U.S. LGBTQ Conference Backtracks on Banning Jewish Event With Israeli Gays

Organizers had initially cancelled a reception by a U.S. Jewish LGBTQ group following pressure from anti-Israel activists.

A participant in Jerusalem's Gay Pride parade, Jerusalem, 2015.
Reuters

Organizers of a major LGBTQ conference in Chicago reversed on Tuesday a previous decision to ban an event by a Jewish group hosting the leaders of an Israeli LGBTQ organization.

“I have decided to reverse our decision to cancel the ‘Beyond the Bridge’ reception hosted by A Wider Bridge with guest speakers from the Jerusalem Open House,” wrote Rea Carey, executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force. The Task Force runs this week's Creating Change conference, which is the largest gathering of LGBTQ activists in the United States and last year drew 3,800 attendees. 

A Wider Bridge, an American organization focused on building relationships between the U.S. and Israeli LGBTQ communities, had been scheduled to hold a Friday evening reception at which it planned to introduce leaders of Jerusalem Open House to conference attendees.

That longstanding scheduled session was abruptly canceled last week, after apparent pressure from anti-Israel bloggers and Tweeters, who slammed the Creating Change conference for participating in “pink washing” and “Israeli propaganda.”

There was an outcry in response. A Haaretz article published Monday, as well as a piece by a Wider Bridge board member published on Huffington Post, and a petition on Change.org were widely circulated.

“When faced with choices, we should move towards our core value of inclusion and opportunities for constructive dialogue and canceling the reception was a mistake,” wrote Carey in her statement. “Our decision was made by staff; neither our board members nor the local Host Committee were involved.  We are aware that our original decision made it appear we were taking sides in a complex and long-standing conflict, which was not the intention, and that in cancelling the reception we deeply offended many people, and our reversal will offend others.  

“In reversing the decision today, we want to make it quite clear that the Creating Change Conference will always be a safe space for inclusion and dialogue for people with often widely different views.  It was not at all our intention to censor representatives of the Jerusalem Open House or A Wider Bridge at Creating Change and I apologize that our actions left people feeling silenced.”

Arthur Slepian, executive director of A Wider Bridge, told Haaretz, “We’re very pleased with the statement and the apology.”

“It’s a victory for inclusion and diversity, and ensuring that all voices of the community will be heard at the conference, and that the work of AWB and JOH will be represented as part of the conversation.”

The National Task Force, in its statement, made clear that protests against the Jerusalem Open House leaders are expected, and Carey called on “anyone who may be organizing protests to take place during Creating Change — related to these or any other issues — to be peaceful no one should be threatened for their opinions no matter how much you disagree. ”

Slepian said that his group is prepared to face protests at the conference, which takes place in Chicago January 20-22.

Multiple attempts to reach executives at The National Task Force, to ask about the expected protests and what led them to cancel the reception in the first place, went unanswered.

A Wider Bridge is moving its Friday night reception back to the main conference hotel, the Hilton, from a different hotel nearby, which it had hastily booked once the group was booted from the conference.

Ironically, the backlash against A Wider Bridge and Jerusalem Open House joining the conference has led to an increased participation.

There will now be a moderated discussion on the main conference agenda about their inclusion, the National Task Force’s statement indicated.

It will mark the first time that Israeli LGBTQ issues are part of the conference in a positive way, Slepian told Haaretz.

“They have had several sessions in the past with people who support the BDS movement, about BDS and Queer Palestinians but I don’t believe there’s ever been a session before about the challenges of the Israeli LGBT community where the main point is not to condemn Israel,” he said. “This is a victory for inclusion.”

Jonathan A. Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, said that Carey's "meaningful and heartfelt apology appropriately recognizes the harmful impact the decision to cancel the event had on the community."

"We strongly commend the Task Force’s leadership for engaging in a process that allowed them to reverse their decision," Greenblatt said in a statement.

Two dozen organizations, including Jewish Voice for Peace, however, signed a statement on a website called "Tarab: Queer Middle Eastern and North African Fabulousness," saying they were "extremely disappointed" with the reversal and demanded that organizers "commit to opposing future efforts which promote Zionism," and "publicly endorse the Palestinian right of return and the BDS movement."