A Wider Bridge, a group that focuses on connecting LGBTQ Americans and Israelis, has been rescheduled to host a reception following Shabbat services at Creating Change, one of the largest conferences of LGBTQ activists in the country. Pressure from activists critical of Israel and the Israeli government had led the National LGBTQ Task Force, which organizes the conference, to revoke A Wider Bridge’s invitation. Pressure from Jewish and LGBT groups, along with Congressman Jared Polis (who is both Jewish and gay), led to the organization being reinstated.
— Jared Polis (@jaredpolis) January 19, 2016
Arthur Slepian, founder and executive director of A Wider Bridge, told Haaretz that he received a call from the conference’s organizer explaining that the group’s event was being canceled for safety and security reasons, but that those reasons were never specified. There was, however, a social media campaign opposing A Wider Bridge’s involvement in the conference, citing its efforts to “pinkwash” Israel and make it seem better on human rights issues than it actually is.
help us shut down pinkwashing/zioinism at Creating Change !! https://t.co/24nSVbT6yj
— DarkMatter (@DarkMatterPoets) January 16, 2016
Dean Spade, founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, which advocates for trans people and others who are gender non-conforming, also wrote a highly critical and widely-circulated blog post calling for A Wider Bridge’s removal. As he argues, including A Wider Bridge amounts to an endorsement of the Israeli government’s overarching branding campaign, which is designed to draw attention away from ongoing human rights issues in the country. As Spade argues, it doesn’t matter that Israel has allowed gays and lesbians to openly serve in its military since 1993, and it doesn’t matter that the country now allows trans men and women to serve in its military in accordance with their gender identity, since the Israeli military is itself an unmitigated human rights disaster. No amount of inclusivity can “pinkwash” that away as something to be proud of.
As Spade added, anticipating objections from the Jewish LGBT community, it’s not as if his critique is, at its core, anti-Semitic. As he argues, the conference’s organizers could allow for religious observance without taking a specific position on Israel/Palestine politics:
As a Jewish trans activist who has sometimes attended Creating Change over the years, I like the idea of having a Shabbat service at the conference, but I do not want Creating Change to invite any Israel advocacy organization to lead it or host programming focused on promoting propaganda about Israel.
Then again, Spade’s argument more or less requires Creating Change to take a specific position on Israel/Palestine politics, doesn’t it? After all, it’s not as if those who oppose A Wider Bridge’s inclusion in the conference are arguing that Israel is bad for LGBTQ people in general. That would be a hard case to make, given that the country stopped enforcing its anti-sodomy laws in 1963, prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation in 1992, let gays serve openly in the military in 1993 and recognized same-sex unions in 1994 (in other words, in many ways it’s been ahead of the United States on LGBTQ rights, to say nothing of its neighbors in the region). Instead, those who oppose the organization’s involvement in Creating Change are arguing that Israel is bad for LGBTQ Palestinians, because Israel is bad for Palestinians in general.
As Tarab NYC, one of the organizations leading the protest of A Wider Bridge’s involvement in the conference, wrote of their organizing efforts (in language that was repeated on the Facebook event organizing the online protest), “We condemn any efforts to discuss ‘LGBT Life in Israel’ that cultivates pinkwashing propaganda and does not center the decolonization of Palestine.” This is a very broad condemnation. In effect, it commits the protestors to opposing the inclusion of any organization that recognizes Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. Wherever you come down in the Israel/Palestine debate, that really isn’t what the conference is about.
What’s more, this kind of intersectional critique misses the fact that, while Israel may have made more progress than other countries when it comes to LGBTQ issues, it isn’t as if the country doesn’t have more progress that needs to be made — necessary progress that A Wider Bridge is planning to discuss in its event. For instance, while Israeli policy may be highly inclusive of the LGBT community, you wouldn’t know it based on the behavior of some of its leaders.
As Congressman Polis said in a statement to Tablet Magazine before A Wider Bridge’s event was put back on the schedule:
Especially in the wake of the violence at last year’s Jerusalem Pride, it’s important to hear voices from the LGBTQ advocacy community from Israel and other nations in the Middle East. In Israel, the anti-LGBT violence was broadly condemned across the political spectrum, and A Wider Bridge played an important healing role. I hope that The Task Force reconsiders.
What’s more, even if you’re on board with the critique of Israel and the Israeli government, protesting A Wider Bridge in particular isn’t necessarily the most constructive way to make your point. As Jillian Weiss, a civil rights attorney who is currently representing a trans plaintiff in a major employment discrimination case, said as the controversy unfolded:
I’m all for decrying Israeli government violence. But you can’t paint all Israelis with that brush, and kicking out this group makes even less sense. If you’re going to kick out people whose governments killed lots of Arab civilians, you should at least kick out the Americans.
LGBTQ Israelis and LGBTQ Palestinians can find common ground on the need to stand up to religious bigotry and violence in Israel, but only if that’s the lens through which Israel is considered. As soon as the scope is widened to include the more fundamental question of whether Israel should even exist in the first place, you’ve lost both any opportunity for solidarity and your LGBTQ theme.
Like Weiss, I’m all for decrying Israeli government violence and the pernicious effects of religious dogmatism in the country and its occupied territories. Like Weiss, I also think that this particular protest is off-base. The National LGBTQ Task Force made the right call to reinstate A Wider Bridge at Creating Change.