The National LGBT Task Force’s annual Creating Change conference is often grounds for controversy and this year’s conference, held at the Hilton Hotel in Chicago, was no exception. The most contentious event on its schedule was a reception organized by A Wider Bridge (AWB), a group that foster relations between the State of Israel and the LGBT community, with representatives from Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance.
This did not sit well with many activists who view Israel as an apartheid state that persecutes Palestinian Arabs, and they pressured the Task Force to cancel the AWB program. This led to protests from queer Jews and other supporters of Israel, which led Task Force Executive Director Rea Carey to reschedule the event.
Not surprisingly, the AWB program never took place. More than 200 noisy protesters gathered outside the hall where the reception was to be held, forcing the organizers to once again cancel the event. As protesters entered the room, the Open House reps were escorted out a back door “to ensure their safety.”
They accused Israel of racism; held up signs announcing there is “No pride in apartheid”; and chanted controversial slogans, including one proclaiming that “From the [Jordan] River to the [Mediterranean] Sea, Palestine Will Be Free” (a slogan used by Hamas to declare the impending doom of the Jewish State). Though there were reports of altercations between protesters and guests, no arrests were made. The protest finally ended when a Hilton staff member threatened to close the conference.
Many activists on the left view A Wider Bridge as a propaganda arm of the Israeli government and accuse it of “pinkwashing”; that is, exploiting Israel’s pro-LGBT record to distract others away from the Jewish State’s harsh treatment of Palestinians.
“For several years the Israeli government has attempted to use propaganda about the freedoms some LGBTQs in that country have as a cover for their increasingly brutal rule over Palestinians,” read a statement from Chicago’s Gay Liberation Network. Black Lives Matter Chicago took time off from demanding the resignation of Mayor Rahm Emanuel to protest this event, linking the plight of Palestinians with that of African Americans.
On the other hand, AWB Executive Director Arthur Slepian defended his group. Smelling a whiff of anti-Semitism, Slepian argued that the idea that Israeli queers “would be disenfranchised because of something that their government does is disgraceful. They’re saying that their lives as LGBT people are not valuable stories because of the actions of their government.”
Israel is far from perfect. Its policies against the Palestinians, especially by the current right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who apparently learned his politics from his friends in the U.S. Republican Party) are deplorable.
And I do not agree with those who, like Slepian, think that any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. However, for all its faults, Israel is the most gay-friendly country in the Middle East. In spite of the influence that homphobic, Ultra-Orthodox rabbis have over Israeli society and government, homosexual acts were legalized as far back as 1988, when many American states still enforced their sodomy laws. Israeli lesbians, gay men and bisexuals were given the right to serve openly in the Israel Defense Forces at a time when the U.S. military still had “don’t ask, don’t tell.” (Protesters would argue here that the IDF is only enlisting LGB people to help in its anti-Palestinian campaign.)
Israel is the first country in Asia to recognize co-habitation between lesbian or gay male couples. Same-sex couples are allowed to jointly adopt children. And while same-sex marriages are not performed in Israel, it recognizes those marriages performed elsewhere. Tel Aviv, “the gay capital of the Middle East” (according to Out magazine) is one of the gay-friendliest cities in the world. Meanwhile, other Middle Eastern countries actively persecute its LGBT people, some going so far as to execute both men and boys for committing homosexual acts.
Does A Wider Bridge promote Israeli propaganda? Of course it does, but no more than any other organization connected with any other country, including the United States. The State of Florida has a dismal record when it comes to its treatment of minorities, LGBT people included. Does this mean that promoters of LGBT tourism in Key West, Fort Lauderdale or Orlando should be barred from queer conferences? One can criticize the policies of the Israeli government, as I often do, and still support the Jewish State. On the other hand, there is a thin line between shouting anti-Israeli slogans and wishing to wipe it off the face of the earth. This is a line that LGBT activists should not cross.