Protesters obstruct Jewish reception at gay rights convention

At Chicago conference, hundreds of anti-Israel activists overtake stage and block Israelis from speaking

Illustrative photo. Gay rights supporter waving a rainbow flag outside the US Supreme Court building in Washington following its ruling expanding gay rights, June 26, 2013. (Win McNamee/Getty Images via JTA)
Illustrative photo. Gay rights supporter waving a rainbow flag outside the US Supreme Court building in Washington following its ruling expanding gay rights, June 26, 2013. (Win McNamee/Getty Images via JTA)

At a gay rights conference Friday dedicated to advancing and supporting “allied movements for justice and equality,” hundreds of demonstrators showed up to obstruct a Jewish reception hosted by an organization that builds connections between LGBTQ communities in North America and Israel.

Assembled outside a conference hall in the Hilton Chicago, where the 28th annual Creating Change Conference was held, protestors filled the hallway holding signs that read “Cant Pinkwash away your guilt” and “Pinkwashing isn’t pretty.”

The term “pinkwashing” is used to suggest that Israel promotes its tolerance of and protections for LGBTQ individuals as a way to downplay or obscure its treatment of Palestinians.

Throughout the rally, those protesting bellowed a series of chants, including “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” and and “Hey, hey, ho, ho, occupation has got to go.”

Along with blocking entry for people who wanted to participate in the reception, the protestors managed to infiltrate the conference hall at one point and overtook the stage, preventing Israelis from speaking.

The Friday event was organized by A Wider Bridge, a Jewish LGBTQ organization, that featured members of Jerusalem Open House, a gay rights group from Israel. The Israeli speakers were there to talk about last summer’s bloody Jerusalem gay pride parade, where 16-year-old Shira Banki was fatally stabbed and six others wounded by ultra-Orthodox attacker Yishai Shlissel, who had just been released from 10 years of prison for committing the same attack in 2005.

On Saturday, A Wider Bridge’s executive director Arthur Slepian released a statement calling Friday an “important victory” for his organization despite the challenges they faced.

“Sadly, part way through the reception, a handful of anti-Israel protestors entered the room and later commandeered the stage, denying the leaders of JOH the opportunity to tell their powerful story to the more than 100 participants, Jews and non Jews,” he said. “In the hallway outside our program, about 200 protestors blocked many others from entering the room, and turned the LGBT Task Force’s conference and the Hilton Hotel into a fire storm of hate that felt truly unsafe and threatening to many of our participants, and especially to our Israeli guests.

“These remarkable LGBT leaders from Israel, who do great work in the very diverse and challenging city of Jerusalem, had spent the last six months helping their community heal and recover from the trauma of a barbaric act of anti-gay violence at last summer’s Jerusalem Pride March,” he added. “They expected to be supported and embraced by the U.S. LGBT community at Creating Change. Instead, the protestors denied their humanity and silenced their voices, and the conference tragically did little to provide for their safety and security.”

The demonstrations were captured on video by Windy City Times, an LGBTQ news outlet based in Chicago and posted to YouTube. Later in the evening, the National LGBTQ Task Force tweeted that the Hilton Chicago called the police but that they didn’t believe anyone had been arrested.

Last week, the National LGBTQ Task Force, the nation’s oldest gay rights advocacy group that organized the yearly gathering, announced it had cancelled the event. After the move ignited wide controversy, however, it was announced that the decision was reversed.

The organization’s executive director Rea Carey released a statement saying that that decision was made by staff and not any board members or the local host committee. She apologized for the cancellation and called it “a mistake.”

“We are aware that our original decision made it appear we were taking sides in a complex and long-standing conflict, which was not the intention, and that in canceling the reception we deeply offended many people, and our reversal will offend others,” Carey said. “In reversing the decision today, we want to make it quite clear that the Creating Change Conference will always be a safe space for inclusion and dialogue for people with often widely different views.”

And yet, she also expressed concern over “the intense escalation that has occurred over the last couple of days and the threats towards people who hold a range of views” and she urged all who were planning to protest the reception to be “peaceful.”

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