[Updated Monday Jan. 25]
More than 200 protesters shut down a presentation organized by A Wider Bridge ( AWB ), an organization that fosters relationships between Israel and the LGBT community, on Jan. 22 during the National LGBTQ Task Force's Creating Change conference in Chicago.
The protest came two days into the Creating Change conference which is being held through Jan. 24 at the Hilton Chicago.
The reception, which was to feature speakers from the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance (JOH) in Israel, had already been the focus of controversy when Creating Change organizers initially cancelled the reception in response to online and local protests. But the presentation was reinstated after more protests from members of the Jewish community and other supporters.
AWB is often accused of being emblematic of "pinkwashing" marketing strategies that highlight LGBT rights in order to distract from Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.
The crowd gathered outside the reception as guests tried to make their way in. A few protesters entered the room just as introductions were being made. The guests from Jerusalem Open House did not make their presentation, but AWB organizers said the protesters who entered did not make them fear for their safety. Creating Change rules dictate that anyone with a conference lanyard can be admitted to any session. The protesters stayed in the gathering space for the entire time, according to AWB Executive Director Arthur Slepian.
"We got our guests from Jerusalem out of there very quickly, to ensure their safety," he said, adding, "We came here with a message we wanted to bring, and I think there are lessons to be learned here. What happened tonight was contrary to all the important liberal values our society holds dear. I also felt there was a strong undercurrent of anti-Semitism."
Protesters held up signs and used chants that called Israel an apartheid state and decried Zionism. They chanted, "From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will Be Free," a chant that has been subject to a wide range of interpretations, some of them anti-Jewish.
There were some reports of altercations between the protestors and guests trying to enter the reception. Protesters chided one man for grabbing and balling up a Palestinian flag, but a video by Lynnell Stephanie Long, shooting for Windy City Times and posted at bit.ly/1nIlm52 showed that a protester had tried to drape the flag over the man's face. A female protester also alleged that she was assaulted by a reception guest, and Slepian said one of the protesters in the reception got into an argument with one of the guests there when they entered. At one point a few Jewish men prayed loudly amongst the protesters before heading into the reception.
Gary Liss, a member of Congregation Or Chadash, which was among the co-sponsors, was at the reception. "You had all the noise coming from the hallway," he said. "With everything that is going on in the world right now, you couldn't help but wonder what was going to happen next."
But activist James Bennett said that he did not feel especially threatened or unsafe being in the reception. The protesters went on stage and began yelling slogans, so the music was turned up to drown them out. Many guests left (most by a side exit) while others stayed behind.
"They were yelling what seemed to be random things," Bennett said. "Everyone just went back to talking again."
Susan Boone, whose husband, Laurence Edwards, is Emeritus Rabbi at Congregation Or Chadash, attempted to speak with the protesters to hear why they were there. One woman spoke with her briefly. "It was difficult to make out with the music," Boone recalled. "She was trying to conjoin Black Lives Matter and Palestine. At a certain point she just stopped, and said politely, 'I don't want to talk to you anymore.'"
The protest came about in part after online writings by an artist known as DarkMatter, who attended, and criticized the presence of AWB at Creating Change. Writings by Seattle activist and law professor Dean Spade also called attention to the event.
"We first saw that there was going to be this Israeli Zionist organization here, and as part of a coalition of multiple groups, we reached out to the Task Force and asked them to please cancel the session, and they did, and we thought, victory," DarkMatter said. "Then they brought it back with almost no explanation, and then we saw the statements from [Task Force Executive Director] Rea Carey, which we all felt were abhorrent. We think that there is no dialogue when there is an apartheid wall. We felt it was important to continue to up the pressure."
A Jan. 22 statement from Chicago-based Gay Liberation Network summarized the protesters' objections to the event. "For several years the Israeli government has attempted to use propaganda about the freedoms some LGBTQs in that country have as a cover for their increasingly brutal rule over Palestinians, a process known as 'pinkwashing,'" the statement said.
"Because of the brutal racism of the country, mimicking South Africa under apartheidone set of laws for Jews, another for Palestiniansmost Palestinian LGBTQs don't enjoy those freedoms. Instead, they endure the anti-Palestinian racism meted out on a daily basis to gay and non-gay alike.
"Israel's racist rule features widespread imprisonment of Palestinians without charges or trials, systemic torture documented by numerous human rights organizations, and the intentional, extreme impoverishment of Palestinians thru the purposeful destruction of their economic activity in Gaza and the West Bank."
No arrests were made. A Hilton staff member told protesters they would be arrested if they did not leave, and threatened to close the entire conference. Creating Change Director Sue Hyde was on hand during the entire protest, negotiating with Hilton staff, police and protesters, but the Hilton staff seemed most in charge. Hyde was even shoved out of one room by a police officer as she tried to make sure the reception was in fact over. The protesting group gradually moved to a lower level of the hotel and cleared the hallway. Some went across the hall to a Latino reception.
"You had Jewish people congregating in a small space, and then you had police brought in when there were many young people of color and undocumented people at that conference," said Cindy Rizzo, who had attended the Shabbat services prior to the protest. "There was the potential for just about every bad '-ism.' to happen there." Rizzo was at the reception before the protest in the hall began, then left and was unable to re-enter the room.
Two Shabbat services were held before the reception. One was part of the AWB gathering had about 120 attendees. About 35 people attended an alternative service that would lead into the protest.
Bashar Makhay of the group Tarab-NYC said he was "disappointed with Hilton and disappointed with the Task Force. Disappointed that they choose to stand up for racism, colonialism and imperialism, and not for human rights. By inviting A Wider Bridge they did just that, and they threatened to arrest us. They abused people at the rally and punched them out. Enough is enough. We won't stand for injustice."
Activist Dara Silverman of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) said of the protest, "For all of us at [SURJ], it's really about supporting Palestinian, Arab and Muslim leadership and the need for indigenous struggles to be recognized in the queer and trans communities in the way we recognize them in all other social justice struggles. What A Wider Bridge aims to do is paint Israel as a good place for LGBT people. The reality is, that doesn't include LGBT Palestinians. It doesn't include anyone of Arab or Muslim or indigenous descent. So the need for all of us in social justice is for all of us to support that indigenous leadership."
Earlier in the week, Black Lives Matter Chicago voiced its disapproval of AWB's participation at Creating Change, drawing correlations between the experiences of African Americans and the Palestinians. In a statement, they said, "They/We navigate heavily surveilled and detained realities on tightropes. They/We are expected to be grateful to those that itemize their/our pain to strengthen existing norms. As is routine for too many souls across the globe, They/We must negotiate oppressions as a provision of harm reduction and triage."
Faith Cheltenham, president of BiNet USA, took part in the protest and said shortly after it ended that she saw it as part of a larger effort to get "our movement back."
She added, "It's wonderful because we're seeing people be represented. There are many LGBT people who think treatment of Palestinians is incorrect. Many people. There are very few people who'd say, 'You know, they're getting everything they want. ... It is cultural apartheid, so much so that the Obama administration recognized that. They actually said recently that this is unjust. So when you come here to the LGBTQIA gender non-conforming queer community and you deal with us, that's our movement. That's our intersection."
But Slepian maintained that it is possible to separate Israel's LGBT community from its governmental policy.
"I think it's fine to try to see the world as having inter-related causes to different kind of oppressions, but I think it's a different issue when people then develop an agenda of purity, saying, in effect, 'This is what it means to be a good queer person, and if you're not on board, you deserve to be silenced,'" he said. "There needs to be much more room for diversity and exploration of different points of view."
Slepian also defended AWB's reasons for being at Creating Change, adding, "We came with the message that the LGBT community and Israel are valuable allies, just as every other LGBT community around the world wants to be valued and supported. The idea that [Israel's LGBT community] would be disenfranchised because of something that their government does, that they would be devalued because of what their government does, is disgraceful. They're saying that their lives as LGBT people are not valuable stories because of the actions of their government."