The Wrong Way for Jewish Leaders to Battle anti-Semitism and the anti-Israel Left in the LGBTQ Community

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Revelers wave rainbow flags during the annual gay pride parade in Tel Aviv June 13, 2014. Credit: Reuters
Mordechai Levovitz
Mordechai Levovitz
Mordechai Levovitz
Mordechai Levovitz

Like many of my colleagues who attended the A Wider Bridge Israel reception at the National LGBTQ Task Force’s Creating Change Conference two Friday nights ago, when I stood sandwiched between the locked reception door and 200 angry anti-Israel protesters, I re-experienced past trauma. Growing up gay and Orthodox I know what it feels like to be silenced. I am all too familiar with the experience of sitting across from people who wish that I did not exist. Now as Executive Director of JQY, the organization that helps LGBTQ youth in the Orthodox community by engaging Orthodox institutions on issues of sexuality and gender, I appreciated the challenge of bringing up Israel in an environment that is so hostile to Israel’s existence. 

For many Jews including myself, Israel is not merely a political issue, but an inextricable part of my identity. Much like advocacy to change the Orthodox world on LGBTQ issues, bridging the gap between Israel and LGBTQ activists requires cultivating relationships, establishing trust, crafting delicate culturally-competent messaging, and a willingness to temporarily bear positions that might be extremely triggering. Ironically, it is both the philosophy of Talmudic dialectic (imparted to me from my rabbinic forefathers), and non-binary identity (values that I have come to adopt as a queer activist), that allow me to hold the seemingly contradictory experience of building constructive relationships with people who believe the Torah wishes death upon me. Appealing to this nuanced yet radical center is the way we can encourage dialogue when we disagree on the most essential aspects of personal existence. 

Peddling falsehoods and wielding power prevent meaningful change

Conversely, after over ten years on the front lines of Orthodox LGBTQ engagement, I have learned that peddling falsehoods, exaggerating offenses and wielding power to get one’s way are not only unhelpful tactics, but prevent meaningful change. Watching the Jewish outcry in response to the protest, I fear that this is the current strategy employed by many LGBTQ Jewish leaders who have jumped on the bandwagon of accusing the National LGBTQ Task Force of tolerating anti-Semitism. I am troubled by the direction we have taken and worried that our short sighted gains will lead us into a wider void. 

Knowing I was going to publicly critique a united Jewish response defending Israel, I consulted with many of my fellow LGBTQ Jewish leaders during the preparation of this piece. While I am proud that we can respectfully disagree, I am struck with the way most of these conversations end. “Mordechai, are you ready for the backlash you will face?” 

People take part in the annual LGBT Pride Parade in Milan, June 27, 2015.Credit: AFP

This is the heart-breaking irony. The very Jewish community that is justifiably outraged at the silencing of our voices at the Creating Change Conference, is the same one I have to fear when I raise my own. 

Wider void between Israel, queer activist community 

It is not lost on me that each of my community partners have at one time lamented the pressures they face when talking about Israel. We live in a Jewish community where excluding and demonizing voices is not just tolerated, it is institutionalized. While two wrongs never make a right, I must question some of the righteous indignation that we are lobbing at the LGBTQ Task Force for (admittedly) mishandling last Friday’s anti-Israel protest. 

After a week full of false reporting, murky accusations, and now a public ultimatum signed by over 80 of the most influential LGBTQ politicians and leaders (of which less than a handful were actually there), what is clear is that we Jews are indeed powerful, impressively well-connected, and can turn up the pressure like no others. 

Congratulations! In our attempt to debunk the weak anti-Israel libel of pinkwashing, we unintentionally promoted the much more nefarious anti-Semitic trope that Jews wield disproportionate power to get what we want. What resulted was not a bridge, but a greater rift between Israel and the queer activist community. It is time to be more mindful, not only about what went wrong in this controversy, but also how we respond as a community.

This was not a win for Israel advocacy or combatting Jew hatred

Let’s remember that despite our impressive flexing of communal musculature in calling a protest out for feeling offended, this was not a win for Israel advocacy or combatting Jew hatred. The LGBTQ Task Force has not changed because they felt pressured to release a statement condemning anti-Semitism. They never were an organization that would tolerate the use of the word “kike”.  Furthermore, despite Jewish consensus that the protest chant “Palestine will be free, from the river to the sea” is hurtful because it connotes the elimination of the state of Israel, no reasonable person expects that the Task Force will outlaw this chant at future conferences. Why complain about a chant unless you are realistically asking that it be banned? I suspect that it’s not the words that are so offensive to hear as much as it is the anger for us to bear. However, as much as it is uncomfortable for us, we should not tone police a protest. People have a right to show us their fury.

Protesters at an LGBTQ conference in Chicago accused Israel of obscuring its treatment of Palestinians by touting its record on gay rights. Credit: Courtesy of A Wider Bridge

The facts on the ground are that there are a significant number of young conference participants who sincerely and ferociously disagree with the existence of any Jewish ethnocratic state that treats Jews differently than its other inhabitants. Are we now suggesting that they too be silenced?  Certainly not. They will likely continue to protest at future conferences using that same chant. Censoring this chant would likely result in a first amendment suit that is an assured loss. So let’s put these useless arguments against the protest to bed once and for all. There is a line between expressing anger and violating safety. If we are going to collectively voice our outrage and demand that changes be enacted at the Creating Change Conference, we should, at the very least, be able to point out the actual mistakes that were made. Only then can we make suggestions that speak to those errors, instead of diverting attention to the most alarmist, escalating, and unhelpful aspects of this story. 

What really happened at the conference – and what didn’t

First it is important to know some essential background. I have co-led the Jewish working group at the Creating Change conference for the last five years. Our Jewish Working group is made up of around 20 leaders and representatives of national and local LGBTQ Jewish organizations including Keshet, GLOE, JQ International, Eighteen: 22, JQYouth and more. This year the Jewish Working group ran multiple sessions including a Jewish Queer organizing strategy session, a Jewish Queer Caucus and a 3 hour Queer Muslim-Jewish Dialogue. In addition to our sessions we organized a Friday night Shabbat service with local Chicago Rabbis, and A Wider Bridge sponsored Friday Night Reception featuring an open bar, music and speakers from Jerusalem Open House. Only the Friday Night Service and the Wider Bridge Reception were open to the public. 

No speaker, no matter how Zionist, was banned

The first misconception that spread online about this year’s conference is the idea that the Task Force requested that the Jerusalem Open House and A Wider Bridge be banned, boycotted or silenced at the Conference. It is true that the Conference leaders contacted A Wider Bridge to ask them to include a critical voice of Israel at their reception. It is true that when they refused, the Conference canceled the public reception. The reasons given were “reception specific”, in that they felt that, given the triggering nature of the event to other conference goers, it did not fit the celebratory tone of the reception model. 

While I disagreed with this decision, I came to terms with it by thinking about how hard it would be to throw an LGBTQ Jewish party in an Orthodox Jewish Conference. Maybe there was still work to be done before throwing a party. 

Meanwhile, behind the scenes the task force was working with me to try to include the pro-Israel voices into the sessions that we were already running. They made it clear that the Israelis were still able to speak, but felt that the reception party open to the public was a bad idea, because they were afraid of a large protest from outside forces. It is important to note that no speaker, no matter how Zionist, was ever banned from the conference.

The global anti-Semitism/anti-Israel emergency button had been pushed

Unfortunately that is not how this incident was reported. It somehow quickly spread like wildfire that the Task Force banned all Israeli voices at the Conference. As you can imagine, this came as quite a shock to me given that, at the same time, conference leaders were suggesting the Israelis speak at our Jewish sessions. Before I even had a chance to clarify the situation with Jewish leaders, it seemed that the global anti-Semitism/anti-Israel emergency button had been pushed. Every major Jewish institution, politician, and corporate leader fell in line to demand that the Task Force reverse its reception cancellation. Not surprisingly, the Task Force board quickly succumbed to this pressure, and issued a statement reversing the decision, essentially blaming the original cancellation on low-level staff. Classy. 

Powerful Jews wielding their influence to get what they want

The abrupt policy reversal was cynically viewed by people at the conference as powerful Jews wielding their influence to get what they want. When I arrived at the Conference, this was the assumption of almost everyone I spoke with. It’s not surprising. For thousands of years, the trope that has been used to justify the murder of millions of Jews was not Israel, but the idea that we control the media, the banks, the government and the major institutions. So, yes, there was an ugly anti-Semitic feeling in the air, but no, it had less to do with Israel, the occupation, or “intersectionality”, and more to do with the feeling that external Jewish power was dictating conference policies. Ironically, if we were to be honest about collective responsibility, we should look inward and ask ourselves if our communal knee jerk alarmist reaction to a situation that most Jews did not fully understand, actually made the situation worse and put Jewish lives in danger.

The angry mob quickly filled the whole corridor

Another consequence of applying massive pressure on the Task Force was their staff’s subsequent fear of seeming to support the protest in any way. This prevented them from providing the protesters with any guidelines, designated space, or safety assurances. It also conveyed the message that their protest was not valued by the conference as a legitimate point of view. On Friday, when the protesters arrived on the third floor, there was no designated place or roped off space for them to stand. Instead they were told by hotel security that all protests in the hotel were illegal, and that if they did not leave they would all be subject to arrest. This caused significant escalation. 

The small hallway quickly devolved into an angry congested pandemonium. The protest mob quickly filled the entire corridor, forcing reception attendees to have to shove and push their way through in order to get into the room. Some people had small skirmishes with the protestors, but no one was physically injured. Most attendees described this experience as frightening and traumatizing. Four protesters entered the reception and occupied the stage. They would not stop yelling and interrupted anyone who attempted to speak from the dais. The Jerusalem Open House speakers did not feel safe and chose to leave. Finally the entire reception was shut down by the police and hotel security. 

It didn't have to happen this way

The facts about what took place Friday night are disturbing enough without being embroidered further. Curiously, the reporting on this story in press was filled with inaccuracies. JTA, The Forward, Stand With Us, and Times Of Israel [ditto] all suggested that the prayer service had been interrupted. False. Slate Magazine implied that the protestors broke through the doors storming the reception and ending the party. Wrong. Haaretz inferred that the protest chant of “Get them out!” referred to kicking the Jews out, when it was really in response to the four protesters that were stuck in the reception room after they requested to leave and were denied by hotel security. 

It was reported as fact that this was an “anti-Semitic rally”

In addition to these inaccuracies was the penchant for exaggerations and charged language. Haaretz and The Observer reported that the protest was “violent”. This is a curious choice of words for an event where no one was injured or seriously hurt. The assumption that anger about Israel is a form of anti-Semitism was taken as a given by nearly every Jewish news outlet. It was reported as fact that this was an “anti-Semitic rally," despite all evidence only displaying anti-Israel group rhetoric. Something can feel anti-Semitic without actually being so. One may certainly debate whether it was or it wasn’t an anti-Semitic rally, but for the press to assume it as a given is just poor journalism. 

Lastly, it is telling, which stories are being told and which aren't. There is an unconfirmed incident of someone hearing the word “kike” from one of the protestors. The protest organizers have rejected the use of such terms. The Task Force has reiterated that if a formal complaint against that individual had been made, they would have punished accordingly. Yet this story keeps coming up in letters to the task force, and most famously twice in Roberta Kaplan’s open letter. Besides just being a cheap escalation technique, the subtext here is that both the protest organizers and the Task Force bear some kind of responsibility for that individual's use of this epithet. 

Taking more care before we cry 'anti-Semitism'  

However, there is another story that has somehow not made the letter rounds. At the Wider Bridge party, two trans women of color had mistakenly walked in thinking it was another reception. Soon after, hotel security locked the doors for safety purposes. The women, deciding to make the best of things, went to the open bar and ordered drinks. In the heat and confusion of the evening, instead of being served, they were interrogated by the bartender. They were asked if they were “part” of this reception, and when they admitted to being there by mistake they were first refused service, and then given the option of being charged for drinks that everyone else got for free. They were the only people of color in the room besides the protesters on stage, and they were refused equal bar service because they weren't “part” of the reception. Eventually, myself and others intervened and got these women free drinks, but the damage was done. 

Would it be fair for the protesters to draft a public letter about Friday’s reception accusing A Wider Bridge of racism, citing (twice!) the story of people of color being denied bar service at their reception? 

When overreach feels like bullying

Certainly one could argue that had A Wider Bridge known about this incident they would have intervened immediately. However, the same be argued about the “kike” vignette. 

Why is it OK to use this inflammatory story to cast anti-Semitic aspersions on both the Task Force and the protest organizers, when citing the bar story to insinuate that the reception was racist would be an overreach? Can you imagine if the NAACP got 50 of the top African American politicians and leaders to sign on to a letter to demand that A Wider Bridge hire an independent firm to investigate this incident and other policies with respect to race? It would feel like bullying. It would feel like slander. It would feel wrong. 

Valid critiques, not power plays

There is no question that the Task Force made multiple mistakes when navigating this difficult terrain. Calling out Creating Change for tolerating anti-Semitism is neither truthful nor helpful in addressing the valid critiques that should be made. Dealing with Israel is complicated, and we, as a Jewish community, haven’t really figured out how to include all voices yet either. A little humility goes a long way. We have to believe in the merits of our position regardless of how many high profile people sign on to it. What doesn’t help them or us is when we resort to pressure tactics and power plays. It’s an ugly game. Besides, feeding into a Jewish caricature is far more damaging than anti-Israel rhetoric. We are just better than that. 

We need to look into how we wield power inside our own community. Let’s be brutally honest. It’s hard for a queer Jewish professional to refuse an LGBTQ national hero and the rabbi of the largest LGBTQ synagogue when they ask you to sign on to a letter. We should only be put in that position in rare emergencies. It would be hard-pressed to argue that this is one of them. 

Moving forward there are things that the LGBTQ Task Force can do. This isn't a sex abuse scandal or a case of internal corruption; we can calm down about demanding for a comprehensive independent review by outside investigators. The very suggestion represents a gross misunderstanding of what went wrong. It is precisely the freeing of the LGBTQ Task Force from outside pressures that will enable it to fill the void of leadership that currently exists. 

Appeal to the very values that make LGBTQ community unique

I believe that the LGBTQ Task Force should trust its own constituency and appeal to the very values that make our LGBTQ activist community unique. As queers we unapologetically protect and celebrate the non-binary nature of our identities when it comes to sex and gender. In our world we not limited by the categories and labels that society makes for us. We can do the same when thinking about politics and conflict. Our queerness informs all aspects of who we are. It is consequently possible to both celebrate Israel and be troubled by its very existence. Both experiences exist in the glorious dialectic of human complexity. 

Our job is to forge a radical center that makes space for two opposing positions. The Task Force affirms this every time we begin our Creating Change opening plenary by thanking the State municipality we are in, and then pointing out that we are on land stolen from an indigenous population. Just as we can simultaneously be both man and woman, we can also love and hate at the same time. The key is to affirm, validate and make safe space for both conflicting points of view. Israel has a place at Creating Change. Those who are offended by Israeli inclusion should also have a protected space to stage their holy protest against what they feel is unfair and immoral. 

Anger against what one feels is wrong is just as beautiful as joy over what one feels is right. It is only when we can hold both these experiences at once that we truly widen our bridge.

Mordechai Levovitz is a social worker and Executive Director of JQY, an organization that provides clinical, educational and advocacy resources on behalf of LGBTQ youth at risk in Jewish (predominantly Orthodox, Hasidic, & Sephardi) communities. He leads the Jewish Movement Building Working Group for the National LGBTQ Task Force which is in in charge of providing Jewish sessions and programming at the annual Creating Change Conference. Follow him on Twitter: @ZacMordechai

Mordechai Levovitz is speaking on his own behalf. JQY's official statement on this matter can be found here.

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