If I Am Not for Myself: Addressing Misconceptions About Creating Change and #CancelPinkwashing

As some of you are probably aware by now, Creating Change, the big annual LGBTQ+ activism conference, had a higher-than-usual controversy quotient this year. There were a bunch of reasons for this, but probably the one that received the most publicity centered around a Friday night reception given by an organization called A Wider Bridge, that works to build connections and affection between LGBTQ+ people in the US, both Jews and non-Jews, and Israel. After some LGBTQ+ Palestinian and Palestinian solidarity activists decried the reception as pinkwashing – which means using LGBTQ+ issues to distract from or deflect criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, and does NOT mean, contrary to what Mark Joseph Stern at Slate thinks, an idea that Israel ONLY makes advances in LGBTQ+ rights in order to deflect criticism about its treatment of Palestinians – the National LGBTQ Task Force (“The Task Force”) canceled the reception. After Israel-supporting activists decried the cancellation, The Task Force reinstated the reception. This culminated in a sizeable (I would guess 300ish people, though I am awful at estimating crowd size so you probably don’t want to quote that number) protest of the reception, in which I took part, which in turn resulted in hotel staff calling the Chicago Police (who, I have been told, pinned at least one protester against a wall and choked them, though I should caution that this is a third-hand report), which angered people in a whole different way, especially as there were local anti-police-brutality organizers at the conference and large numbers of people of color taking part in the protest (and Chicago PD is not exactly known for its gentle behavior toward protests or people of color). As you could probably guess if you’ve ever paid any attention to Israel/Palestine debates, the tenor of argument about the protest on social media got quite heated and involved a huge number of people who weren’t at the conference and in many cases were not LGBTQ+.

I’ve noticed that there are, um, a lot of misconceptions and unfortunate assumptions going around about the #cancelpinkwashing protest. I wanted to address those here. I’m hoping to do a follow-up post in which I talk about what motivated me to participate.

1. The Goyim vs Jews claims and what really happened

I’ve seen quite a bit of commentary characterizing the protest as goyim (non-Jews) who were protesting Jews at a Jewish event. I’ll get to the second part of this characterization later, but let me quickly address the first.

Before it started, the Chicago chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace kindly led a non-Zionist Shabbat service as an alternative to the one being run by A Wider

Front page of 'An Alternative Shabbat of Solidarity,' depicting the title, the words 'Creating Change Conference,' and the date according to the conventional and Jewish calendars, under an illustration of a many-colored tree blooming into flowers at the top

The front page of the program for the Chicago Jewish Voice for Peace Shabbat service.

Bridge, a safer space for Jews opposed to the reception. This attracted a few dozen Jews, as well as a smattering of goyim who wanted to be supportive of us, including at least one Palestinian and other Arab #cancelpinkwashing organizers. I was incredibly appreciative of this space. As an atheist Jew, I don’t often go to Shabbat services, but it felt important for me to go to this one, as a place of reflection and community and safety. It was a beautiful service (with amazing challah, thank you whoever was responsible for that!). And most of those at the service participated in the #cancelpinkwashing protest, which gathered in the
A close-up photo of part of a Shabbat service Kiddush, focused on the text "Raise a glass to affirm and celebrate joint struggle towrad collective liberation and remind ourselves of our commitment: 'never again for anyone.'"

From the Jewish Voice for Peace Shabbat Service Kiddush: “Never again for anyone.”

space immediately after the end of our service.

A Wider Bridge’s Shabbat service was still going for a little bit of time after ours finished. The #cancelpinkwashing organizers were careful to wait until the service was over and the reception started before beginning the protest (as in, they let everyone know that they were doing so). Because the point wasn’t to protest Jews. It was to protest the exploitation of the LGBTQ+ struggle for Israeli PR efforts. The organizers also asked that people be “disruptive, but orderly,” and the crowd that I was in was walking, assertions of the protest “storming” the room notwithstanding.

The point also wasn’t to protest Jewish spaces at Creating Change. There is nothing inherently Jewish about supporting Israel or Israeli PR – there are a lot more Christian Zionists in the US, for instance, than there are Jews of any political stripe. A Wider Bridge didn’t advertise their reception as being specifically aimed at Jews – they referred to “Creating Change participants and members of Chicago’s LGBT and Jewish communities.” The conference featured workshops on community engagement for LGBTQ+ Jewish organizations, queer Jewish/Muslim dialogue, Jews fighting right-wing exploitation of anti-Semitism, and a queer Jewish caucus, none of which attracted protests. This was my fourth Creating Change, and every year I’ve gone, there have been multiple Jewish spaces and caucuses and themed workshops and an offical conference Shabbat service, none of which have ever been protested. I got the sense, with some comments on Twitter, that some people not at the conference thought canceling the reception would have meant the loss of Jewish-focused space within the conference environment, and that protests were attacks on Jewish-focused space within the conference environment. That’s simply not true.

Incidentally, a Jewish Voice for Peace organizer that I know, a queer anti-Zionist Jewish woman, offered herself, via Twitter, as a conversation and help resource for any Jews at Creating Change who were confused or upset by the protest. Someone sent her Nazi imagery in response. If your idea (whether you are Jewish or not) of supporting the Jewish people involves sending Nazi imagery to queer Jews trying to help other queer Jews in a moment of stress and confusion, you have gone terribly, terribly wrong somewhere.

2. A targeting of apolitical Jewish organizations? No.

I’ve seen plenty of people, in good faith and otherwise, wondering why this reception was targeted. A Wider Bridge isn’t notably right-wing/Likudnik – its leader is a Democrat, it acknowledges that the Occupation is a human rights problem on its website. It arranged, as speakers at its reception, representatives from Jerusalem Open House, Jerusalem’s LGBTQ+ community center. Some people have looked at these organizations, perceived them as benign LGBTQ+ Jewish organizations, and wondered why, if not anti-Semitism, people would target their event for a protest.

First of all, neither of these are specifically Jewish organizations. A Wider Bridge is focused on linking both LGBTQ+ goyim and LGBTQ+ Jews to Israel. Jerusalem Open House (about which I heard few complaints, they just happened to be the speakers at a reception run by an organization people were complaining about) serves Jews, Palestinians, and others.

In fact, oddly, Jerusalem Open House is the first place I ever met an LGBTQ+ Palestinian – years ago, before I had come to anti-Zionism, I went on an LGBTQ+ Birthright trip, and we visited JOH, and one of the people who spoke to my half of the group was a gay Palestinian, who gave us what might have been one of the few unscripted bits of commentary from Palestinians that Birthright participants have ever gotten from speakers. He spoke movingly about how he had tried to be unprejudiced but he just couldn’t handle trying to date Israeli Jews anymore, because so many of them wouldn’t acknowledge him in public or show him to their families, and so many of them fetishized him in creepy ways, telling him how hot it was to fuck or be fucked by “the enemy.” This was a group of 20 or so young American Jews, some with no previous exposure to Palestinian issues, and you could hear the gasps and the jaws hitting the floor. That guy, that gay Palestinian Muslim who was willing to be vulnerable to a bunch of young Jews on a trip funded by a propaganda organization in order to provide some real talk, is as much JOH to me as anyone else, and I have no particular beef with them. I do not know whether the particular representatives in this case were going to be saying things that I’d consider objectionable or not, and again, VERY little of the debate had anything to do with them.

A Wider Bridge is a different story. I wasn’t sure they were being characterized fairly when this controversy blew up, having not been familiar with them, so I did research on them, read much of their website. Once I did that, I decided that yes, I was quite comfortable with characterizing them participating in pinkwashing. As I said above, they aren’t an organization for LGBTQ+ Jews, they are an organization to build appreciation for Israel among LGBTQ+ Americans, Jews or not. They are not right-wing themselves, but they have been willing to partner with despicable (CN: racism, misogyny, threats of violence) racist threatening pro-settler hard-right organizations like Stand WithUs to build support for Israel on the basis of (a subset of) its LGBTQ+ life. They write glowing profiles of Israeli hasbara (propaganda) practitioners on their website.

Here is a good summary, in the form of a JewSchool.com op-ed (JewSchool.com is a progressive Jewish website), of the problems with A Wider Bridge, including its advocacy of bombing Gaza. In my opinion, it has no place at a social justice conference, whether its JOH speakers were going to be engaging in pinkwashing during the reception or not. Here is more commentary on A Wider Bridge from leftist Jewish trans activist Dean Spade.

3. Is the idea of pinkwashing anti-Semitic?

In Mark Joseph Stern’s op-ed about #cancelpinkwashing in Slate Magazine, which I linked to above, he repeats a misconception that I’ve heard quite a bit. He thinks that when people complain about pinkwashing, what they’re saying is “All advances for LGBTQ+ people in Israeli society, all support for LGBTQ+ people among Israeli government or organizations, is a smokescreen created only to deflect or distract from criticism of Israeli treatment of Palestinians,” which would be anti-Semitic because of the implication that the world’s only Jewish-dominated government only does good things for insidious, malignant reasons, which plays to old anti-Semitic tropes.

That’s not what pinkwashing means, and furthermore, it’s not how pinkwashing was

Slightly blurry photo of a hotel hallway, with a crowd of people of different races, seen from behind, some holding signs, with the crowd extending forward as far as one can see in the picture

The #cancelpinkwashing march, from my vantage point.

explained in the #cancelpinkwashing brochures that were handed out at the conference (I read one, but didn’t take it with me, and now I’m wishing I had so that I could photograph it). Pinkwashing means the exploitation of Israeli support for some kinds of LGBTQ+ rights, or the vibrancy of Israel’s LGBTQ+ communities, for deflection or propaganda purposes. Do people think it’s anti-Semitic to think that Israel engages in propaganda? Israel certainly thinks Israel engages in propaganda.

The Israeli government, in fact, developed Hasbara Fellowships to train students in “public diplomacy,” in conjunction with Aish HaTorah, a homophobic Orthodox organization that has promoted conversion “therapy”. And those Hasbara Fellows, supported by this homophobic organization and the Israeli government, have developed campaigns to convince students to believe that supporting LGBTQ+ rights means supporting Israel, under the premise of benign educational events. That is pinkwashing.

For any progressives who are confused about the distinction I’m drawing, let’s say that, say, Europeans, were protesting American airstrikes on Yemen, or had been protesting the Iraq War when that was really starting, and American organizations, governmental or not, responded by saying “But look at our advances in LGBTQ+ rights! Look at marriage equality! Look how many more rights women here have than women in the countries that we’re bombing!” We would recognize that as deflection, and we wouldn’t claim that calling it deflection was a claim that Americans only care about women’s or LGBTQ+ rights for propaganda purposes.

4. Marginalized groups showing up, or not, for each other

Another strand of commentary that I want to bring up is the idea that Jews show up for other marginalized groups (LGBTQ+ people, Black people) but those groups don’t show up for Jews.

Where did we get the idea that showing up for US Jews means backing another country’s advocacy efforts (as I have already discussed, the organizations under discussion here are not Jewish-specific organizations)? Do the the many Jews who went to the Jewish Voice for Peace Shabbat, or participated in the protest, not count? Do the LGBTQ+ goyim, including a Palestinian, who showed up to be with us at Shabbat, when they could easily have just come for the protest, not count? What about the many Middle Eastern/North African LGBTQ+ goyim there, are they expected to care about supporting an Israel advocacy organization than supporting the queer Palestininans in their own community? And leaving aside the question of which Jews are showing up for whom (which could be its own post), what would it mean for other marginalized groups to show up for Jews, if it doesn’t mean this?

Well, for starters, I’d say it means working to oppose Christian theocracy and hegemony in the US, and to support the separation of church and state – these are issues that appeal to most Jews that I’ve met in my life regardless of their other political beliefs. I’d say it means addressing it when anti-Semitism, which is not the same as anti-Zionism, does pop up in social justice movements, including Palestine solidarity (and I do intend to write a post about that someday). It means showing support when Jews are targeted for hate crimes (as

Riot-gear-clad police at the NATO Summit protests in 2012 beat huddled protesters with wooden batons.

What happened the last time I interacted with Chicago police at a protest. Michigan Ave & Cermack Rd, May 20, 2012, photo credit Andrew Nelles.

happens over 600 times per year in the US), as these Muslim-youth-organized Norwegians did in Norway last year.

As long as I’m talking about marginalized groups showing up or not showing up for other marginalized groups, hey, the hotel called the Chicago PD on a protest full of people of color, into a conference in which numerous local anti-police-brutality organizers were participating, and some of my fellow Jews are cool with that. I said this on Twitter, but, have you ever seen the Chicago police go after a protest in earnest? I have (and this was my first time back in Chicago since then, and I had a panic attack when I first realized that the Chicago police had shown up). You can see a picture of it at right! I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, political opponents or otherwise.

To finish this off, it possible that someone said something anti-Semitic during the protest? Maybe. I can’t account for all 300 or so people, and I have had the experience of being at an otherwise fine political event and one jerk spouting anti-Semitism. But I didn’t see or hear anything anti-Semitic. And a lot of the characterizations that are fueling the claims of anti-Semitism are just downright wrong.

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