Liberal Jews Trapped in 'Terrifying' New World of Uncompromising anti-Israel Views

Violent protests at a Jewish LGBTQ event in Chicago spotlight how growing emphasis on intersectionality is drowning out the nuances of debate in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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 Two young female Creating Change conference participants, wearing rainbow Israeli flags.
Two young Creating Change conference participants, wearing rainbow Israeli flags.Credit: Mordechai Levovitz

NEW YORK – The violent shut down of a Jerusalem-based LGBTQ forum by pro-Palestinian protesters in Chicago on Friday highlighted the growing influence of intersectionality in movements representing minorities and the increasing militancy of their anti-Israel views.

Gay Jews wanting to hear about the work of Jerusalem Open House were unwittingly caught in the middle of the protest at the Creating Change conference Friday night, which is the country’s largest LGBTQ gathering. They were sandwiched between anti-Israel activists and a reception intended to highlight the Israeli organization’s efforts. The protest at moments turned violent and threatened to become more so before being dispersed by police and staff at the Chicago Hilton, where the conference took place last week.

About 200 protesters crammed into a hotel hallway chanting, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

The conference is organized by the National LGBTQ Task Force. The reception, designed to introduce JOH’s work in one of the most fraught cities anywhere for queer people, was hosted by A Wider Bridge, an American group that works to create relationships between LGBTQ people in America and Israel.

Steven Rosenberg, a psychiatric social worker in Chicago, went to Shabbat services at the conference and tried to go to the reception. He and a friend got caught in the crowd.

Creating Change Director Sue Hyde and Mordechai Levovitz at the Creating Change conference in Chicago. Credit: Mordechai Levovitz

“It was a mob scene,” he said Sunday, still very shaken up. “I have no problem with there being a protest. I have a problem with people calling us murderers and racists. It was loud and they were chanting and hostile, and it felt like a very unsafe situation.”

Dove Kent, executive director of Jews for Racial & Economic Justice.Credit: Jews for Racial & Economic Justice

Intersectionality — the belief that oppressed people of one community must advocate for other oppressed groups — leaves little room for the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and for those who increasingly feel caught in the middle of a narrowing space. Though not new, the concept is being increasingly evoked whenever the subject of the occupation and Israel’s treatment of Palestinians comes up.

Its power and perils were clear when protesters borrowed a slogan from the Black Lives Matter movement and chanted “No justice, no peace!” and techniques from the Occupy movement, as people echoed what the main speaker said.

One bearded man trying make his way through the crowd to reach the reception had a Palestinian flag put over his face from behind. When he ripped it off and yelled, “who did it?” protesters swarmed him, thrusting pointed fingers at him while they chanted “Shame on you! Shame on you!”

Another video clip of the protest shows participants chanting, “Get them out! Get them out!” referring to those gathered for the reception, which followed Shabbat services. They chanted, “Racists go home!” and “Hey hey ho ho, Zionism has got to go.”

“There’s obviously a lot of room to be critical of the state of Israel on many levels and of the leadership of Palestinians, but this concept of intersectionality removes the ability to have critical dialogue and enables people to be demonized,” said Arthur Slepian, executive director of A Wider Bridge. “Instead of seeing people as all part of the LGBT struggle, they’re saying that if you don’t fully buy into the agenda of all the different struggles that need to be fought, you’re outside the tent.”

“At the end of the day it won’t be productive for advancing the struggle for LGBT rights,” he told Haaretz.

Another contributing factor to the flare-up of ardent anti-Israel sentiment at the conference and beyond is ignorance about the distinction between anti-Semitism and protesting Israeli policies, said Dove Kent, executive director of Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, which had a representative lead a session at Creating Change on the subject.

“Because the left is silent on anti-Semitism and because the right views all critiques of Israel as anti-Semitic, Jews and our allies in the larger movements are unclear about how to understand what is and isn’t anti-Semitic,” Kent told Haaretz. JFREJ, a New York City-based organization of about 1,500 members, is working to develop an analysis of anti-Semitism on the left, she said.

The protest at the conference came a week after Creating Change organizers initially bowed to pressure from anti-Israel activists, who charged that A Wider Bridge — and any organization connected to their planned Jerusalem Open House reception — is implicated in “pink washing,” or an attempt to make Israel look good by exploiting its positive track record on LGBTQ issues.

After tremendous pushback by supporters of A Wider Bridge, Jerusalem Open House, and mainstream Jewish organizations, Creating Change reversed itself and put the reception back on the conference agenda.

Inside the hotel conference room where the reception took place, several protesters ran onto the stage, said Slepian. He told Haaretz, “as I was about to begin my interview with leaders of Jerusalem Open House half a dozen protesters came into the room and commandeered the stage. We weren’t about to engage in a physical confrontation” to get them off, he said.

The young women who took over the stage chanted, “Israel is an apartheid state” and “black lives matter,” said Mordechai Levovitz, who was present. Levovitz is executive director of JQ Youth, a New York-based group for young queer Jews from the Orthodox, Hasidic and Sephardic communities. He also runs the Jewish Working Group at the Creating Change conference, one of several faith groups there that help organize sessions for the gathering.

Said Slepian, “We evacuated the Israeli guests out the back door and people inside the room were actually quite frightened. There was a lot of very inflammatory rhetoric happening with protestors outside the room. Eventually the hotel called for some outside security. They told us we had to end the reception because there were too many people in the corridor. It was a chaotic mess and people were really, really distraught. People were crying, people were shaking, physically agitated by what was transpiring,” he said.

“This was a conference with almost 4,000 attendees and 200 protesters, many of whom were not even registered for the conference, were able to deprive everyone else from hearing the story of our work.”

In a statement issued Sunday, Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said he feels “deep sadness” about protesters using “chilling words of hate and intimidation to shut down and silence other LGBTQ voices.”

Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, spiritual leader of New York’s gay and lesbian Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, witnessed the events. “Nobody got hurt but yes, it was terrifying,” she said. While there have been protests at previous Creating Change conferences, “nothing has escalated to this point before. There are elements within that movement which do want to shut down voices of Israelis and the pro-Israel position. I don’t think that’s the position of the Task Force,” said Kleinbaum, shortly after meeting with conference organizers when it concluded Sunday. “They got caught up without really appreciating how complicated it would be.”

It was a painful irony for many at the reception that anti-Israel demonstrators drowned out the voices of Israeli LGBTQ leaders, all the more so because many of those involved with A Wider Bridge and the Jerusalem Open House oppose the occupation and feel that Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu-led government is moving dangerously rightward.

A three hour-long Queer Muslim-Jewish dialogue session during the conference went off without a hitch. It is a dialogue, said Levovitz, that the Creating Change conference has every year.

Levovitz published a blog post titled “What Really Happened” after the conference ended.

After the protest and the aborted reception, members of both groups repaired to the hotel bar. The “protesters in their keffiyahs and we in our kippas and someone in a rainbow Israeli flag all sat at the hotel bar together,” Levovitz told Haaretz. “And it was fine.”

But the influence of advocates of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions [BDS] movement in academia and beyond, and the increasing aggression of those who believe that members of the LGBTQ community must share a single view on the oppression of other communities — disregarding the complexities and nuances of the Israel-Palestine issue — is clearly on the rise, said those involved with the conference, and will surely come up there and elsewhere again soon.

Intersectionality “has led to an approach that is very rigid, dogmatic and authoritarian in some ways, with people saying there is no room inside the tent for exploring other points of view,” Slepian said. “That is a very dangerous place for a movement of liberation to be.”

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