Opinion |

'Like a Swastika, or Confederate Flag': How the Dyke March Turned the Star of David Into a Hate Symbol

The DC Dyke March singled out Jewish symbols and queer Jews for policing and exclusion. I mourned another social justice space where I was not welcome - because of my religion and sexuality

Ariel Sobel
Ariel Sobel
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Members of the Jewish LGBTQ community wait to see if they are allowed to participate with their Star of David flags in the Dyke March in Washington, DC. June 7, 2019
Members of the Jewish LGBTQ community wait to see if they are allowed to participate with their Star of David flags in the Dyke March in Washington, DC. June 7, 2019Credit: NICHOLAS KAMM / AFP
Ariel Sobel
Ariel Sobel

If you’re a queer Jewish woman, the fiasco over the DC Dyke March banning rainbow flags featuring the Star of David, often called Jewish Pride flags, didn’t end with the end of the event. Just as the debate isn’t over, neither is the harassment directed at us - in an attempt to erase our identities.

For me, a bisexual Jew, I was already raw from the controversy surrounding homophobia and the Women’s March, whose leaders to this day will not denounce virulent anti-Semitic homophobe Louis Farrakhan. And now, I was mourning yet another social justice space where I was not welcome - because of my religion and sexuality.

I watched horrifying video footage of a DC Dyke March marshall physically gatekeeping women just like me from entering the event, deeming the way they expressed their Judaism as "inappropriate" for a queer space.

If the language used by those harassing queer Jews felt violating and threatening to me, I’d imagine it’d be even more alarming for my Jewish peers who are less public with their identity. I fretted over what closeted Jews would see in that video. I worried they would come away from the controversy convinced that they could be discarded not only by their Jewish family for their sexuality, but by the LGBTQ community – normally a welcoming safety net – too.

Meanwhile, the DC incident gave fuel to those in the Jewish community who are already prejudiced against the LGBTQ community. The Dyke March’s decision to ban Jewish Pride flags gave homophobic Jews a new excuse to victimize us.

Far too many bad faith actors exploited the controversy to gratuitously use the term "dyke" as a slur. They railed against all dyke marches, rather than the one in question, and took out their frustrations by attacking LGBTQ people as a whole.

I felt doubly excluded and rejected - from the march and from my own Jewish community.

For a week I’ve felt like a punching bag for both activists against anti-Semitism ill-informed on queer issues and for LGBTQ organizers who were ill-informed on Judaism.

But you know also took too many punches in this squabble? The Jewish star itself. Not only has the DC Dyke March’s decision to ban Jewish pride flags battered queer Jewish women, it ignited a wider campaign to demonize the Star of David.

The Star of David is often called the "Jewish star" because it is the most recognizable symbol of Judaism. Just like a cross or star and crescent, those six points are synonymous with pride in one’s Jewishness. At the site that memorializes soldiers lost in D-Day, during the Battle of Normandy, 149 Jewish graves are marked with the star in a sea of crosses. It acts as a signifier of identity, not of one’s politics.

The Dyke March organizers claimed that the Jewish Pride flag was banned because it has a "Star of David placed in the center, superimposed over a rainbow flag, and is almost entirely reminiscent of the Israeli flag, swapping out the blue and white for a rainbow."

But this is an ignorant conflation to make. The Israeli flag uses the Star of David because it’s the global symbol of Judaism; it is a symbol that predates Israel’s founding by thousands of years. Queer Jews don’t superimpose it on a rainbow flag to imitate the flag of the State of Israel, which has its own specific Pride flag.

Rather than taking the opportunity to educate the public about Jewish symbols, the DC Dyke March catered to those bigots with the least understanding of them. Because ignorant people have so completely conflated Jews with the Israel-Palestinian conflict, they cannot see a Star of David without thinking of their grievances with Israel, our most immediately recognizable and beloved symbol has been demonized.

"LGBT Jews are accepted and can celebrate, but why bring a hate symbol like the Star of David to a Pride event?" a supporter of Dyke March tweeted at me. "That should be saved for racist right-wing events along with the Confederate flag and the swastika."

The DC Dyke March declared that Stars of Davids were unlike any other religion’s symbols - such as crosses or crescents - but was immutably political, and the wrong kind of political. It declared that the Star of David would be banned as a "nationalist symbol" representing "nations that have specific oppressive tendencies." They thus effectively invited their fan club to compare them to swastikas.

The attack on Jewish pride flags greenlit scores of people to abuse me personally as a queer Jewish woman. But the DC Dyke March also declared open season on the Jewish star – which is truly unforgivable. I can fight back: our symbols, like the Magen David, can’t.

The Dyke March’s own (Jewish) organizers suggested a whole shopping list of alternative Jewish symbols - "yarmulkes, tallitot, tefillin, rainbow pomegranates, Lions of Judah, Hamsas, chai, a menorah" - none as resonant, categorical and widely recognized as the Star of David.

The organizers can’t relate to Stars of David on a pride flag. But I do. When I’m strutting down a Pride parade and I spot one, I feel seen. I know that I’m not the only one in this crowd who is both unapologetically gay and Jewish. I’m reminded that there are other queer Jews who are advocating to make our religion more inclusive.

I’m reminded that the Jewish star has been used to single out Jews for discrimination and extermination - but we have consistently taken it back, as our symbol of pride. If anything, Stars of David share something profound with the term "dyke" itself: a history of being reclaimed, proudly, in the face of prejudice.

The entire premise of Pride events, including Dyke March, is for LGBTQ people to show up as they are. It’s a reminder that despite the isolation you might feel for being queer at work, school, home, or their houses of faith, you are not alone. We are an undercover army who spends its day in uniform – and can take it off to celebrate for a few precious moments every year.

My Twitter troll went further, claiming: "When most people see the Star of David, the first thing they think of is either all the Palestinians exiled from their homes or of Jesus weeping on the cross as the nails pierce his skin, that’s why it’s considered a hate symbol."

That is where the DC ban has led - license to reprise some of the earliest historical expressions of anti-Semitism, and some of its latest iterations. It has turned history and identity on its head. It has singled out Jewish symbols and furthermore, queer Jews, for policing and exclusion.

There are straight people who see a Pride parade as an assault on their sexuality, and now there are non-Jewish people who see the Star of David as a violent attack on their community.

But just as we would never cancel the Dyke March because of bigots who rail against how we identify and love, nor should we in the LGBTQ community cancel the Star of David because of the bigotry of anti-Semitism either.

Ariel Sobel is a writer, filmmaker, TEDx talker and graduate of the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. Twitter: @arielsobelle

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