The press is awash with (mostly) terrible articles about a demonstration at the LGBTQ conference in Chicago, January 20-24, called Creating Change. At that conference, hundreds of anti-Zionists demonstrated against an appearance by A Wider Bridge, an Israel lobby group. Under pressure, conference organizers canceled a reception by A Wider Bridge. Then pressure came from the other direction and the reception was reinstated. Many accounts of the demonstration and the conference have characterized the incident as evidence of anti-Semitism. Slate has led a campaign against the demonstrators. On the other hand, this piece by Mordechai Levovitz, a Zionist, in Haaretz says that the events leading to the cancellation and reinstatement of the reception have been misrepresented by the press. No Jewish or Israeli speaker at the conference was prevented from speaking; and the pushback by pro-Israel groups itself serves an anti-Semitic storyline. Levovitz notes the issue won’t go away, not because of anti-Semitism, but because “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.” Dorgham Abusalim also covered the incident. He gave us permission to publish this article, which first appeared in the Washington Blade. –Editor.
According to the conference program, Rea Carey, executive director of the Task Force, welcomed participants with these words: “That’s why we are here this week: to tear down ALL the barriers we face between us and true liberation — and to support and lift-up one another in spirit, camaraderie and love.” (Emphasis their own).
However, one particular event on Jan. 22 put these noble words to the test. A session with A Wider Bridge, a pro-Israeli LGBT organization, was challenged by protesters and cancelled over the organization’s cooperation with the Israeli government, whose policies violate the human rights of Palestinians living under occupation. The cancellation of the event raised eyebrows, prompting a barrage of angry reactions and accusations of anti-Semitism against the protesters and conference organizers. For instance, Slate Magazine’s LGBTQ blogger ran the headline “The LGBTQ Left Has an Anti-Semitism Problem,” an OUT magazine headline characterizes the protests as “pure anti-Semitism,” and 90 LGBTQ activists signed a statement to Carey describing the protests as “anti-Semitic” and “dangerous,” posing the following question: “where do we as a progressive social movement go from here?” A cursory search of news stories surrounding the event brings up 80+ articles of similar views. For her part, Carey released a “crystal clear” statement: “the National LGBTQ Task Force wholeheartedly condemns anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic statements made at any Task Force event including our Creating Change Conference,” promising a review of the event and improvements to cope with “the challenges of a growing attendance.”
The Blade’s own Mr. Kevin Naff shared his opinion in an account of his own experience with A Wider Bridge, Israel, and Palestine. Yet, despite his coolheaded appeal to ensure that all voices should be heard, including critical ones, Mr. Naff reaches a similar conclusion: the protests were offensive and anti-Semitic.
I do not believe so. Instead, I believe the repeated deployment of the anti-Semitism charges against those who criticize Israel and the wide army of organizations it works with is both unsophisticated and demeaning. In fact, the charge of anti-Semitism is merely an iteration of a larger force that has dominated the Israeli-Palestinian conversation in the U.S. It’s the kind of force that unleashes itself almost by default at any hint of strongly grounded criticism of Israel. It’s called civility. As Steven Salaita puts it in his work, Uncivil Rites, civility is a regime that always has difficulty accommodating systematic critiques, let alone expression of those critiques in unfashionable manners. Of course, the protesters were disruptive, uncomfortable perhaps; but so is every bit of the goals the Task Force seeks to accomplish, or any “progressive” civil rights movement for that matter.
Change, at least the effective kind, does not come with comfort. If that were case, then the history we know about many civil rights movements in this country and around the world would be a lie.
Perhaps one particular chant at the protests drove such strong disapproval, to the tune of challenging a deeply rooted and accomplished organization: “Palestine will be free from the river to the sea.” A superficial reading would invariably cause anyone who hears it to believe it means the destruction of Israel. Yet, most of the reactions fail to understand that the chant is equally applicable to an increasingly embraced idea: the one state solution, where freedom for all should indeed reign from the river to the see. Alternatively, as the U.S. Ambassador to Israel put it, we are left with a single state with two standards of adherence to the rule of law, one favorable to Israelis and one unfavorable to Palestinians.
Not only is the charge of anti-Semitism unsophisticated and incapable of grappling with the realities of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, it also does far greater harm than good. Nearly all the writers offering opinions assumed their views with the understanding that the session with A Wider Bridge should have been permitted to take place. I do too. But, unlike those opinions, mine is a view that does not find it necessary or appropriate to say that silencing the session is anti-Semitic. Rather, permitting it to take place would only be a commitment to the principles and ideals of the Task Force and Creating Change – something that is neither Semitic nor anti-Semitic.
The irony is that opinions containing the anti-Semitism charge practically commit the same mistake: silencing and discrediting the protesters. In doing so, the harm is twofold. The other side is almost instantly excluded from the conversation, marked as undesirable or uninvited, and therefore it also stifles the conversation. For instance, in an exchange on Facebook, one friend commented on Mr. Naff’s opinion, “I stopped [reading] at the description of the protest as anti-Semitic and of “Palestine will be free from the river to the sea” as a “genocidal chant [that] is an overt call for the destruction of Israel.”
As the progressive movement works to recover from this episode, it would be wise to understand that scapegoating people on the basis of a tremendously painful past, one where anti-Semitism wreaked havoc and unspeakable horrors, would only reinforce the idea that all voices should be heard as long as they conform to the rules of civility. The issue is not about the Task Force’s ability to handle growing attendance; rather it’s about what it, and the progressive movement at large, will do when challenged by an increasingly knowledgeable audience about Israel’s human rights violations.
After all, nearly a quarter-century of peace negotiations grounded in civility has nothing to show but stagnation or regressive change at best, surely not a change genuinely committed to the human rights of all.