The Hostile Protest That Shut Down Debate at the LGBTQ Conference Helped No One in Israel or Palestine

I oppose Israel’s military occupation of Palestine. But the anti-Israel protest I witnessed in Chicago was about shutting down debate, and about attacking us as Jews.

An anti-Israel protest at the LGBTQ conference in Chicago.
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Last Shabbat I was in Chicago, attending the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Creating Change Conference, an annual gathering for activists, with more 4,000 participants. There have been many reports swirling around in the media  about the troubling occurrences surrounding the "Wider Bridge" reception hosting Jerusalem Open House activists. I attended this reception and want to share with you my perspective of what occurred.

My synagogue, CBST, has a strong, 18-year partnership with the Jerusalem Open House in the struggle for social justice in Jerusalem. As part of our commitment to Israel we hosted missions from JOH here, and sent delegations to visit and study in Israel/Palestine. Recently we co-hosted with JQY a vigil in memory of 16-year-old Shira Banki z"l, who was murdered at the Jerusalem Pride March last summer. I believe the voices of a progressive Queer organization that works to benefit all LGBTQ people in Israel and Palestine need to be heard here. 

Anyone who knows me—or Googles me—will know that I fight Israel's military occupation of Palestine. In 2012 I participated in a national LGBT leadership trip to Palestine, and connected strongly with activists there. I have always taken a stand for freedom of speech. When a pro-BDS group was denied access to the LGBT Center in New York, I advocated publicly for its inclusion. I believe in the robust, vigorous world of debate and ideas.  

For these reasons I was very troubled by the Task Force's initial decision to cancel the Wider Bridge/JOH reception. Along with many others, I engaged the Task Force leadership in conversation and dialogue.  To their credit, the Task Force reversed the decision.

The reception hosting JOH activists was initially cancelled under pressure from other LGBTQ activist organizations -- many Jewish -- who felt that A Wider Bridge (the hosting organization), by working with Israeli governmental agencies and promoting gay Israeli tourism, is complicit in "pinkwashing," a deliberate strategy by Israel to use the vibrancy of LGBTQ life in there to distract foreign critics from the on-going Occupation of Palestinian territories.

On Friday January 22nd, after a peaceful Shabbat service, the JOH reception was due to begin, when about 200 protestors appeared, threatening and chanting and acting aggressively and calling for the eradication of Israel. You can see some of this in the video posted by the Windy City Times.

I'm a veteran of a number of very passionate and fierce protest actions. However, the mob-like feeling of the crowd was frightening and profoundly disturbing. A few protesters were inside and refused to leave through another door, insisting that they would only leave through the main door. They were belligerent and extremely hostile. 

The hotel security locked the main door at a certain point to try and prevent more protesters from getting into the room, at which point protesters started pushing at a partition wall, to get in through the side, chanting "Shut it down! Shut it down!" I actually stood against the wall trying to prevent it being broken down. 

I tried to reason calmly with the protesters, but they only screamed back at me. Shortly after the program began the protesters inside advanced towards the small stage where the Israelis stood.  

For the Israelis, this situation triggered their memory of the stabber who attacked people in the Jerusalem Gay Pride march this past year. With the shouting getting louder, the partition wall being pushed, and the protesters aggressively approaching and taking the stage, it felt like things were spiraling out of control, and I escorted the Israelis out of the room through a side door. 

The protesters have insisted that only their voices can be heard. I have always taken a stand for freedom of speech. I believe in the robust, vigorous world of debate and ideas. I support the right of the protesters to protest passionately and to engage in a deep and thoughtful way. But the protest was about shutting down, disrupting, and silencing, and this is not the way to create positive change. To my deep sadness, while I am not one to lightly use the anti-Semitism charge, I have to say that I personally felt attacked as a Jew.

On any side of the debate over Israel and Palestine, I believe we should follow the teaching of Talmud (BT Eruvin 13b): The House of Rabbi Hillel merited winning legal debates because “they were kind and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of the House of Shammai, and not only that, but they would precede their own words with the words of House of Shammai” (BT Eruvin 13b). We have to understand each other's arguments, even when we cannot agree with them.

While I share the outrage and frustration expressed the BDS movement about the on-going injustice of the occupation, I disagree with the method. The only way I see to end the occupation and fight for the soul of Israel is to support Israelis who are working on the ground (in organizations like ACRI, Btselem, Ethiopian Friends by Nature, IRAC, NIF, IGY and JOH) to create change. Disengaging and boycotting them abandons them alone in their huge task to bring justice to Israel/Palestine. 

At Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, we know the challenge of living in politically pluralist community. It is not easy. Over our years as a congregation, we have witnessed yelling, tears, slander, and bullying. We have also seen growth, learning, rigorous debate, and engaged activism. If our own challenges have taught us anything, it is that creating change happens through loving, challenging relationship that demands radical curiosity and compassion from us all. 

We as a queer community that has a unique outlook at intersectionality of identities, an understanding of the minority experience and a record of bringing about justice, have a role to play here. We must create a civil platform for debate. We can support activists in Israel and Palestine who are working on the ground to bring about change. Let us remember that the squabbling about what happened in Chicago helps no one in Israel or Palestine. Let us turn our attention to making a real change in the lives of people.

Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, spiritual leader of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York City since 1992, has led CBST to become a powerful voice for equality and justice for people of all sexual orientations, gender identities, and expressions. Rabbi Kleinbaum has worked for peace and justice for Israelis and Palestinians for over 30 years.