WASHINGTON — After Jewish groups widely praised the National LGBTQ Task Force’s decision to reverse its cancellation of a Jewish reception featuring Israeli speakers at the 28th annual Creating Change Conference in Chicago, Illinois, they are now condemning what unfolded at that eventual reception on Friday, where roughly 200 protesters prevented the event from taking place.
After igniting fierce controversy last week for the initial cancellation, the nation’s oldest gay rights advocacy group called it “a mistake.” And while its executive director expressed concern over plans that had been circulating for a protest, she urged all involved to remain “peaceful” — counsel that, according to American Jewish organizations and one of the Israelis who was targeted, was not embraced.
But while American Jewish organizations have been monitoring for years the nature of anti-Israel efforts in the United States, the incident was illuminating for an Israeli who traveled to the Windy City not to discuss the political situation between Israelis and Palestinians, but to highlight the struggle for acceptance and equality for gay, lesbian and transgender persons in Israel.
The anti-Israel demonstrators who turned up Friday evening prevented Tom Canning and Sarah Kala-Meir of the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, an Israeli LGBTQ advocacy group, from sharing with a crowd their experiences dealing with the aftermath a fatal stabbing at last summer’s Jerusalem pride parade, which they themselves organized.
“The reception after the Kabbalat Shabbat service was supposed to be very lighthearted. We were going to talk about our work, how we dealt with what happened at the pride parade, how it impacted our community and what are our hopes and dreams for the future of Jerusalem,” Canning told The Times of Israel. “That was our plan. But we didn’t get to say a word of what we were planning on saying.”
After Arthur Slepian, executive director of A Wider Bridge — an organization that builds ties between LGBTQ communities in North America and Israel, which hosted the event — showed a video to the attendees and introduced Canning and Kala-Meir, the protesters broke through security and entered the room, eventually commandeering the stage.
The two Israelis were rushed out a back exit and taken to a sequestered room in the Hilton Chicago, where the conference was being held.
“It was very scary, we felt unsafe. We could hear them shouting, and we tried to continue with the program, but at some point, a few of the protesters broke through a wall on the side and came up shouting at us toward the stage,” Canning said. “The protesters were yelling quite inflammatory things at us. They were screaming, ‘You’re killing us! You’re killing us!'”
Coming just six months after July’s pride parade when Haredi attacker Yishai Shlissel murdered 16-year-old Shira Banki and wounded six others — an event Canning said continues to haunt him — the 28-year-old director of development for JOH became immediately apprehensive as the angry mob stormed into the room. And while he knew ahead of time that the reception had generated controversy, he was not prepared for the number of people who came, and for the level of aggression he encountered.
“Everyone locally told us we didn’t have anything to be afraid of in terms of violence, but coming from Jerusalem we don’t take those things so lightly,” he said. “Both Sarah and I are still post-traumatized from our own pride march, where we both had to run away from Shlissel after he broke in through the parade and we saw our friend being stabbed. So for us this was all very fresh and it was all very triggering of that memory.
“We’re used to people saying there is no risk of violence, and that turning out to be wrong,” he stressed. “So we weren’t going to be taking any chances, and we weren’t going to stay around to see what was going to develop.”
“We are outraged by this,” Nancy K. Kaufman, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Woman, an organization that has long supported and funded Jerusalem Open House, told The Times of Israel. “To have incredible human beings like Tom and Sarah, who are really heroes and courageous and who have done something substantial in Israel to advance the plight of gays, lesbians and transgender people, and to then have them subjected to this kind of treatment is the outrageous and ultimate irony for a conference that aims to be progressive and advance pluralism and equality.”
What transpired in Chicago was an intensification of the already onerous Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, Kaufman said.
“This isn’t BDS, this is BDS plus,” she said. “It was horrible and should not have been tolerated. I think this was anti-Israel and anti-Jewish, taking legitimate concern about Israel and the pursuing of a two-state solution that many of us have and taking it to an extreme that is just not acceptable.
“My cynical side asks, Do they protest when people come from other countries in the Middle East where gays and lesbians do not have rights? I’ve never seen that,” she said. “So you’ve got to begin to wonder what is behind this when you have a group like that only protesting against Israel, singling it out to delegitimize it. And it really is about Israel’s right to exist.”
The Anti-Defamation League expressed “deep sadness” over the incident.
“The protesters’ actions and messages reflect a dramatic lack of understanding about the right of LGBTQ people to not be defined by the political conflicts of their country and negates the essential work of Jerusalem Open House, a community organization that serves Israelis, Palestinians, Jews, Muslims and Christians alike,” the ADL’s CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement. “Their perception of JOH’s work is grossly distorted by their erroneous views of Israel and their endorsement of the destruction of the Jewish state.
“In the simplistic understanding of many of the protesters, Israel and Israelis can do no ‘right,'” he wrote.
“Any individuals or groups that highlight or reflect progress on LGBTQ rights are accused of ‘pinkwashing,’ an allegation that they are selectively highlighting the attainment of LGBTQ rights in Israel in an effort to deflect attention away from Israel’s treatment of Palestinian people.”
“In the simplistic understanding of many of the protesters, Israel and Israelis can do no ‘right'”
Many of the protesters were holding signs that read “Can’t pinkwash away your guilt” and “pinkwashing isn’t pretty.”
Canning told The Times of Israel that he first realized this viewpoint was widespread at the conference earlier in the day. At a plenary gathering with the entire conference present, someone on stage said she was “against pinkwashing” and most of the people in the room started clapping and cheering, according to Canning.
“That was the moment when I realized that this campaign was not inconsequential,” he said, beginning to reflect on the conference as a sign of growing anti-Israel activism in the United States.
“As an Israeli, I’m really shocked. I knew about BDS, but I didn’t know how common or popular it was becoming, at least among more alternative political groups,” he said. “But it’s way beyond a minority of pro-Palestinian activists. It’s way beyond that realm.”
Most of the protesters, Canning stressed, were teenagers. “Very young activists,” in his words. “They are very emotional about their own social issues and they have a place to express their anger and frustration. I think that it’s misguided, but that’s the way I see it.”
When he goes back to Jerusalem on February 9th he will have another cause added to his already substantial efforts fighting for the rights and welfare of LGBTQ people in Israel: he will be trying to spread awareness of the growing movement in the US against his country, and the way it is galvanizing the sorts of young people he saw in Chicago.
“I will be telling people that this is something that we need to be taking more seriously,” he said. “We need to really start understanding the depth of this problem, and the scale of it.”