LGBTQ Pride Ver­sus Is­rael Pride

Forward Magazine - - News - By Ari Feld­man Con­tact Ari Feld­man at feld­man@for­ or on Twit­ter, @ae­feld­man

LGBTQ pro­test­ers at Is­rael pa­rade spark wider de­bate.

In just a few sec­onds, five peo­ple brought New York City’s Cel­e­brate Is­rael pa­rade to a stand­still.

A block shy of the June 4 pa­rade’s dis­per­sal point on Man­hat­tan’s Up­per East Side, five un­der­cover pro­test­ers broke ranks with the LGBTQ con­tin­gent and formed a picket line in front of it. One of the pro­test­ers un­plugged the pedi­cab-mounted speak­ers near the front of the con­tin­gent, which had been blast­ing “We Are Fam­ily.” The pro­test­ers un­furled ban­ners — “No Pride in Apartheid,” “Queer Jews for a Free Pales­tine” — and re­fused calls to step aside. Af­ter what one observer called “a very threat­en­ing round of red rover” be­tween marchers and the pro­test­ers, po­lice de­tained the pro­test­ers — queer Jewish mem­bers of Jewish Voice for Peace — and the march con­tin­ued.

De­spite the scene’s un­de­ni­able drama, it was sim­ply a flash­point in an in­ten­si­fy­ing show­down be­tween Jewish LGBTQ or­ga­ni­za­tions over Is­rael.

The con­fronta­tion, which lasted less than 10 min­utes, ac­cord­ing to wit­ness ac­counts, laid bare the com­plex­ity of iden­ti­fy­ing as both queer and Jewish. Some queer Jews see it as their duty to de­fend Is­rael as the most gay-friendly coun­try in the Mid­dle East. Oth­ers feel that their mi­nor­ity sta­tus and per­sonal his­to­ries of iso­la­tion mo­ti­vate them to de­fend dis­tressed mi­nori­ties world­wide — in­clud­ing Pales­tini­ans. Many feel the need to shoulder both th­ese re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, and strug­gle with ques­tions of how to rec­on­cile them.

Idit Klein, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Keshet, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that pro­motes full equal­ity for LGBTQ in­di­vid­u­als in Jewish life, notes that the grow­ing po­lar­iza­tion among Amer­i­can Jews in Is­rael is mir­rored among LGBTQ Jews.

“Ear­lier on, in the ‘70s and ‘80s and even ‘90s, given the bla­tant ho­mo­pho­bia that was the sta­tus quo gen­er­ally through­out most of the Jewish com­mu­nity, LGBTQ groups were largely con­cerned with ba­sic mat­ters of in­clu­sion and ac­cep­tance,” Klein said. “In the cur­rent day we still cer­tainly face bla­tant ho­mo­pho­bia and trans­pho­bia, but there has been a tremen­dous amount of progress, and I would say there is room avail­able to broaden their fo­cus to en­com­pass other is­sues.”

The is­sue of Is­rael, Klein con­tin­ued, “is the site of so much painful con­tra­dic­tion, and [the Cel­e­brate Is­rael pa­rade] is yet one more place where that painful con­tra­dic­tion man­i­fests in a dra­matic way.”

JVP’s protest has since be­come the sub­ject of heated de­bate in the Jewish press, on per­sonal blogs and across so­cial me­dia. While a few ap­plauded the au­dac­ity of JVP, a pro-BDS or­ga­ni­za­tion whose ad­vi­sory board in­cludes Naomi Klein, Ju­dith But­ler and Noam Chom­sky, most ob­servers voiced fierce crit­i­cism of the group’s de­ci­sion to tar­get the LGBTQ con­tin­gent, cit­ing the vul­ner­a­bil­ity of the con­tin­gent’s younger mem­bers.

Mordechai Levovitz, the founder and co-ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Jewish Queer Youth, a not-for-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion that works to em­power young queer Jews, ini­tially called the protest “a hate crime.”

“They tried to sab­o­tage our spe­cific march­ing group,” Levovitz later told the For­ward. De­spite this, Levovitz con­demned the back­lash against JVP, say­ing that the Jewish com­mu­nity can be “very cruel to pro­test­ers, and we are very cruel to peo­ple who don’t toe the line on things like Is­rael. “The ideals of JVP are quite holy, and quite Jewish,” Whether JVP’s ideals are queer, on the other hand, is a mat­ter of deep dis­agree­ment. The pro­test­ers be­lieve that their iden­ti­ties as queer peo­ple com­pel them to ally with other mi­nor­ity groups fac­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion — an idea called in­ter­sec­tion­al­ity. Yet their coun­ter­parts claim that in­ter­sec­tion­al­ity ig­nores the mi­nor­ity sta­tus of Jews.

“I don’t know that be­ing queer ob­li­gates you to take a stand for racial in­jus­tice,” said Craig Willse, a pro­fes­sor at Ge­orge Ma­son Univer­sity, who helped plan the ac­tion. “But the ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing queer can gift you that op­por­tu­nity, can help con­nect you to other strug­gles that are not your own, but in which your own lib­er­a­tion is bound up as well.

“You can’t sep­a­rate out your iden­tity as an [LGBTQ] Jewish per­son from what it means to be in a pa­rade that is cel­e­brat­ing an apartheid state,” Willse added.

“On some very deep level I think one of the things that holds [LGBTQ] peo­ple to­gether is our un­der­stand­ing of what it’s like to be the other,” said Arthur Slepian, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of A Wider Bridge, a not-for-profit that pro­motes LGBTQ sup­port for Is­rael. “That can help in­form our per­spec­tive on a great many con­flicts. There’s some­thing about the way that in­ter­sec­tion­al­ity is framed in some quar­ters that to me of­ten sounds like, ‘All peo­ples in the world are en­ti­tled to self-de­ter­mi­na­tion.’ But there’s an as­ter­isk at­tached to that state­ment, and that as­ter­isk is, ‘Ex­cept for the Jews.’”

From the per­spec­tive of the pro­test­ers, their protest was jus­ti­fied in part be­cause they were queer Jews con­fronting other queer Jews. Crit­ics have ques­tioned this claim, not­ing that though JVP has many queer mem­bers, it does not pri­mar­ily serve queer peo­ple.

“I have no ev­i­dence that demon­strates to me that they have been an up­stand­ing queer or­ga­ni­za­tion prior to this,” said Han­nah Simp­son, a trans­gen­der co­me­dian and ed­u­ca­tor who took part in the June 4 pa­rade. Simp­son, who is a vol­un­teer for Jewish Queer Youth, called JVP’s ac­tion an “as­sault.”

JVP was founded in 1996 in Berke­ley, Cal­i­for­nia, and be­came a na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tion in 2006. It is a main­stay or­ga­ni­za­tion of the boy­cott, di­vest­ment and sanc­tions move­ment, and has been the ob­ject of re­peated crit­i­cism over its pol­i­tics and ac­tions. The group has been a strong sup­porter of Ras­mea Odeh, a con­victed ter­ror­ist who par­tic­i­pated in a 1969 bomb­ing in Jerusalem that killed two peo­ple. Odeh re­cently spoke at a panel or­ga­nized by JVP in Chicago.

This year was the first time JVP or­ga­nized protests of the Cel­e­brate Is­rael pa­rade. The or­ga­ni­za­tion be­gan the day with a fam­ily-ori­ented pic­nic, com­plete with crafts, sto­ry­telling and bal­loons. The idea was “to bring the Is­raeli oc­cu­pa­tion down to a kid-friendly level,” JVP Deputy Di­rec­tor Ari Wohlfeiler said. In to­tal, seven JVP af­fil­i­ated pro­test­ers were ar­rested dur­ing the pa­rade, in­clud­ing the five who bar­ri­caded the LGBTQ con­tin­gent.

Those five pro­test­ers, all of whom iden­tify as queer Jews, planned the ac­tion with­out di­rec­tion from JVP lead­er­ship, ac­cord­ing to Wohlfeiler and peo­ple who par­tic­i­pated in the protest. JVP lead­er­ship ul­ti­mately ap­proved the ac­tion, and the pro­test­ers wore T-shirts ad­ver­tis­ing the group’s lat­est cam­paign.

As JVP has deep­ened its en­gage­ment with main­stream Is­rael events, its rep­u­ta­tion among many Jewish or­ga­ni­za­tions has con­tin­ued to sour. Last week, Jonathan Green­blatt, na­tional di­rec­tor and CEO of the Anti-Defama­tion League, told the Al­ge­meiner he was “deeply up­set” that ADL had signed on to a res­o­lu­tion that JVP had also en­dorsed.

Though JVP’s ac­tion has not in­creased its pop­u­lar­ity among Jewish or­ga­ni­za­tions, Ari Wohlfeiler said his or­ga­ni­za­tion felt any­thing but chas­tened.

“We have a re­newed com­mit­ment to en­gag­ing queer Jews,” he said. “That does feel like a crys­tal­clear moral call­ing.”


Cel­e­bra­tion, In­ter­rupted: Craig Willse of Jewish Voice for Peace con­fronts marchers in the LGBTQ con­tin­gent at the Cel­e­brate Is­rael Pa­rade in New York on June 4.

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