'What we are seeing in the streets is scary'

Isolated by their ‘allies,’ LGBTQ Jews in US gather to parse Pride’s anti-Israel leanings

As supporters of the Jewish state feel increasingly unwelcome at events for the Queer community, they turn to each other for support, while mulling what feels like betrayal

Reporter at The Times of Israel

A supporter of Israel takes part in the New York City Pride March on June 30, 2024, in New York City. (Adam GRAY / AFP)
A supporter of Israel takes part in the New York City Pride March on June 30, 2024, in New York City. (Adam GRAY / AFP)

NEW YORK — Leah Forester knows what rejection feels like. When the Orthodox Jewish comedian came out as a lesbian several years ago, her Haredi family stopped speaking to her. But that “was nothing compared to the hate and vitriol I felt from my own Queer community during Pride month,” Forester told a packed room at The Glasshouse in Manhattan on July 1.

Forester was speaking on a panel, “Proud in Pride: Deconstructing the Queers for Palestine,” during a two-day conference sponsored by the Combat Antisemitism Movement (CAM).

Israel’s ongoing war against Hamas has highlighted the complicated relationship LGBTQ Zionists have with the LGBTQ community writ large, particularly the Queers for Palestine movement.

Queers for Palestine is a movement that appears incongruous at best — the Palestinian territories rank 147th in LGBTQ rights on the World Equality Index. And while the laws differ between the West Bank and Gaza (where same-sex relationships between men can be punishable by prison time), there are no civil protections in either area for LGBTQ Palestinians, and police rarely act against queerphobic violence.

For Jewish members of the Queer community, this cognitive dissonance is more than baffling — it feels like a betrayal.

“What we are seeing in the streets is scary,” Forester said.

Earlier this month, Pride parades in Toronto and New York were halted due to anti-Israel protests initiated by participants, while in Washington, DC, pro-Israel marchers reported being booed by Capital Pride marchers and parade-watchers.

Left, Ambassador David Saranga, director of the Digital Diplomacy Bureau at Israel’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, moderates the panel ‘Proud in Pride: Deconstructing the Queers for Palestine,’ during a two-day conference sponsored by the Combat Antisemitism Movement. With him, from left to right, are Shai Abargel, Dan Hadad, and Leah Forester, in New York, July 1, 2024. (Courtesy: Combat Antisemitism Movement)

In trying to understand the Queers for Palestine movement, which frequently accuses Israel of exploiting its progressive stance on LGBTQ issues to deflect attention from its treatment of Palestinians, the panelists and other activists said demographics are only part of the reason Queers for Palestine has grown in the past few years. Nate Shalev, who uses they/them pronouns, said the rise in antisemitism in Queer spaces also follows a trend in social justice circles to fit issues into neat boxes.

“Some of it may be generational, but some is specific to Queer communities, which have always been about keeping each other safe, especially when, historically, institutions have failed us. Anyone who cares about Israel or who expresses empathy with Jews has been placed in this unsafe bucket. It’s devastating and counterintuitive to how Queer communities operate,” said Shalev, who grew up in Staten Island, attended a Conservative synagogue, and did not think much about Israel until they started dating their wife, who is Israeli.

Pro-Israel LGBTQ activists with the Jewish group Zioness protest a ban of Star of David flags at the Dyke March in Washington, DC, on June 7, 2019. (NICHOLAS KAMM / AFP /File)

Not a new narrative

The exclusion of Zionists or Jewish symbols from Pride events is not new.

In 2017 the Chicago Dyke March banned Pride flags bearing the Star of David and expelled marchers who expressed support for Zionism. The 2019 Washington Dyke March did the same.

“Before October 7, there was tension around the Dyke march when it came to Israel and Palestine. We had the same hard conversations every year about what Israel and the Star of David meant and they always ended in inclusion,” Shalev said.

“The whole narrative shifted after October 7. Instead of inclusion, the narrative centered on personal assertions about Israel and Palestine, with little regard to the impact they would have on our community, specifically many Jews in our community,” Shalev said.

Nate Shalev speaks at the inaugural Shalom Dykes gathering in New York’s East Village, June 29, 2024. (Melody Melamed)

Because many Jewish dykes said they did not feel welcome at this year’s NYC Dyke March, Shalev helped organize “Shalom, Dykes,” a separate event for those “looking to feel welcome as your full Queer, layered, Jewish self.”

Skewed focus on oppressor versus oppressed

Dan Hadad, who also participated in the “Proud in Pride” panel, said the anti-Israel and antisemitic sentiment exhibited in the Queers for Palestine movement certainly stems from the way social justice movements have adopted the framework of oppressor versus oppressed in recent years. However, he also said one cannot ignore the demographics at play.

During his 15 years of doing advocacy work, the Israeli reservist has seen a shift in attitudes among younger people.

“The younger generation more identify with the pro-Palestinian movement than with Israel,” Hadad said.

Anti-Israel protesters block the parade route during the NYC Pride March, June 30, 2024, in New York. (Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

This is backed up by an April 2024 Pew Research Center poll finding that young Americans are more likely to sympathize with the Palestinian people than with the Israelis.

While one-third of adults under 30 say they sympathize either entirely or mostly with the Palestinian people, 14% of adults under 30 say they sympathize entirely or mostly with the Israeli people, according to the poll. By contrast, among Americans 65 and older, 47% say they sympathize entirely or mostly with the Israeli people, while about 9% sympathize entirely or mostly with the Palestinians.

Utter ignorance of the status of Queers in the Mideast

Luai Ahmed, a Swedish Muslim journalist who considers himself a Zionist, agrees — in part. Born in Sana’a, Yemen, Ahmed immigrated to Sweden because he is gay. He recently returned from Tel Aviv, where he attended his first Pride events.

Swedish Muslim journalist Luai Ahmed speaks at the panel ‘Proud in Pride: Deconstructing the Queers for Palestine,’ during a two-day conference sponsored by the Combat Antisemitism Movement, in New York, July 1, 2024. (Courtesy: Combat Antisemitism Movement)

“Queers for Palestine is another example of the radical progressive Marxist left. Everything has been reduced to white versus black, us versus them, Israel versus Palestine. The LGBTQ movement has been hijacked by the far left,” said Ahmed, who attended the CAM conference because of his Israel advocacy work.

He added that he finds the majority of those who support Queers for Palestine do not understand what is at stake for LGBTQ people, not only in Gaza and the West Bank, but in the entire Middle East.

According to Human Rights Watch, in 2016 Hamas brutally tortured and killed one of its own terror commanders “for behavioral and moral violations to which he confessed.” This language usually refers to what the terror organization considers sexual misconduct, including homosexuality.

Dozens of LGBTQ Palestinians have fled to Israel for their own safety, and it is common for many gay Muslims from neighboring countries to seek refuge in Israel or other Western countries including Sweden, the United States, and Canada.

Despite this, many academic programs such as the Center for LGBTQ Studies at CUNY in New York, stand firm in their position that Palestine is a queer issue.

Anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian protesters block the route of Toronto’s Pride Parade, June 30, 2024. (X screenshot: used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

“The State of Israel sells itself and is likewise represented as a bastion for queers, Jews, lovers of democracy,” reads a statement on the center’s website. “However, this stands in striking contrast to the way that it treats its queer Palestinian, anti-Zionist Jewish, and leftist citizens and subjects within and outside its borders. Furthermore, Palestine is a queer issue because the situation in Israel-Palestine is a basic question of justice and liberation, which lies at the core of queer politics.”

Nothing could be further from the truth, said 28-year-old Juan Escalante, who uses they/them pronouns.

Escalante’s mother was in Jerusalem on October 7, when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists invaded southern Israel, butchering 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapping 251 to the Gaza Strip, thus launching the ongoing war. Escalante flew to Israel two days later to bring their mother back to New York. It was a transformative experience that propelled Escalante to advocate not only for Israel, but against antisemitism.

Attendees at the inaugural Shalom Dykes gathering in New York’s East Village, June 29, 2024. (Melody Melamed)

“[Queers for Palestine] ignore the horrendous treatment of LGBTQ people in Gaza and they also try to tell us how to be Queer. There has been a hijacking of the Queer movement. Everything is getting filtered through a lens of white and black, Democrats and Republicans, oppressor and oppressed. Gay spaces are starting to get increasingly hostile to Zionists,” said Escalante, who described themselves as an accidental activist.

Because of that, Escalante was initially uncertain about attending New York Pride this year. Ultimately they did, partly to show Zionists should not back down.

In spite of sentiments like those expressed by the Queers for Palestine movement, Shalev said it is important to look forward.

“There are not many spaces for Jewish LGBTQ women, trans, and non-binary folks to gather and feel okay with every part of who we are,” Shalev said.

As such, they are working to build a community “where we can embody our Queer and Jewish identities. We want to envision a future where dykes can feel as free every day as they do on the day of the Dyke March. A future that does not further the division, the hate, and the violence that we have been seeing so often over these last months. This future is possible but not inevitable.”

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