Unfriendly fire: How an anti-Semitic protest overtook premier LGBT conference

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By Anthony E. Varona

Progressive LGBT activists and many of our straight allies were unable to escape the recent firestorm of concern and complaint that raised the specter of anti-Semitism across traditional and digital media. Condemnations abounded, fixing the community’s collective focus on the protest that shut down a Jan. 22 reception and program hosted by A Wider Bridge at the National LGBTQ Task Force’s 28th annual Creating Change conference in Chicago — with 4,000 attendees, the largest such conference of LGBT activists in history. The intense media attention was not without cause.


It is hard, after all, to fathom that the Task Force, an organization co-founded by a Jew as the first national LGBT rights group, and long sustained by the dedication and financial support of countless LGBT (and straight-ally) Jews, would permit a reception organized by a U.S.-based Jewish LGBT group at its marquee annual conference to be forcibly shut down by 200 protesters. A mob predominantly comprised of conference registrants, many peaceful but some violent, chanted “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” assaulted countless Jewish and other reception attendees and, according to some reports, called attendees “kikes.”

How could this possibly have happened?

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Three flammable forces converged in that reception hall, and were sparked into the explosion that left many activists on the Left picking up the pieces while scratching our heads for answers.

First, not enough was done by the Task Force leaders and others to counter the “pinkwashing” libel against A Wider Bridge and its scheduled guest speakers from Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance. The Task Force initially cancelled the reception outright, days before the start of the conference, in response to demands by a handful of radical activists who included a poetry duo known as Dark Matter whose members claim to work in “themes of empire, desire, ancestry, microflora, apocalypse, and the Future [sic]” and who insist that “incoherence is resistance.”


The anti-pinkwashing activists charged that A Wider Bridge and Jerusalem Open House were nothing but fronts and apologists for an Israeli government intent on diverting attention from its oppression of Palestinians by shifting the focus to the safe and flourishing lives of LGBT Israelis. Yet even a cursory dip into the copious material available online about both organization not only would have shown that they have no ties to the Israeli regime, but also would have revealed that both have forcefully and outspokenly opposed the illegal occupation of Palestinian territories, have long served Palestinians and in the case of JOH, incubated the first ever Palestinian LGBT social services organization.

Accusing A Wider Bridge and Jerusalem Open House of pinkwashing and demanding their silencing because of it made as much sense as a demand to shut down the Creating Change conference itself because the Task Force, as a Washington-based LGBT NGO, is a pinkwasher for the American government’s abuses in Guantanamo and in immigration detention centers.

The accusation was utterly absurd and should have been forcefully debunked by the Task Force leaders, as the proverbial “adults in the room,” well before the accusations snowballed out of control.

Notable too is that it was the Open House’s pride parade that was attacked last summer by a radical religious extremist who stabbed six marchers, killing one. The organization’s leaders, in fact, were scheduled to speak at the A Wider Bridge reception partly about how they have coped in the months since that murderous attack, and about the work they have undertaken to counter religious extremism in Israel — worthy topics of discussion at the national LGBT conference. Open House leaders not only never got to speak, they were forced off the stage by the protesters.

Second, there was a much larger and more dangerous failure of leadership by the Task Force. Although the Task Force reinstated the reception and apologized for having canceled it, it did very little to ensure that the reception speakers and attendees would be safe. I saw no effort by Task Force leaders to restore control of the reception to the scheduled speakers. Once the protesters took control of the microphone and the stage, the Task Force allowed them to keep it and allowed other protesters to berate and harass attendees trapped in the reception hall.

Truth be told, there was a certain “chickens coming home to roost” quality to the protest. The Task Force’s Creating Change conferences used to be about practical skills-building and information sharing. How to lobby. How to get out the vote. What bills are coming down the federal and state legislative pikes and how they should inform and affect our work as activists. Perhaps catering more to its burgeoning college-age clientele funded by university travel budgets, many of the messages showcased at this year’s conference harkened to the anarchy-light, radical chic demands of the occupy movement and popular on many campuses — for example, the abolition of prisons, police and borders, and the destruction of government and authority itself.

In other words, whereas Creating Change was once about dialogue, inclusion and capacity building, this year’s conference was decidedly nihilist in both letter and spirit. It emphasized exclusion and censorship over community building and dialogue. The title of an especially popular session on direct action, in fact, was “Shutting them Down.” And the A Wider Bridge reception was not the only conference event that was, in fact, shut down.

Third, the absurdity of pro-Palestinian protesters attacking and silencing a pro-Palestinian reception reflects a larger problem of strategy and focus on the American Left. There have been numerous accounts in the media of the erroneous conflation of Zionism with colonialism and racism on American college and university campuses, as well as the conflation of Zionism with Jewish identity and the resulting hostility on some campuses against Jewish students. These false equivalencies were on hideous display at and around the AWB protest. As just one example, I witnessed a protester harass a Jewish attendee who wore a rainbow flag as a cape. The protester accused the attendee as being the “embodiment of pinkwashing,” solely for being a Jew proud of her transgender identity.

There were other contributors to the deeply disturbing incident in Chicago, but the ones above were most responsible for what happened and are most worthy of the constructive attention of the American Left, within and outside of the LGBT movement. Anti-Semitism should not be afforded refuge anywhere, especially not at the preeminent national gathering of a community that knows the sting of bigotry and intolerance all too well.

Shame on us.

Tony Varona is professor of law and academic dean at the American University Washington College of Law. The first general counsel and legal director for the Human Rights Campaign, he has served on the national boards of directors of HRC, GLAAD, and the Alliance for Justice, and now serves on the board of directors of the Stonewall National Museum and Archives.  

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