January 28, 2016 at 8:20 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Prominent advocates express ‘deep concern’ over conference protest

Edith Windsor, white men, gay news, Washington Blade

Edith Windsor is among those who signed a letter to National LGBTQ Task Force in response to the protest at the Creating Change Conference that forced the cancellation of a reception with two Israeli LGBT rights activists. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

More than 40 prominent advocates on Wednesday expressed their “deep concern” over the protest that forced the cancellation of a reception at the National LGBTQ Task Force’s annual conference that was to have featured two Israeli activists.

Roberta Kaplan, the lawyer who represented Edith Windsor before the U.S. Supreme Court in her case that challenged the Defense of Marriage Act, spearheaded the letter to National LGBTQ Task Force Executive Director Rea Carey.

Windsor signed the letter alongside Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York, former Freedom to Marry President Evan Wolfson, Equality Council Interim Executive Director Emily Hecht-McGowan, Gender Rights Maryland Executive Director Dana Beyer and Africa Human Rights Coalition Executive Director Melanie Nathan, among others.

Rev. Troy Perry, founder of the Metropolitan Community Church, and Lee Rubin, a former chair of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force board of directors, also signed the letter. Former Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank, Democratic National Committee Treasurer Andrew Tobias, California Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) and former New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn are among the other signatories.

“The purpose of this letter is to unequivocally express our collective and deep concern about what transpired at the Task Force’s 2016 Creating Change Conference in Chicago, Illinois (CC16) on Friday, January 22, 2016,” reads the letter.

Protesters opposed to Israel ‘pinkwashing’

Sarah Kala-Meir and Tom Canning from the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance were scheduled to speak at the reception at the Chicago Hilton that A Wider Bridge, an organization seeking to bolster “LGBTQ connections with Israel,” organized.

More than 200 people opposed to “pinkwashing,” which they describe as the promotion of Israel’s LGBT rights record in an attempt to deflect attention away from its controversial policies towards the Palestinians, marched through the hotel and gathered outside the reception was taking place.

Members of Jewish Voices for Peace and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice were among those who took part in the protest. Kala-Meir and Canning left the room in which it was taking place through a back door as protesters began shouting.

A video that the Windy City Times shot shows protesters chanting “Palestine will be free, from the river to the sea” — a slogan that those who describe themselves as pro-Israel claim has been used in support of the destruction of the Jewish state — as they approached the reception.

A second video of the Creating Change Conference protest the Windy City Times captured shows protesters yelling at a man after he threw to the ground a Palestinian flag that had been placed over his head.

The letter noted one protester shouted, “We are going to challenge these Zionist racist motherfuckers.” It also detailed a report that someone was called a “kike.”

“We are aware that the 100-200 protesters were among a conference of 4,000 participants and have no reason to believe that what transpired outside the reception on January 22 reflects the views or experiences of the majority of the 4000 conference goers,” reads the letter.

“The events of January 22 in Chicago were unacceptable and not in accord with the Task Force’s values of pluralism, inclusivity and thoughtful debate,” it adds. “The targeted organizations’ reception was disrupted and shut down by protesters (including people not attending the conference) with such hostility and aggression that speakers and attendees at the event were justifiably terrified and felt physically threatened. We are united in our belief that what transpired at CC16 was dangerous, deeply disturbing, and given the use of epithets like ‘kike,’ clearly anti-Semitic.”

Carey in a statement responded to the letter.

“Like many others who, over the past few days, have put forth statements and input for moving forward, we thank the signers for their perspectives and in fact share their interest in improving the Creating Change Conference as well as addressing larger issues in the movement and society,” she said. “Many of the signers are long-time colleagues and Task Force friends and we appreciate the time and thoughtfulness they have put into this letter.”

“We share their commitment in standing against anti-Semitism,” added Carey. “We also share their interest in engaging in an extensive review process that includes working with external experts, leaders in different communities — including a number of the leaders who signed the letter — supporters and stakeholders.”

Bashar Makhay, one of the protest organizers, told the Washington Blade on Wednesday that “we heard no reports” of anti-Semitic language used during the protest.

“If that language was used, people should be held accountable for that,” said Makhay.

Protester organizers: Slogan not anti-Semitic

A letter that protest organizers released on Wednesday notes their demands to the National LGBTQ Task Force included a public endorsement of a campaign in support of a boycott, economic divestment and sanctions against Israel over its policies towards the Palestinians. They also called for the organization to support the right of Palestinians to return to property in Israel and in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip that their families lost in the 1948 war that led to the creation of the Jewish state.

“For those that are unsure of geography, that is from the river to the sea,” reads the letter, referring to the so-called Palestinian Right to Return.

The National LGBTQ Task Force earlier this month announced it had cancelled the A Wider Bridge reception in the wake of criticism from Dean Spade, founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, and others opposed to “pinkwashing.” The organization also said a panel with officials from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement would not take place because of “concerns from our community” over the White House’s policies towards undocumented immigrants.

The National LGBTQ Task Force subsequently reversed its decision to cancel the A Wider Bridge reception.

Carey earlier this week issued a statement in which she “wholeheartedly” condemned anti-Semitism at the conference. She also said the National LGBTQ Task Force has also begun a review of “conference practices.”

A letter that protest organizers released on Wednesday notes the National LGBTQ Task Force “has not apologized for or addressed any of the concerned raised by activists around pinkwashing at the conference.” They also rejected any assertion that the protesters engaged in anti-Semitism.

“The Task Force conflates anti-Zionism and indeed all criticism of Israeli policy with anti-Semitism, which trivializes the very meaning of anti-Semitism, and exploits the term in order to silence political debate and distract from occupation and colonialism, which are at the heart of this issue,” the letter reads. “We are extremely disappointed by the unaccountable, racist actions of the Task Force as an institution.”

“We will continue to press them on our demands and move forward in our work to confront pinkwashing and push LGBT organizations to name and reject their complicity in colonial occupation,” it adds.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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