Last week, the National LGBTQ Task Force took heat for canceling a joint American-Israeli event at their annual conference in Chicago. Following an uproar from the progressive LGBTQ community, they reinstated the event. While I was pleasantly surprised to see such outcry, I was horrified when I saw the videos from the event itself. The event was disrupted, and ultimately shut down, by a crowd of self-styled “LGBTQ” protesters calling for the destruction of Israel, all because the speakers at the event were Israeli.
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The scene was reminiscent of what I myself experienced two years ago from this radical faction of the LGBTQ community. Why? Because I too am a proud Israeli gay man. Incidents like this from our fellow “allies” in the struggle for gay rights not only make no sense, but are a stab in a back - to the Israeli LGBTQ community as well as to the global struggle for equality and the future of liberal values.
In 2013, as part of my work in Seattle as a speaker for the educational organization StandWithUs, I visited the University of Washington to meet with student activists. As a gay man, I was very interested in reaching out and building relationships with “The Queer Center,” the on-campus resource for LGBTQ students. I introduced myself to the staff, a young woman who also happened to be Jewish, and suggested I email her regarding future collaboration. I reached out to her and suggested holding an event with The Queer Center where I would share my story of being an openly gay commander in the IDF and perhaps screen a movie about the LGBTQ struggle in Israel.
The response I got, however, was less than open-minded - and not what one would expect from a community center which prides itself on tolerance, equality and free speech. Sara responded to my email: “As a queer Jew, I identify with parts of what you're talking about. However... I'm concerned that this is 'pinkwashing,' i.e. using the queer/LGBTQ community in Israel as a way of covering up the injustices that come with Israeli occupation. Because of this, the Q[ueer] Center is not willing to sponsor this.”
In one bizarre email exchange, my very being had been rejected by a Jewish staff member at the University of Washington Queer Center simply because of where I had been born.
As a liberal Zionist, I have identified with the Israeli left for decades, as well as with international progressive movements for equality. I’ve fought for social justice, I’ve gone to the streets of Tel Aviv to protest against economic monopolies of tycoons, to reject racism, and to fix the many flaws in our society - yet my very existence is too political for The Queer Center?
I responded to her and inquired further what exactly about my story was offensive to The Queer Center. Her response was abrupt, full of assumptions and misinformation, jumping to political issues that have nothing to do with the LGBTQ struggle for equality, or me as a human being, “The [problem] that we have is the issue of Israeli occupation and how LGBTQ [rights in Israel] are used as a way of masking the... occupation. The Q Center [wants] to make sure we are not upholding ideas that support the occupation” she wrote.
It was then that I realized that many of us in the Jewish community do not understand what the implications of the anti-Israel movement are until we face it ourselves, like the LGBTQ group in Chicago did this week. This anti-Israel campaign is fanaticism and cries out with bigotry against only Israelis, no matter who they are, what they’ve done, or what they believe in. This misguided “progressivism” has worked hard to reach far too many young activists in the LGBTQ community to misinform them with half-truths.
For the queer Jew who runs an LGBTQ center on a college campus, where I was born is the problem. Not what I believe in. As progressive as she is, she feels comfortable discriminating against me because of my country of origin, which has nothing to do whatsoever with me as a gay Israeli man.
This is the exact same xenophobia that led the National LGBTQ Task Force to revoke their invitation for the Israeli LGBTQ group, and the same bigotry that motivated the activists who disrupted the event to embark on their campaign of intolerance against those who are different than themselves. It’s appalling that any leaders of the LGBTQ community, who should be the most inclusive leaders of all given our history, are attacking a group based solely on their nationality. Israel happens to be a role model in the world for progressive policies related to the struggle for acceptance within the LGBTQ community. Ask me. I know first-hand.
Sadly, the anti-Israel movement has purposely misguided leaders not only within the LGBTQ community, but also within the Jewish community, which has always supported civil rights and stood shoulder to shoulder with the oppressed. The anti-Israel movement has used this spirit of solidarity with oppressed peoples to perpetuate myths demonizing an entire group of people who, while imperfect, have demonstrated time and again they are desperate for peace in the face of hostile neighbors.
Unfortunately, hating Israel comes hand in hand with values that this vapid group calls “progressive,” when in fact it’s precisely the opposite of progressive. While I applaud the progressive Jews (and non-Jews) who stood up against the cancellation of the event, it’s so disturbing that others are supporting these xenophobic attacks.
These attacks not only shut down the event of this Israeli LGBTQ group who hosted the Jerusalem Open House (a group which happens to be very critical of Israel’s policies to begin with), they also destroyed the opportunity to have a civil conversation about Israel. For them the starting point for a conversation about Israel, or even Israelis, begins with denying Israel’s right to exist, and likewise, denying the right of Israelis to speak - even about issues unrelated to the Israeli government’s military policies.
Can you imagine the cancellation of an LGBTQ event because the speakers were from Iran, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, Russia, China or even Gaza? These are all countries that systematically oppress and discriminate against our community. It is only Israelis who are subjected to such treatment.
Mine is a country whose LGBTQ community works non-stop for full acceptance and has achieved acceptance as a result of that struggle. We march in the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for our rights. And when discrimination rears its head - such as when Shira Banki was tragically killed at the Jerusalem Pride Parade last year, the perpetrator is arrested and that murder is condemned by the government and from across Israeli polity and society. Be it Israeli individuals or Israeli NGOs, it doesn't matter. Why would anyone think that it is OK to apply a double standard to the Jewish state, which, aside from the clear bigotry against it, is still the only country in the Middle East that protects its LGBTQ community by law?
It’s undeniable that there’s a long way to go to get to full acceptance in Israel and of course in the rest of the Middle East, but silencing speakers from only one country is wrong, and actively harms the LGBTQ community. Promoting a xenophobic, anti-free speech, repressive and regressive policy of discrimination is not brave or righteous, it is the opposite. It is a policy that oppresses others for who they are, where they were born, who they love, where they come from and it is a policy that all people of conscience, especially progressives, must oppose.
Hen Mazzig is the Israel Education Director for StandWithUs and a public speaker. Hen was in the IDF for almost five years serving as a humanitarian affairs officer in the COGAT unit in the West Bank. Follow him on Twitter: @HenMazzig