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 firstname.lastname@example.org.