Gay rights, as Hillary Clinton so aptly said in her momentous speech in Geneva in 2011, are human rights and the struggle for LGBT equality is part of a long historical evolution that has arguably been in motion since the Reformation. Russia, however, seems to be on the wrong side of human rights history, with its recent anti-gay legislation bearing shocking resemblance to that of its Soviet predecessor, notorious for its oppression of minorities, including Jews.
Thirty years ago, the Jewish community took a stand in support of the human rights and freedom of Soviet Jewry, and as LGBT people today fight for their own human rights and freedom, the Jewish community must step up once more.
In June, the Russian parliament unanimously passed a federal law that bans the spreading of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” among minors. In July, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law banning the adoption of Russian-born children by gay couples and another law allowing police officers to arrest tourists and foreign nationals they suspect of being homosexual, lesbian or “pro-gay” and detain them for up to 14 days.
Scores of videos of gay youth getting beaten, raped and humiliated have been posted on the Internet. Many of the perpetrators are unmasked; there have been no arrests and anti-gay vigilante activities continue to escalate unpunished. There are currently three pieces of pending legislation targeting LGBT people, including a ban on LGBT blood donors, the removal of children from known or suspected LGBT parents and a bill offering free “reparative therapy” to LGBT people wishing to be “cured.”
Americans first began to take notice of Russia’s oppressive policies when actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein published a widely-circulated op-ed, ‘Russia’s Anti-Gay Crackdown’, in the New York Times this July. After some initial misguided attempts to boycott Stolichnaya vodka in protest of the legislation (it turns out Stoli is in fact produced in Latvia), grassroots action began to take shape.
The San Francisco community — including the Jewish community — sprung to action as well, and on August 28 leaders from the LGBT and human rights community convened at the San Francisco LGBT Community Center for a town hall organized by Joe Goldman of the Jewish Community Relations Council to discuss proactive ways to support the Russian LGBT community. Rabbi Doug Kahn, Executive Director of the JCRC and David Waksberg, CEO of Jewish Learning Works, spoke at the meeting. Both were at the forefront of the Soviet Jewry freedom movement in San Francisco in the 70s and 80s, holding rallies, mobilizing activists and staging protests in a bid to pressure the Soviet government into ending their discriminatory policies against Jews — and see the LGBT cause as the next generation of this campaign for human rights.
Kahn and Waksberg discussed some of their strategies from the Soviet Jewry freedom movement including countercultural events to upstage visiting Soviet performers, demonstrations in front of the Russian Consulate on Green Street and most importantly, a steady stream of contact with activists on the ground in the former USSR to ensure that they were in tune with the needs of those suffering at the hands of the Soviet regime.
The two former Soviet Jewry freedom activists offered valuable insights, providing a blueprint for activism from afar, but made clear that they were there as consultants, not leaders. The fight for freedom from prosecution and bestowal of human rights has long been fought by those suffering at the hands of repressive governments; the Soviet Jewry freedom movement was led by Jewish activists who refused to endure institutionalized anti-Semitism in the wake of the Holocaust. The suffragette movement was led by women who were tired of living in the shadows of their husbands’ opinions and the Civil Rights movement was led by African Americans who refused to continue being second-class U.S. citizens.
The Jewish community has often stood behind human rights campaigns which were not their own, taking part in rallies, raising funds and speaking out for equality and social justice. In 1963, Rabbi Joachim Prinz spoke at the historic March on Washington in which thousands of Jews took part, saying “our fathers taught us thousands of years ago that when God created man, he created him as everybody's neighbor. Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man's dignity and integrity.”
The Jewish community here in San Francisco and beyond can and should feel morally responsible to stand up for our Russian LGBT “neighbors” and speak out for their dignity and integrity by supporting leaders from the LGBT community in this human rights struggle. This support must come without pretext; not because we were once enslaved or because of our ancestors’ endurance of centuries of anti-Semitism, but simply and unequivocally because oppression and discrimination are inexcusable in any form, against any people.
The Jewish community and the communities of the world should show their support because LGBT people in Russia are fighting for their inalienable human right to live with dignity, equality and without fear of persecution. This is a painful moment for LGBT people in their global struggle for equality and recognition in the evolution of human rights. Let’s make sure today that we are all on the right side of human rights history.
Elka Looks, originally from Tel Aviv, is the communications manager for the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), the public affairs arm of the organized Bay Area Jewish community.
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