Friday, January 29, 2016

Israeli Policy, Not Anti-Semitism, at the Root of Disruption at Creating Change 2016 Conference

The above image by Micah Bazant accompanies a response by the group ‪#‎CancelPinkwashing‬ to those who have criticized its members for shutting down a January 22 reception at this year's National LGBTQ Taskforce's Creating Change conference.

This reception was hosted by A Wider Bridge, an organization that "fosters relationships between Israel and the LGBT community," and the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance. #‎CancelPinkwashing understands these organizations to be "Zionist" groups, and accuse them of "pinkwashing," a term that refers to the "cynical use of gay rights to distract from and normalize Israeli occupation, settler colonialism, and apartheid."

At one point in #CancelPinkwashing's response the group states the following:

A few of our goals were accomplished, namely that we shut down the pinkwashing reception and raised the national visibility of pinkwashing as a Zionist tactic. We also actively pushed back on the overall complicity of Creating Change and the Task Force. We should note that this is not the first time that the Task Force has been criticized for marginalizing people of color or cultivating racism at Creating Change. In fact, these criticisms and protests are commonplace at the Conference. Whether this year or in the past . . . We call on the Task Force to take a firm stand against colonialism, racism and apartheid and refuse to host pinkwashing events by Israel advocacy organizations.

To read ‪#‎CancelPinkwashing's statement in its entirety, click here.

But what exactly is pinkwashing? Well, here's how the author of a January 26 commentary at Now North Face defines it.

In Mark Joseph Stern’s op-ed about #cancelpinkwashing in Slate Magazine, he repeats a misconception that I’ve heard quite a bit. He thinks that when people complain about pinkwashing, what they’re saying is “All advances for LGBTQ+ people in Israeli society, all support for LGBTQ+ people among Israeli government or organizations, is a smokescreen created only to deflect or distract from criticism of Israeli treatment of Palestinians,” which would be anti-Semitic because of the implication that the world’s only Jewish-dominated government only does good things for insidious, malignant reasons, which plays to old anti-Semitic tropes.

That’s not what pinkwashing means. . . . Pinkwashing means the exploitation of Israeli support for some kinds of LGBTQ+ rights, or the vibrancy of Israel’s LGBTQ+ communities, for deflection or propaganda purposes. Do people think it’s anti-Semitic to think that Israel engages in propaganda? Israel certainly thinks Israel engages in propaganda.

The Israeli government, in fact, developed Hasbara Fellowships to train students in “public diplomacy,” in conjunction with Aish HaTorah, a homophobic Orthodox organization that has promoted conversion “therapy”. And those Hasbara Fellows, supported by this homophobic organization and the Israeli government, have developed campaigns to convince students to believe that supporting LGBTQ+ rights means supporting Israel, under the premise of benign educational events. That is pinkwashing.

In his January 28 commentary Scout Bratt says that it was a "good thing" that the debate over pinkwashing at the Creating Change conference was "agitational . . . uncomfortable [and] brought out tensions in our relationships, our values and our communities." He goes to say the following.

While others in the Jewish world are handwringing about the idea of “intersectionality,” we were striving to connect our struggles for liberation with those of others.

It’s because of this interconnected struggle that we can’t sit quietly and watch pinkwashing organizations like A Wider Bridge paper over Israel’s harmful policies toward Palestinians — policies that harm gay Palestinians in Haifa as well as in Ramallah. This pinkwashing is an integral part of Israel’s “Brand Israel” public relations strategy, which appeals to racist ideas of Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims as backward and intolerant in contrast to the supposedly enlightened Western liberalism of Israel. A superficial embrace of “gay rights” has been used as an effective way to advertise Israel’s Western identity, at the expense of Palestinians who are portrayed as needing to be “saved” by Israeli liberalism — even as they are simultaneously denied equal rights in the Jewish state. Pinkwashing erases queer Palestinians, or uses them as props for a savior narrative, while intentionally distracting from the oppression and violence that they face under Israeli rule.

Of course, not everyone agrees with the perspective, goals or tactics of ‪#‎CancelPinkwashing. An open letter to the Taskforce by 90 "members and leaders of the LGBTQ community," some Jewish, some not, denounced the actions of ‪#‎CancelPinkwashing. This letter noted, in part, the following:

It has been reported – and videos taken contemporaneously confirm – that the protesters chanted slogans like “Palestine will be free from the river to the sea,” which necessarily suggests that the State of Israel should no longer exist.

. . . Given the concentrated and organized hostility that is so often displayed against Jewish and Israeli LGBTQ groups, and the stark rise in global anti-Semitism, it is even more important that we as a community promote civil and respectful debate. It is intellectually, politically and morally dishonest to claim that in the name of freedom, liberation, or some other progressive ideal, there is a right to target and exclude Jewish/Israeli groups, to foment physical intimidation and harassment, and to encourage anti-Semitism.

There is a long and ugly history of this kind of censorship where individuals with controversial ideas and viewpoints have been silenced in the name of the “greater good.” We should know by now that such censorship results in fewer (not more) good ideas and greater (not lesser) oppression of us all. Indeed, given that we come from a movement where LGBTQ people were effectively shut out from participation in the public discourse for so many years, what happened at Creating Change 2016 was extremely dangerous. If we as a movement really believe in the values we profess to hold dear, then it is time to put an end to this.

To read this open letter in its entirety, click here.

I have to say that I find it both troubling and problematic when criticism of Israeli policy is equated with anti-Semitism or efforts to "encourage" anti-Semitism. From everything I've read, it seems clear that those who disrupted the reception were compelled to do so not by anti-Semitism, but by their anger, frustration and concern around Israeli policy as it relates to the Palestinians and others.

Here's part of one response to the above open letter of denoucement that address this erroneous conflating of anti-Israeli policy with anti-Semitism.

We deeply disagree with any anti-Semitic language that may have been used during the protest. But focusing the conversation on the actions of a single person among several hundred is disingenuous, and an attempt to deflect and derail the conversation about why the protests occurred in the first place: which was to draw attention to the racist denial of basic human rights that Palestinians and other people of color face under the Israeli government.

We also understand that the protest chant “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” is seen by some as a painful call for the destruction of Israel. For others, that chant does not conjure up the destruction of Israel, but instead simply speaks to the many human rights - including the basic right to freedom of movement - currently denied to Palestinians. We beseech others in our community to try to hear this chant differently, even for a moment. What if we heard the call for freedom as one in which we all got free? Where all the people of Palestine/Israel enjoyed equal rights? Where Mizrahi Jews, Ethiopian Jews, and Palestinians were all accorded the same rights and privileges as Ashkenazi Jews? Do we only stand for plurality when it expresses our own views and protects our own rights?

This same response also contains the following insightful observation.

Creating Change has always been a place of protest. Almost every year, protesters take over the main stage. This year alone, protesters interrupted the Black Institute and the Latino Institute. Yet there has been no national outcry over these protesters - only over the ones focused on A Wider Bridge’s event. These are also communities that face intimidation and violence daily, yet no one has attempted to shame those protesters. The reasons for this are simple, if not simply stated: When protests occur within communities of color, they are viewed within our community as reasonable critiques of beliefs or tactics. But when people of color protest against a largely white community, they are viewed as “intimidating,” and cause such fear as to “bring us back to the Holocaust.” This narrative also ignores the many of us that are both Jewish and people of color and leaves us as a community and a people divided.

Many aspects of this issue are not new to me. Following, for example, is my 2014 response to a Facebook friend who leveled the charge of anti-Semitism at me for, among other things, participating in a rally against Israeli militarism back in 2002.

First, let me say how much I appreciate your friendship and your willingness to engage with me in this highly emotional subject. Second, the sign I was carrying back in 2002 read "Criticism of Israeli Militarism is Not Anti-Semitic." I'm sorry if you found the statement offensive, but I continue to stand by it. Perhaps that difference in viewpoint is the big sticking point between us. Also, if you find that particular statement to be in some way an expression of anti-Semitism, then I have to question your labeling as anti-Semitic other statements, organizations and publications that you have also dismissed as anti-Semitic. Third, I don't support Hamas. I find this organization's anti-Jewish rhetoric, along with some of its actions, abhorrent. Yet I also find abhorrent the treatment of Palestinian populations by Israeli policies and military actions. The reasons the Palestinians in Gaza elected Hamas are complex, but I don't believe the group's anti-Semitic rhetoric was a major factor. From my reading, it was Hamas' dedication to liberating the people from the Israeli blockade/occupation, and its opposition to the corrupt previous government, that drew people to it. I don't believe that the desire to be liberated from the oppressive conditions of the blockade/occupation automatically translates into anti-Semitism. Again, my sense is that this is a sticking point between our differing perspectives. My hope is that once Palestinians have achieved their hoped for liberation, another group other than Hamas will be voted into power. Most Palestinians, like most Jews, want to live in peace, side by side. But for that to happen there must first be justice for all.

In conclusion, I share an excerpt from one of the most incisive and moving pieces I've read about this very complex and controversial issue: Rabbi Michael Lerner's August 4, 2014 Salon commentary, "Israel Has Broken My Heart: I’m a Rabbi in Mourning for a Judaism Being Murdered by Israel." I've shared the following excerpt from this commentary previously, but it's well worth sharing again.

In my book Embracing Israel/Palestine I have argued that both Israelis and Palestinians are victims of post-traumatic stress disorder. I have a great deal of compassion for both peoples, particularly for my own Jewish people who have gone through traumas that have inevitably distorted future generations. Those traumas don’t exonerate Israel’s behavior or that of Hamas, but they are relevant for those of us seeking a path to social healing and transformation.

Yet that healing is impossible until those who are victims of PTSD are willing to work on overcoming it.

And this is precisely where the American Jewish community and Jews around the world have taken a turn that is disastrous, by turning the Israeli nation state into “the Jewish state” and making Israel into an idol to be worshiped rather than a political entity like any other political entity, with strengths and deep flaws. Despairing of spiritual salvation after God failed to show up and save us from the Holocaust, increasing numbers of Jews have abandoned the religion of compassion and identification with the most oppressed that was championed by our biblical prophets, and instead come to worship power and to rejoice in Israel’s ability to become the most militarily powerful state in the Middle East. If a Jew today goes into any synagogue in the U.S. or around the world and says, “I don’t believe in God or Torah and I don’t follow the commandments,” most will still welcome you in and urge you to become involved. But say, “I don’t support the State of Israel,” and you are likely to be labeled a “self-hating Jew” or anti-Semite, scorned and dismissed. As Aaron said of the Golden Calf in the Desert, “These are your Gods, O Israel.”

The worship of the state makes it necessary for Jews to turn Judaism into an auxiliary of ultra-nationalist blindness. Every act of the State of Israel against the Palestinian people is seen as sanctioned by God. Each Sabbath Jews in synagogues around the world are offered prayers for the well-being of the State of Israel but not for our Arab cousins. The very suggestion that we should be praying for the Palestinian people’s welfare is seen as heresy and proof of being “self-hating Jews.”

The worship of power is precisely what Judaism came into being to challenge. We were the slaves, the powerless, and though the Torah talks of God using a strong arm to redeem the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, it simultaneously insists, over and over again, that when Jews go into their promised land in Canaan (not Palestine) they must “love the stranger/the Other,” have one law for the stranger and for the native born, and warns “do not oppress the stranger/the Other.” Remember, Torah reminds us, “that you were strangers/the Other in the land of Egypt” and “you know the heart of the stranger.” Later sources in Judaism even insist that a person without compassion who claims to be Jewish cannot be considered Jewish. A spirit of generosity is so integral to Torah consciousness that when Jews are told to let the land lie fallow once every seven years (the societal-wide Sabbatical Year), they must allow that which grows spontaneously from past plantings be shared with the Other/the stranger.

The Jews are not unique in this. The basic reality is that most of humanity has always heard a voice inside themselves telling them that the best path to security and safety is to love others and show generosity, and a counter voice that tells us that the only path to security is domination and control over others. This struggle between the voice of fear and the voice of love, the voice of domination/power-over and the voice of compassion, empathy and generosity, have played out throughout history and shape contemporary political debates around the world.

Related Off-site Links:
Yes, Our Anti-Israel Protest Disrupted LGBT Conference – That's the Point! – Scout Bratt (, January 28, 2016).
Israel Advocates Falsely Claim Chicago LGBTQ Protest Disrupted Jewish Prayers – Ali Abunimah (The Electonic Intifada, January 26, 2016).
If I Am Not for Myself: Addressing Misconceptions About Creating Change and #CancelPinkwashingNow North Face (January 26, 2016).
Hating the Occupation, Not the Jews – Gideon Levy (Haaretz, January 27, 2016).
Israel's Image Issue – Roger Cohen (The New York Times (January 28, 2016).
Tyranny of the Israeli Majority? – Daniel Sokatch (The World Post, January 28, 2016).
"Pinkwashing" and Israel's Use of Gays as a Messaging Tool – Sarah Schulman (The New York Times, November 22, 2011).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
For Some Jews, Israel's Treatment of Palestinians is Yet Another Jewish Tragedy
Quote of the Day – August 12, 2014
Thoughts on Prayer in a "Summer of Strife"
Something to Think About – July 18, 2014
"We Will Come Together in Our Pain"
Prayer and the Experience of God in an Ever-Unfolding Universe
In Search of a "Global Ethic"

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