of other LGBTQ people. Not all Jewish people and indeed many Jews question Israeli actions against non-Jews, and to level racism charges against 200 protesters with plenty of video footage but no evidence is a low smear.
    This article falsely claims that these two organizations “missions, alliances, donors, and activities are not a puppet of Israel and are even Pro-Palestinian. That is about as funny as saying the KKK is a pro-Black organization. Their donors, alliances, and activities are expressly and blatantly hostile to my human rights, both as a gay man and as a Palestinian. This is why we would ask our allies to protest JOH and A Wider Bridge and would again ask the task Force to not allow either of them to present at future events.
    Last example, is a point of agreement. Egypt or Saudi Arabia do treat their minorities among them LGBTQ people with torture and even execution. This is true but one has to ask, is anyone trying to bring representatives of Egypt or Saudi Arabia to help Pink-wash their governments equally horrendous human rights records at an American LGBTQ conference? The answer is no, and if they were to try, a protest by Saudi and Egyptian human rights supporters would be appropriate and correct. A Saudi official screaming Islamophobia because of his government treatment of minorities? It’s silly.
    It’s about time that our GLBTQ community stood up to racism within our own ranks. This includes but is not limited to Transphobia, anti-semitism, Islamophobia and yes, pink washing of a foreign governments apartheid activities and acts of racism. From this event, it is clear that events supporting racial supremacy that laughably claim to be anti-racist have their advocates and very powerful supporters.

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