Last week, the National LGBTQ Task Force held its annual Creating Change conference in Chicago. The Task Force, established in 1973, set out to build a future where everyone is free to be themselves in every aspect of their lives,” across a variety of issues including employment, healthcare, and basic human rights.
According to the conference program, Rea Carey, executive director of the Task Force, welcomed participants with these words: “That’s why we are here this week: to tear down ALL the barriers we face between us and true liberation — and to support and lift-up one another in spirit, camaraderie and love.” (Emphasis their own).
However, one particular event on Jan. 22 put these noble words to the test. A session with A Wider Bridge, a pro-Israeli LGBT organization, was challenged by protesters and cancelled over the organization’s cooperation with the Israeli government whose policies violate the human rights of Palestinians living under occupation. The cancellation of the event raised eyebrows, prompting a barrage of angry reactions and accusations of anti-Semitism against the protesters and conference organizers. For instance, Slate Magazine’s LGBTQ blogger ran the headline “The LGBTQ Left Has an Anti-Semitism Problem,” an OUT magazine headline notes that the protests were “pure anti-Semitism,” and 90 LGBTQ activists signed a statement to Carey describing the protests as “anti-Semitic” and “dangerous,” posing the following question: “where do we as a progressive social movement go from here?” A cursory search of news surrounding the event brings up 80+ articles of similar views. For her part, Carey released a “crystal clear” statement: “the National LGBTQ Task Force wholeheartedly condemns anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic statements made at any Task Force event including our Creating Change Conference,” promising a review of the event and improvements to cope with “the challenges of a growing attendance.”
The Blade’s own Mr. Kevin Naff shared his opinion in an account of his own experience with A Wider Bridge, Israel, and Palestine. Yet, despite his coolheaded appeal to ensure that all voices should be heard, including critical ones, Mr. Naff reaches a similar conclusion: the protests were offensive and anti-Semitic.
I do not believe so. Instead, I believe the repeated deployment of anti-Semitism against those who criticize Israel and the wide arm of organizations it works with is both unsophisticated and demeaning. In fact, the charge of anti-Semitism is merely an iteration of a larger force that has dominated the Israeli-Palestinian conversation in the U.S. It’s the kind of force that unleashes itself almost by default at any hint of strongly grounded criticism of Israel. It’s called civility. As Steven Salaita puts it in his work, Uncivil Rites, civility is a regime that always has difficulty accommodating systematic critiques, let alone expression of those critiques in unfashionable manners. Of course, the protestors were disruptive, uncomfortable perhaps, and so is every bit of the goals the Task Force seeks to accomplish, or any “progressive” civil rights movement for that matter. Change, at least the effective kind, does not come with comfort. If that were case, then the history we know about many civil rights movements in this country and around the world would be a lie.
Perhaps one particular chant at the protests drove such strong disapproval, to the tune of challenging a deeply rooted and accomplished organization: “Palestine will be free from the river to the sea.” A superficial reading would invariably cause anyone who hears it to believe it means the destruction of Israel. Yet, most of the reactions fail to understand that the chant is equally applicable to an increasingly embraced idea: the one State solution, where freedom should indeed reign from the river to the see. Alternatively, as U.S. Ambassador to Israel put it, we are left with a single state with two standards of adherence to the rule of law, one favorable to Israelis and one unfavorable to Palestinians.
Not only is the charge of anti-Semitism unsophisticated and incapable of grappling with the realities of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, it also does far greater harm than good. Nearly all the opinions assumed their views with the understanding that the session with A Wider Bridge should have been permitted to take place. I do too. But, unlike those opinions, mine is a view that does not find it necessary or appropriate to say that silencing the session is anti-Semitic. Rather, permitting it to take place would only be a commitment to the principles and ideals of the Task Force and Creating Change – something that is neither Semitic nor anti-Semitic.
The irony is that opinions rallying around anti-Semitism practically commit the same mistake: silencing and discrediting the protestors. In doing so, the harm is twofold. The other side is almost instantly excluded from the conversation, marked as undesirable or uninvited, and therefore it also stifles the conversation. For instance, in an exchange on Facebook, one friend commented on Mr. Naff’s opinion, “I stopped [reading] at the description of the protest as anti-Semitic and of “Palestine will be free from the river to the sea” as a “genocidal chant [that] is an overt call for the destruction of Israel.”
Finally, one illegal Israeli settler recently shared his thoughts on the matter, “there’s still anti-Semitism in America,” speaking about country clubs and neighborhoods in Chicago that exclude Jews. Yet, one rarely hears about this sort of anti-Semitism. It seems as though nowadays anti-Semitism only dominates the headlines in the Israeli-Palestinian context, especially when Israeli policies are criticized.
As the progressive movement works to recover from this episode, it would be wise to understand that scapegoating a tremendously painful past, one where anti-Semitism wreaked havoc and unspeakable horrors, would only reinforce the idea that all voices should be heard as long as they conform to the rules of civility. The issue is not about the Task Force’s ability to handle growing attendance; rather it’s about what it, and the progressive movement at large, will do when challenged by an increasingly knowledgeable audience about Israel’s human rights violations. After all, nearly a quarter-century of peace negotiations grounded in civility has nothing to show but stagnation or regressive change at best, surely not a change genuinely committed to the human rights of all.