At a major LGBTQ conference held last week in Chicago, pro-Palestinian protesters all but shut down a reception being run by a group that builds bridges between gay activists in North America and Israel. The near-riot was a black eye for the National LGBTQ Task Force, which initially canceled the post-Shabbat reception before admitting its mistake; a confirmation of the worst tendencies of the pro-Palestinian Left, which enforces an ugly consensus on fellow travelers when it comes to hating Israel; and perhaps a perverse victory for Israel’s Right (and Palestinian rejectionists), who are only too happy to portray the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a clash of Them or Us.
Pro-Israel commentators portrayed the protesters as a mob that was less interested in ending the occupation than in discrediting the Jews who dare to care about Israel. Mark Joseph Stern, who covers LGBTQ issues for Slate, said the protest sprang from “anti-Semitic paranoia.” Stern is no fan of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, which he has called a “human rights catastrophe,” but wondered why activists attack Israel and its Jewish supporters while ignoring “countries that are far more repressive than Israel.”
Protesters are seen in a video chanting “Palestine will be free from the river to the sea.” As the Washington Blade, a gay newspaper, noted in an editorial, “That genocidal chant is an overt call for the destruction of Israel, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.”
At the heart of the pro-Palestinian contingent’s objections was so-called “pinkwashing”; that is, allegations that Israel and its supporters seek to deflect attention from the Palestinian situation by touting Israel’s liberal record on gay rights. Indeed, defenders of the protest and the original decision to cancel the event included a writer for the leftist blog Jewschool, who criticized A Wider Bridge, the organizer of the reception, for frequently allying itself with the Israeli consulate and the pro-Israel “hasbara” organization StandWithUs. “If A Wider Bridge wants acceptance in the progressive movement world, let them sever ties with the pro-occupation right,” according to the author, who writes under the nom de plume Unintentional Community. “Until then, they should not be welcomed in progressive spaces.”
I admit it — the Jewschool post gave me pause. Do organizations that partner with the Israeli government or uncritical pro-Israel groups lose their immunity to charges of peddling propaganda? If, to borrow an old activists’ phrase, you are not part of the solution, shouldn’t you be considered part of the problem?
The argument collapses under the weight of the phrase “should not be welcomed in progressive spaces.” Attempts to expel A Wider Bridge from an LGBTQ conference, or block people from attending its program, are themselves oppressive acts meant to shame the opposition, silence dissent, and enforce a progressive orthodoxy. It’s a totalitarian tendency by groups that purport to oppose totalitarianism.
Those who charge “pinkwashing” resist dialogue not only with staunch pro-Israel advocates but with progressives who simultaneously believe in a Jewish state and oppose the occupation. As Alan Amberg, a Blade reader who witnessed the Chicago protest, wrote, “You see, the protesters had no interest in our decades of fight here and [in] Israel for inclusion and justice. They had no interest in what we thought about the situation and whether we had any views in common with them or how we could fight together to improve the situation.”
The protesters see Jews, they see Israel, they see pink — but they only see red. They ignore fellow progressives who appreciate Israel’s progressive record on gay rights but also have questions about the settlements, the checkpoints, or the legality of occupation.
They forget that progress on peace begins with progress in other areas of human and civil rights, and that the momentum for coexistence is more likely to come out of those who support a tolerant, multicultural, LGBTQ-friendly Mideast than one where homosexuality — like trading land for peace, or ending the struggle against Zionism — is treated as an abomination.
What the Chicago mob also ignored are the individuals in Israel who depend on Israel’s network of gay advocacy organizations in order to live free from violence, hatred, and discrimination. That includes the trans teen who finds refuge in a Jerusalem “safe” house, or the office worker who can come out to his colleagues without being fired, or the lesbian soldier who serves without censure. The A Wider Bridge event featured speakers from The Jerusalem Open House, which for over 20 years has served as a community center for LGBTQ Israelis in the heart of a city not always known for its open-mindedness or tolerance. Trying telling its grateful clients that they are mere “tools of the occupation.”
The protesters in Chicago failed the Fitzgerald test, named for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s proposition that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Complexity is their enemy. Simplification helps in their goal of demonizing Israel. And that process of simplification begins with erasing the humanity of the actual people who live there.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author.