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Killings reveal link between homophobia, anti-Arab racism

West Bank apartheid makes anti-Palestinian violence forgivable

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Shira Banki, Jerusalem Pride, gay news, Washington Blade
Shira Banki, Jerusalem Pride, gay news, Washington Blade

Shira Banki, a 16-year-old girl who was stabbed during a Jerusalem Pride march, succumbed to her injuries on Aug. 2, 2015. (Photo courtesy of Jerusalem Open House)

The recent attack on the gay pride march in Jerusalem that left one dead and five others injured has led to a great deal of soul searching in Israel about the challenges facing the LGBT community in a country often lauded for being progressive on sexuality issues.

Anger in Israel has focused both on the lack of police preparation for a possible attack as well as the climate of growing Jewish religious extremism in which it occurred.

Shira Banki, 16, was stabbed to death on July 30 with a butcher’s knife by a Jewish religious extremist named Yishai Shlissel who considered the holding of a gay Pride in Jerusalem repugnant to God and against Jewish religious law. Shlissel charged the march and stabbed at random, hoping to kill and maim as many as possible.

Shockingly, Shlissel had been released only days before from prison. The crime? He attacked the same gay Pride march with a butcher knife 10 years before, stabbing three participants that time.

Although Jerusalem has always been a religious city, in recent years ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups have been given increasingly free reign in deciding how the lives of citizens will be run.

As in all of Israel, public transportation shuts on the Jewish Sabbath, but increasingly in West Jerusalem private businesses that open on Saturday are pressured to close and ultra-Orthodox demonstrators frequently target those that do not, even shutting down roads in order to prevent others from driving.

In religious neighborhoods, advertisements featuring women are torn down by ultra-Orthodox youth who also organize modesty patrols targeting women’s dress, and in some areas public buses and sidewalks are informally and formally gender segregated. Secular Jewish citizens often complain they are being squeezed out, and it is not hard to see why.

But to explain Banki’s killing by focusing on ultra-Orthodox Jews enforcing religious codes on secular Jews tells only a part of the story, and does little to account for the violent tactics used, a rarity in inter-Jewish disputes.

It is more instructive to look at the kind of violent religious Jewish extremism that has become all too common in Israeli society in recent decades: anti-Palestinian racism.

Hours after Banki was stabbed, Jewish extremists firebombed a Palestinian home in the West Bank village of Douma, killing a Palestinian child named Ali Dawabsha and leaving the rest of the members of his family with severe burns.

The attack was not an isolated incident – since the beginning of the year, Palestinian authorities say Jewish settler radicals have carried out nearly 370 attacks on Palestinian civilians, and nearly two-dozen Palestinian churches and mosques have been targeted. The United Nations recorded 2,100 settler attacks against Palestinians between 2006 and 2014, leaving 10 dead and 17,000 injured.

Israeli human rights organizations say that nearly 99 percent of Israeli investigations into these incidents are dropped without any convictions, while the few sentences that are given to Jewish radicals are extremely lenient. For comparison, 99.74 percent of Palestinians arrested for any kind of security-related offense by Israeli authorities are found guilty and sentenced, regardless of the evidence in a specific case.

But the Israeli state is not just indifferent to such racist terror; Israeli authorities themselves have encouraged such violence by referring to Palestinians as “savages” and using dehumanizing language to justify their deaths.

Israel’s current deputy-defense minister, Eli Ben-Dahan, has previously claimed that Palestinians “are beasts, they are not human,” while justice minister Ayelet Sheked has argued that the “the entire Palestinian people is the enemy.”

The backdrop of this culture of racist incitement is Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip since 1967, where millions of Palestinians are kept under military rule while the 500,000 Israelis living in settlements built on land confiscated from Palestinians enjoy the full benefits of Israeli civil law. Shlissel, the gay pride attacker, himself lived in Modiin, an Israeli ultra-Orthodox settlement in the West Bank.

The system of apartheid in the West Bank, combined with the system of two-tier citizenship inside Israel itself — where the majority of Palestinians once lived until being forced out and forbidden from returning in 1948 — has made anti-Arab racism normative and anti-Palestinian violence forgivable.

It is no wonder that the killing of more than 2,200 Palestinians in Gaza – more than 62 families bombed in their homes — by the Israeli military was met with more than 90% approval by the Jewish Israeli public (i.e. excluding the 20% of Israelis who are Arab), who even urged the government to go even further.

By permitting Jewish settler terror against Palestinians to go unchecked, the Israeli government has encouraged a culture of impunity for Jewish nationalist and religious violence.

While the majority of this venom has been directed at Palestinians, the potent mix of racist nationalism and religious extremism that Israel’s settler movement embodies is a threat to all of those who fail to adhere to it.

Less than a few hundred meters from the site in West Jerusalem where Shira Banki was stabbed, a group called Lehava holds weekly rallies. The group’s main goal is to prevent Arabs from being allowed to mix with Jews, and a primary target are Jewish girls who date Arab men, even holding protests at marriages to ensure Arab blood not “taint” the Jewish gene pool.

Hatred of “the other” has gone unchecked for so long in Israeli society that the weekly rallies hardly draw attention. Nor do the regular attacks on Palestinian passersby in the area that too often follow.

But the group’s goal is not only preventing racial miscegenation; it is also about ensuring heterosexuality in order to preserve what they deem the Jewish race. The same day the stabbings took place, members were protesting the gay Pride march, and a Lehava leader even compared “being homosexual” to “robbing a bank” and argued that the LGBT community harmed the “Jewish nation.”

It is no wonder that in such a climate, where difference is vilified and violence in the name of nation and religion is encouraged by the powers that be, the LGBT community has ended up being a target as well.

The killing of Shira Banki, a young teenager expressing her solidarity with the queer community, is intrinsically related to the killing of Ali Dawabsheh.

These two deaths – which were immediately followed by the killings of two Palestinians protesting Dawabsheh’s death by the Israeli military – highlight the fact that homophobia cannot be separated from racism, and that violence against national “others” will inevitably lead to violence against internal others.

A state built on racist exclusion can hardly be a safe space for queers – Israeli or Palestinian – or anyone else.

Perpetuating the idea that Israel is somehow a gay paradise, in line with a government-sponsored campaign to promote the country’s gay-friendly image and cover up its violence against Palestinians, only hurts Israeli queers in the long run, as it obscures the fact that nationalist, religious, and homophobic terror and violence are all intrinsically connected.

By supporting pinkwashing efforts, queers around the world risk embracing Israel’s racist policies against Palestinians and its encouragement of terror and hatred against the state’s perceived others. Sadly, the deaths of Shira Banki and Ali Dawabsheh demonstrate this all too clearly.

Alex Shams is a journalist based in the West Bank and a doctoral student of anthropology at the University of Chicago.

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Trump thinks he can say anything — even quote Hitler — and win

Listen to his words and be very afraid

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President Donald Trump

Trump believes he can say anything, even using Hitler’s words, and be elected. My faith is in the decent people in America; they will reject him. It was reported “a video posted on Trump’s social media profile featured mock-up headlines and newspaper clippings envisioning coverage after a Trump victory. One headline read: ‘What’s next for America?’ with text underneath that referred to “the creation of a unified Reich.”

The word “Reich” is associated with Germany under Adolf Hitler, who designated his Nazi regime the “Third Reich.” Then it was reported in an interview with political analyst Jon Delano on KDKA-TV of Pittsburgh, “Trump was asked whether he supports any restrictions on a person’s right to contraception?” He responded, “We’re looking at that, and I’m going to have a policy on that very shortly, and I think it’s something you’ll find interesting. I think it’s a smart decision. We’ll be releasing it very soon.” 

This despite polls showing nearly 8 in 10 Americans believe contraception should be legal, and available. After the backlash, he appeared to backtrack. Blaming someone else for the post on his website, and saying he supports contraception, but adding, it should be left to the states. I say believe what he says first, and be afraid. Women should be very afraid, if Trump is elected. Leaving it to the states gets you this: Louisiana lawmakers voted to classify abortion pills as controlled substances. This would make possession of the drugs without a prescription a crime in Louisiana, punishable by jail time. This when the Guttmacher Institute reports 63% of all abortions in the U.S. in 2023 were medication abortions. Yes, Trump is scary. 

While Trump continues to say these crazy things and seems to get away with it, the mind-boggling thing is most of the media continue to focus on Biden’s age, and a few misspoken words. Where is the rationale for that? We see misleading polls in this election cycle, in every race. Recently, Joe Scarborough had major questions about the New York Times/Siena polls, and the methodology used. It appears some respondents listed as most likely voters, actually hadn’t voted in a couple of years. Many of the polls where Trump is leading are within the margin of error. If we look at polls over the last couple of years on legislative races, and abortion, they have been wrong. Democrats ended up winning even if the polls said they were even, or behind. Maybe people just don’t want to talk to pollsters anymore, or maybe even lie to them. I haven’t responded to a pollster for at least five years. I get calls from pollsters on my land line (yes, I still have one), my cell phone, and get surveys and polling questions by email. I never respond. My advice is to disregard the public polling. 

I know candidates do internal polling, and that is fine for their purposes. But the general public would do better to listen to the candidates, hear what they say, read what they write, and believe them. Trump actually says he wants to become a dictator, and uses terms like ‘The Reich.’ He watches what states are doing about abortion and contraception and continues to say that’s fine by him. He calls the people who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, great patriots, and says he will pardon them. He invites a known white supremacist, Nick Fuentes, to dinner with him at Mar-a-Lago. He opposes doing anything about the border now, telling members of his party to vote against the first bipartisan bill to do something about immigration in years. He uses the slogan ‘America First’ and thinks naively, in this world, we can pretend the rest of the world doesn’t exist. He wants to cozy up to Putin, and thinks that is good for America. 

Young people need to be scared because he is a climate denier, and they will live with the results of that the longest. Just look at the estimate of the hurricanes for this coming season, you see what will happen if we do nothing. Trump promises a group of energy billionaires if they raise a billion dollars for him, they can “drill baby drill.” Bloomberg reports, “A victory by Republican Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential election threatens $1 trillion in energy investments and future support for low-carbon energy sources,” according to a Wood Mackenzie report.

Americans must simply listen to what Trump says. That should scare, at a minimum, every woman, African American, Latino, member of the LGBTQ+ community, and young person. If we hear him, we must believe him; and we must soundly defeat him.

Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBTQ rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.

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Urgent concerns arise when congressional staff face ethics investigations

We need safeguards to mitigate risk of unfair outcomes

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Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Congressional staff tend to avoid engaging in conduct that could reflect poorly on the members they represent or that which would otherwise bring them out from behind the scenes and into the spotlight.

Last week, however, was the second time in which I broke a story about a chief of staff on Capitol Hill who found himself the subject of a complaint to the U.S. House Ethics Committee, the body whose primary responsibility is investigating reports of unethical and unlawful conduct by America’s elected representatives.

In the first, Marjorie Taylor Greene filed a report against Democratic Rep. Jake Auchincloss’s top aide because he had placed stickers over a transphobic sign that the far-right Georgia congresswoman had displayed outside her office. 

The second complaint came from an official with the Biden-Harris administration over an especially combative and anti-trans email that was sent by the highest-ranking deputy in a West Virginia Republican’s Congressional office.

The two cases are not otherwise analogous. As the emissaries of lawmakers who are responsible to their constituents, staff should be held accountable for out-of-bounds behavior like sending offensive emails to harass colleagues on Capitol Hill or in the federal government. 

By contrast, decorating a poster in the Longworth House Office Building without permission is hardly a crime that should be escalated to the Ethics Committee, particularly not when the poster is offensive to members of a marginalized community and was hung in the first place to provoke a colleague across the hall who has a trans daughter.

If a monthslong probe exploring whether a career Hill staffer had brought discredit upon the House of Representatives with his stickers was not absurd enough, it was kicked off by none other than Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has been guilty of that charge virtually every day since she was elected. (Recall, for instance, that she has called for violence against her political opponents, including by publishing a video on social media in which she said then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi deserves the death penalty.)

A member of Congress wields a tremendous amount of power relative to even the seniormost Capitol Hill staff, a fact that was brought into sharp relief for Auchincloss’s chief of staff as he sought to defend himself against not just the committee’s investigation but also an affidavit by the Capitol Police in support of an arrest warrant along with threats and harassment so severe that his home was monitored by law enforcement.

The House Ethics Committee declined to comment when I reached out last week to confirm receipt of the complaint filed against the GOP staffer, just as they had refused to provide information about the status of the case initiated by Greene’s report.

The committee’s Senate counterpart is even more of a black box.

An article by the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan government accountability group, notes that in the recent indictment of New Jersey Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, “the shocking details revealed by the allegations seemingly had no end.”

The evidence against him was sufficiently flagrant and longstanding, the article argues, to “beg the question: Is the Senate incapable of finding and rooting out potential corruption before it becomes a crime?”

Part of the problem, according to CLC, is that the Upper Chamber’s ethics committee provides no means by which a complaint can be seen through to its investigation and resolution. The public knows very little about what the committee does, perhaps because the committee does very little: a study in 2023 found that none of the 1,523 reports that were filed over a period of 15 years resulted in any formal disciplinary sanctions.

Obviously, full transparency is impossible when sensitive information must be kept confidential to protect the integrity of an investigation. However, and especially if we are going to continue seeing complaints against Congressional staff rather than the lawmakers they serve, the committees should provide more insight into their processes and decision making.

Measures could include safeguards designed to mitigate the risk of unfair outcomes when investigations are brought by members of Congress and target those who have far less power. A mechanism requiring the investigators to share more information about cases under their review, to the extent possible, would also be wise — because even when the alleged conduct by a staffer may warrant a complaint, time and resources might be better spent rooting out misconduct by members of Congress, which is almost always far more consequential. 

We should also contend with the question of whether ethics committees are ever the appropriate place to explore and adjudicate allegations against staffers, since members are fully capable of enforcing the rules in their offices. 

As demonstrated by the long and tortured process through which George Santos was finally booted from Congress, getting rid of an elected lawmaker is far more difficult than, say, firing a chief of staff. 

Ultimately, perhaps the right question is: how can we hold elected representatives to a higher standard such that they model good behavior for their employ as well as for their constituents and Congressional colleagues?

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Biden must be more direct when talking to young people

Educate them about futility of third-party candidates

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President Joe Biden (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

President Biden is doing a great job. But reality is, some young people are wavering in their support. I suggest when talking to young people, the president be more direct. What prompted me to write this was reading what some Morehouse College students are saying. Here is a suggested short speech.   

“I want you to know how honored I am for the opportunity to speak with you today. I will speak from my heart, and be very direct. I know you have disagreements with me. Some of you may even think I am actually too old to be president. But I am a candidate for reelection, because I believe I can still make a difference. I know you are very smart. You know only two candidates running have a chance to win. The next president will be either Donald Trump or me. 

You must figure out what issues are the most important to you. Then determine which one of us will be better for your future. Do the research on all the issues you care about. Recognize, no candidate is perfect, surely, I am not, but then no person is. I know many of you care about issues including climate change, student debt relief, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and civil rights. Issues like how the United States deals with the Israel/Hamas war, inflation, voting rights, abortion. Donald Trump and I disagree on how to handle each of those issues. We have vastly different views of the world. I believe the United States has a responsibility to lead. Our military, and our economy, are both the strongest in the world. We cannot hide, as he likes to say, behind the slogan ‘America First.’ We cannot close our eyes, and our borders, and pretend what happens in the rest of the world doesn’t impact us. 

I believe we must deal with the Iran-China-Russia axis. We must support Ukraine and continue sending weapons to help them win. If they do, we can keep our young men and women off the battlefield. Remember, we aren’t sending money, but weapons, which are made here, providing high-paying jobs to our own citizens. Some of you have issues with how I have dealt with the Israel/Hamas war. While I support Israel, I do hear you, and will do everything I can to move toward a free Palestinian state. Trump will not. He even moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, to make that point. I am pushing Israel to change its tactics, to protect the innocent women and children, in Gaza. We must do that.

I know many of you want more progress on student debt forgiveness, on fighting climate change, protecting a woman’s right to control her own healthcare and body, and equality for the LGBTQ community. You want to see an end to the structural racism in our country. You must know by my actions that I share those goals with you. I also share the feeling all this is not happening fast enough. But you are all smart. You know our government was formed with a system of checks and balances; three branches of government — legislative, judicial, and executive. While I may want to wave a magic wand to make these things happen, no one can. However, I commit to you, I will fight for them every day. 

Some of you may be thinking, ‘Third-Party’ candidate. I ask you to remember, no third-party candidate has won since 1856, and our structure of the two-party system tells you one cannot win in 2024. In fact, for 36 years, none has ended up winning more than 5% of the vote. Then remember a few facts about Trump. He was found liable for sexual abuse. He has shown by words and actions, he is a racist, sexist, homophobe, who is also a climate change denier. He opposes student debt relief. He also tried to stage a coup after losing the last election. 

Again, like it or not, it’s either me or him. And again, while you may think I am too old, remember, he is my age. If you intend to vote for Trump, that is of course your choice. But if you don’t want him, and his MAGA cult, controlling your future, your choices are to stay home, vote for a third-party candidate, or vote for me. Two of those choices will help elect Donald Trump. So, I ask respectfully, after you do the research, that you give me your vote. Again, I am not perfect, but I will never stop working to make your, and your family’s, life better. I will always work for a more just, and safer world, for all of us.  

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