Last Thursday evening, I was a part of a group of about 20 people gathered outside of the Doubletree Hotel in downtown Philadelphia to demonstrate against the decision of the “Equality Forum” to have Israel as this year’s “featured nation” and to partner with the Israeli Ministry of Tourism and the Israeli Embassy in Washington.
By collaborating with the Government of Israel, the “Equality Forum” is lending itself to a seven-year multi-million dollar advertising campaign by the state, called “Brand Israel”, which seeks to portray Israel as “modern and progressive”, and to distract from Israel’s violent policies towards the indigenous Palestinian population of segregation and expulsion. The “Equality Forum”, as a conduit to the Philadelphia LGBTQ community, is the ideal venue for Israeli government officials and those they have paid to speak to pinkwash Israel – to appropriate queer voices in an effort to portray Israel as a “gay haven”, and to silence critique of Israel’s policies towards Palestinians.
The majority of passersby were curious and supportive of the demonstration. They were also outraged by Israel’s continuing treatment of Palestinians, and they wanted to learn more about pinkwashing. But there were several individuals who confronted us and threatened us.
One woman passing by was disturbed by the prospect of granting equal rights to non-Jewish Palestinians living under military occupation. Invoking the holocaust, she said that the Jewish people must have a safe place to go. I agree completely with this, but the Zionist mentality behind this sentiment – the idea that there must be an exclusive Jewish state - is used to justify the Government of Israel’s home demolitions, evictions, and violence against Palestinians.
Another disturbing confrontation occurred between a worker at the Doubletree Hotel and one member of our group, Ahuviya Harel. The worker was telling us to leave the public sidewalk in front of their property. Harel, a transgender woman in our group, needed to correct his pronoun usage at one point, saying, “I am a woman. Use the ‘she’ pronoun when you are speaking about me!”
The Doubletree worker responded by saying, “Oh yeah? Let me go clock out and then I will show you what I really think.”
Then, as the “Israel panel” of the “Equality Forum” concluded, the moderator of the panel, Nurit Shein, came out as we were wrapping up our demonstration. We told her why we were there, and what she was supporting by collaborating with the Government of Israel. Harel then told Shein that she was threatened with violence because of her appearance in regards to gender and presentation.
“Don’t play the trans card with me!” Shein lashed back.
Such a statement takes the side of the worker of the Doubletree Hotel, and ignores Harel’s own need for safety and protection. Shein also repeatedly referred to Harel using the pronoun ‘he’, intentionally perpetrating transphobia. Shein justified her support for violence, transphobia, and transmisogyny by saying to Harel, “You disrespect the trans people I work with every day,” as though Harel’s status as a transgender woman who stands up for Palestinian rights precludes her from the safety and consideration of other transgender individuals.
Shein is the Executive Director of the Mazzoni Center, the largest provider of LGBTQ health services in Philadelphia. She previously served for 20 years as a Colonel for “Military intelligence” in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).
The confrontations and conversations we had highlight why we were there in front of the Doubletree Hotel. Only by offering mutual support to victims of state and interpersonal violence and trauma – whether perpetrated in the name of anti-trans misogyny or ethnic cleansing and demographics in a Jewish state – can true equality be created.