Many social movements fall apart because of infighting and petty bickering. The liberal American LGBTQ community is certainly not free from silly quarrels, and many insiders have long predicted that, post-marriage-equality, the community would splinter into squabbling factions. But a half-year out from Obergefell, a legitimately troubling problem has begun to tear at the seams of the LGBTQ movement. That problem is anti-Semitism.
You might not expect a group of people defined, in part, by their minority status and history of oppression to direct irrational ire toward Jews. But there is no other way to describe the sad story of this year’s Creating Change conference, an annual gathering sponsored by the National LGBTQ Task Force. Creating Change brings together dozens of LGBTQ groups, from fringe to mainstream, at one bustling summit to compare notes and debate strategy. This year, the conference was scheduled to include a presentation by A Wider Bridge, a group that connects LGBTQ Jews in America with the Israeli LGBTQ community, featuring speakers from the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, an LGBTQ community center. Then, shortly before the conference began, the Task Force abruptly canceled the reception. It had bowed to pressure from groups like the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity, which demanded that the conference’s organizers “reject Zionism” and “the forces of oppression and occupation” by kicking out A Wider Bridge.
After much outcry, especially among LGBTQ Jews, the Task Force reinstated the event. In response, a group of about 200 protesters marched through the conference on Friday and crashed the reception, holding signs that read “Cancel Pinkwashing” and “Zionism Sucks.” The speakers from Jerusalem Open House, who had just taken the stage, were quickly hustled out. Their presentation was canceled. The protesters won.
It is entirely reasonable to criticize Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. The country’s brutal occupation of the West Bank is a human rights catastrophe, and the continued legal discrimination toward Palestinian citizens of Israel makes a mockery of equal justice. Israel’s periodic ruination of Gaza, which carries with it a shockingly high civilian death toll, is appalling. These issues are fair game at any conference that purports to support international social justice.
But A Wider Bridge and the Jerusalem Open House community center do not support the subjugation of Palestinians. In fact, neither group is especially engaged in the Israel-Palestine debate. Both focus on bringing equal rights to LGBTQ people in Israel and fostering connections between LGBTQ communities in Israel and America so they can share strategies.
The mere existence of a connection to Israel, however, was apparently too much for the 200 protesters at Creating Change. They angrily accused A Wider Bridge of participating in “pinkwashing.” According to pinkwashing theorists, Israel’s effort to grant civil rights to LGBTQ people is really just an insidious attempt to cause a distraction from its human rights violations elsewhere. Israel may protect LGBTQ people from job discrimination and allow them to serve openly in the army, jointly adopt children, and recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere—but, this theory goes, these triumphs are just a ruse. In reality, Israel is tossing scraps to the LGBTQ community, then loudly talking up its tolerance to drown out the sound of Palestinian suffering.
The concept of pinkwashing is extraordinarily insulting. It presumes that the Israeli government has no interest in promoting LGBTQ rights except to help mask its oppression of other groups. This presumption is totally unique to Israel. Nobody thought that France was attempting to distract from its terrible mistreatment of Roma immigrants when it legalized same-sex marriage. Nobody thought that South Africa was diverting attention from the painful, enduring remnants of apartheid when it gained marriage equality. Yet many LGBTQ activists freely impute to Israel a malign motive in expanding rights to sexual minorities.
I will not change any minds about the validity of pinkwashing charges. Nor am I interested in mounting a general defense of Israel, whose violence toward Palestine is increasingly indefensible. Rather, I would like to ask why, exactly, 200 protesters saw fit to punish A Wider Bridge and the Jerusalem Open House for the sins of a country to which they are connected. Plenty of groups at Creating Change are based in states with deeply unjust laws and police practices. Plenty of participants come from countries that are far more repressive than Israel. But the protesters did not single out any of these people. Instead, they stormed a reception featuring Israeli speakers, sponsored by an Israeli-American advocacy group. In other words, they stormed a reception for a bunch of Jews.
Not all hostility toward Israel doubles as hostility toward Jews. But when that hostility emerges from a generalized abhorrence of Israel; when it hinges on a theory that assumes Israeli Jews must be motivated by evil; when it finds expression in the angry ambush of two Jewish groups—then the line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism grows especially blurry. I do not think that the Creating Change protesters were vicious anti-Semites. But I do suspect that a majority of them were driven by ideas about Jews and Israel that are rooted in anti-Semitism. The conspiratorial tone of the demonstration, as well as the protesters’ willingness to blame Israel’s misdeeds on Israeli and American Jews, likely sprouted from anti-Semitic paranoia. Even the shape the protest took—an enraged mob assailing Jewish speakers—had ugly echoes of past anti-Semitic aggression.
Creating Change and the National LGBTQ Task Force are not representative of the American LGBTQ community. But they are fairly representative of the LGBTQ left, which holds significant sway within the movement. I doubt that LGBTQ Americans are, on average, more anti-Semitic than their fellow citizens. (Growing up in the South, I learned that many gentiles are comfortable supporting Israel and mocking Jews in the same breath.) But I am alarmed that so many young activists, many of whom have only recently escaped from prejudice and stereotypes, are now foisting prejudice and stereotypes on LGBTQ Jews. Friday’s shameful demonstration can only serve to revive old bigotries and legitimize baseless biases. The LGBTQ left must do better—or risk collapsing under the weight of old-fashioned anti-Semitism, cynically cloaked in the garb of social justice.