Israel advocates falsely claim Chicago LGBTQ protest disrupted Jewish prayers

Israel lobby groups have tried to portray LBGTQ activists who protested Israeli pinkwashing as a violent, anti-Semitic mob. (sarah-ji)

Last Friday evening, hundreds of activists marched through the Chicago Hilton to protest the presence of the Israel lobby group A Wider Bridge and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency at the National LGBTQ Task Force’s annual Creating Change conference.

In the days since the protest, Israel lobby groups have mounted a full-scale smear campaign against the activists, attempting to paint them as violent and anti-Semitic.

Earlier in the week, the National LGBTQ Task Force had canceled the reception with A Wider Bridge but, under pressure, reinstated it.

This prompted activist groups, including Tarab-NYC, Black Lives Matter Chicago, Brown People for Black Power, the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity and Jewish Voice for Peace, to object to the inclusion of A Wider Bridge because of its role in the Israeli government’s pinkwashing campaign.

Pinkwashing is a public relations strategy that deploys Israel’s supposed enlightenment toward LGBTQ issues to deflect criticism from its human rights abuses and war crimes and as a means to build up support for Israel among Western liberals and progressives.

A Wider Bridge describes itself as a “pro-Israel organization that builds bridges between Israelis and LGBTQ North Americans and allies.”

Among its major donors is the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, which has taken a lead in efforts to combat the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

False claims

Following the Friday evening protest, anti-Palestinian propagandists quickly swung into action, claiming that the loud and colorful grassroots intervention was violent and anti-Semitic.

But as has been the case with other recent protests, these were smears subsequently refuted by numerous accounts.

And the only serious reports of violence were by security personnel and police against protesters.

Yet lurid tales were quickly spread by Israeli and Jewish communal media, Israel lobby groups and pro-Israel social media users.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) has corrected its false and inflammatory claim that the protest had disrupted a Shabbat prayer service and acknowledged that the activists had in fact protested a reception held for Israel lobby groups.

JTA was not the only outlet to disseminate this false claim, although it appears to be the only one to have issued any sort of correction.

StandWithUs, an Israeli-government funded group that partners with A Wider Bridge, tweeted out a story from the Times of Israel, headlined “Protesters obstruct Jewish prayer service at gay rights convention.”

The lie was given longer legs by Jeffrey Goldberg, the Atlantic magazine columnist and former Israeli prison guard, who shared and embellished it:

At some point the Times of Israel changed the headline – without issuing a correction – to “Protesters obstruct Jewish reception at gay rights convention.”

The inflammatory claim that protesters targeted Jewish prayer services became untenable after JQY, an LGBTQ organization for Orthodox Jewish youth, issued a categorical denial.

“The anti-Israel protest that took place was not against the Shabbos Service,” JQY stated, “it happened on a different floor, at a different time and was directed at a reception which was a separate event.”

The Anti-Defamation League, deprived of being able to claim that Jewish prayers had been disrupted, nonetheless sought to give the false charge new life in its statement condemning the protest: the ADL simply rebranded the A Wider Bridge event as “a post-Shabbat services reception.”

Hundreds of activists protested an event for the Israel lobby group A Wider Bridge at the National LGBTQ Task Force’s Creating Change conference in Chicago, 22 January. (sarah-ji)

But much of the misinformation and hyperbole originated from A Wider Bridge itself. Its director Arthur Slepian claimed that “part way through the reception, a handful of anti-Israel protesters entered the room and later commandeered the stage, denying the leaders of [Jerusalem Open House] the opportunity to tell their powerful story to the more than 100 participants, Jews and non Jews, who had assembled inside.”

Again, JQY – which affirmed its opposition to the protest and its support for the Israeli group Jerusalem Open House – offered a less overheated description: “There were four protesters that entered the reception room. Three of the young women occupied the stage. They were outnumbered by almost 100 reception attendees, most of whom were not conference participants. The protesters inside were vocal but not physical, and at one point they tried to leave the room but were prevented by hotel security.”

“The leadership of JQY proudly attended the A Wider Bridge reception, but also appreciate the rights and feelings of LGBTQ Jewish teens who, based on their own conscious [sic], chose to peacefully protest the event,” the group said.

Windy City Times, an LGBTQ newspaper in Chicago, reported on Friday night that the “guests from Jerusalem Open House did not make their presentation,” but that organizers from A Wider Bridge “said that protesters who entered did not make them fear for their safety.”

A video released by A Wider Bridge, presumably to support its inflammatory charges, actually confirms JQY’s account of what happened inside the room:

The video shows three young persons “occupying” the stage – by sitting on chairs as one of the speakers from the reception carries on with a fundraising pitch for Jerusalem Open House. As he speaks, a voice from the floor, presumably the fourth protester, challenges him.

No one appears to be fleeing in fear.

James Bennett, an attendee at the reception, told Windy City Times that the “protesters went on stage and began yelling slogans, so the music was turned up to drown them out.”

One of the protesters “also alleged that she was assaulted by a reception guest,” according to Windy City Times.

“Firestorm of hate”

Meanwhile, A Wider Bridge’s Slepian claimed that in the hallway outside, 200 protesters “blocked many others from entering the room, and turned the LGBT Task Force’s conference and the Hilton Hotel into a firestorm of hate that felt truly unsafe and threatening to many of our participants, and especially to our Israeli guests.”

In an op-ed for JTA, he added that “many of the Jewish participants at the conference were truly shaken by the ferocity of the protest, especially the anti-Semitism that was on display in some parts – including the chant of ‘from the river to the sea, all of Palestine must be free.’”

Basing itself on Slepian’s account, the American Jewish Committee claimed that the A Wider Bridge reception had been “invaded by hateful protesters, who interrupted the event and threatened people gathered to hear gay rights activists from Jerusalem.”

The Israel lobby group called on “Chicago government authorities take appropriate steps to punish those who organized and carried out this assault.”

Other commentators helped spread the notion that the protest was anti-Jewish.

Tony Varona, former legal director for the Human Rights Campaign, the Washington gay-establishment group that recently endorsed Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid, claimed that the Friday protest “cast a shadow of anti-Semitism, insularity and reckless extremism.”

At the liberal website Slate, LGBTQ issues reporter Mark Joseph Stern speculated that “a majority” of the protesters “were driven by ideas about Jews and Israel that are rooted in anti-Semitism.”

Lacking any substantive support for his accusations, Stern asserted that “Even the shape the protest took – an enraged mob assailing Jewish speakers – had ugly echoes of past anti-Semitic aggression.”

Even the Jewish Agency’s online propaganda director Avi Mayer got in on smearing the activists, claiming that the protesters in Chicago were “rioters” and “vicious bigots” who “attacked” the pro-Israel event.

This prompted a response from Daniel Wein, who identifes himself as an “alum” of the major Israel lobby group AIPAC.

While his social media comments indicate that Wein is strongly opposed to the political agenda of the protesters, he objected to Mayer’s characterization of them.

“Hey Avi - I was at the Chicago event,” Wein tweeted. “Not sure it’s helpful to paint the protesters as violent, which they weren’t.”

Video

An eight-minute video, released by the Windy City Times, shows that the protesters in the hallway were loud, boisterous and joyous, but their action involved no violence or anti-Semitism.

Protesters chanted slogans against A Wider Bridge, against Israeli occupation and calling for freedom in Palestine, “from the river to the sea.”

This is an irrefutable acknowledgment that Palestinians are not free or equal today in any part of present-day Israel or the territories it controls. Millions of Palestinians are barred from returning to their homes in what is now Israel solely because they are not Jewish.

The claim that calling for freedom for Palestinians in every part of their ancestral homeland is anti-Semitic should prompt reflection on the nature of an Israeli state that requires subjugation and exclusion of non-Jews for its continued existence.

The protesters, moreover, included individuals visually identifiable as Jewish by their traditional skullcaps.

There was a minor altercation when, as the Windy City Times put it, protesters “chided one man for grabbing and balling up a Palestinian flag.”

A video released by the newspaper showed that the flag had been momentarily draped over the man’s face before he grabbed it.

Police violence

The only serious report of violence was against two of the protesters who entered the reception room.

Both spoke to Windy City Times but asked to remain anonymous.

“[We] were both attacked last night,” one told the newspaper. “There’s been no apologies issued by the Hilton. There’s been no restorative justice for the trauma that has been caused to me and to my people. You told me to come here and be myself and I was attacked. You have broken my trust by allowing Chicago police officers to be in this space. You broke trust when you invited ICE,” the acronym for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“As a Black queer woman, I thought this would be a place to hang out and learn stuff,” another said. “Last night, I was thrown into a door by a security guard. I don’t feel safe here. I don’t feel comfortable here. This is my first and my last Creating Change.”

Some activists said they felt that the presence of Chicago police was the biggest threat to their safety. (sarah-ji)

Indeed for many, the most serious concern about violence was related to the presence of the police, who at one point shoved Creating Change director Sue Hyde, according to Windy City Times.

The protesters and conference attendees included young Black people and people of color, trans people and undocumented people – many of whom would have seen the Chicago police, notorious for its unchecked violence against members of those communities, as a direct threat to their safety.

The National LGBTQ Task Force had tried to distance itself from the police presence by saying the force had been called by the Hilton management.

But as some social media users pointed out, the Hilton is listed as one of the sponsors of Creating Change, and the Task Force leadership, in their eyes, failed to take responsibility.

On Monday, the National LGBTQ Task Force appeared to have clearly chosen sides by adopting the Israel lobby’s characterization of the protest as “anti-Semitic.”

“I want to make this crystal clear: the National LGBTQ Task Force wholeheartedly condemns anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic statements made at any Task Force event including our Creating Change Conference,” executive director Rea Carey said in a statement referring to the Friday protest.

The statement did not acknowledge the violence of the Israeli government against Palestinians that had prompted the protest, or the anger over the violent deportations carried out by ICE.

The statement provided no examples of alleged anti-Semitism and the Task Force’s media relations staff could not provide any when asked.

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Comments

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Like the one over ethnic cleansings and pogroms? Give it a rest! Their dishonesty goes hand and hand with their sliminess.

Those Torah desecrating low life scum have no honor, no class, no decency, no integrity and NO SHAME... not a shred.

Their attempted defilement of the venerable religion of Judaism, to justify their racism and their criminality, is despicable.

This proud and honorable anti-racist non Zionist Jew fights for an end to Jim Crow in Palestine and a return of all the families of the Palestinian diaspora of the 1940's.

No Equality, No Peace!

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Anyone interested in seeing what pink-washing looks like in essay form is invited to peruse Arthur Slepian's "An Inconvenient Truth", a lengthy defense of A Wider Bridge and its international (ie American) hasbara tours.

http://awiderbridge.com/an-inc...

As you read along, give free rein to your personal voice of contention in the face of such drivel as, "We believe that Israel is the most important project of the Jewish people." And, "We hope that people will come to care enough about Israel that when they do criticize, whether on LGBT or Palestinian issues, they will do so from love." Powerful arguments, aren't they?

My personal favorite is, "We care about the lives of LGBT Palestinians, who often face extraordinary and heartbreaking challenges." Like being penned up in ghettos and refugee camps, subjected to harsh foreign military rule, targeted for exclusion by racist laws, with their land stolen at gunpoint, their houses blown up, schools bombed, relatives thrown into exile or imprisonment? To be fair, Mr Slepian doesn't indulge in such unpleasant imagery and accusations. He is here to build a wider bridge- from the Mediterranean to the Jordan Valley. Along the way, he'll spare a few tears for gay Palestinians, no doubt victimised by their primitive Arab family traditions.

The more Israel seeks to improve its image, the uglier the outcome. Last year they set up a Tel Aviv beach tableau in Paris along the Seine, to illustrate the placid luxury of their lifestyle. In doing so, they only reminded passing pedestrians of the grotesque inequality between coloniser and native- and this in the context of Israel's by now ritual slaughter of Gazan civilians.

Truly, they have no idea how the world sees them. Because they cannot see themselves, only their hasbara, which more and more is propagated simply to reinforce racist cohesion within the State. Like settler wine, it travels poorly abroad.

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Thanks for the link to the Bridge statement of purpose.

This org is just another slick, well financed pro-apartheid shell game. The "Bridge" to nowhere has zero track record advocating for LGBTQ Palestinians against the catastrophic Settler Presence and their protectors, the IDF.

The "Bridge" is but a tool of the cynical Israeli propaganda machine. They had no business in Chicago, except their own true business - to deflect attention away from the horrors of daily life for Palestinians, gay and straight.

The dis-invited "Bridge" should not have been reinvited as the organizers now know, since this "Bridge" has loosed its stable of propagandists on them as well as against principled activists, who smell hasbara coming around the corner with its never subtle message: everyone who does not march together with us into a thoroughly Jewish future in the whole of Palestine is, ho hum, a self-hater or an anti-Semite.

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We were shocked, but not surprised, that Zionists turned this into a litany of lies and slander.
In the long run, their long, long list of violent and malicious distortions....
tells the whole story.
We are Moral Jews. We deplore the racism and violence of Zionism.
We will win justice and safety for Palestinians, just as justice and safety was won against the Nazi repression.

Ali Abunimah's picture

Indeed, that is far from surprising, which is why we make copies of them. We’ve added an image of the tweet to the article.

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I appreciate this reporting--but why do you reference Israel's "alleged" enlightenment to LGBT persons? I note that one sign describes Israel's "generally positive" record, but you weakened that. Why?

Do you deny the fact the LGBT people in Israel have much stronger protections and community visibility than anywhere else in the middle east, including Palestine? Or do you dismiss the importance of life for the LGBT community?

Ali Abunimah's picture

I say alleged because, as I explain in this article, many of the claims about Israel’s supposed enlightenment, especially with respect to its treatment of same-sex Palestinians, are exaggerations or outright fabrications.

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As to stronger protections for LGBT people in Israel as opposed to Palestine, you cannot be unaware that the latter nation is under Israeli military rule and subject to intensive foreign colonisation. Are LGBT people in Occupied Palestine spared the theft of their water and land? Are they immunised against the Israeli Army's court system which convicts 98% of those brought before it? When they attend Friday protests against settler and military land confiscation, are they exempted from injury or death at the hands of Israeli snipers? When they are thrown into prison without charges, to be tortured into confessing to fabricated crimes, does their sexual status call forth pity from their jailers? When LGBT people- lifelong inhabitants of Jerusalem- are deprived of their residency permits, when their houses are scheduled for bulldozing, and their freedom to travel denied, do government officials suddenly intervene on their behalf, remembering that Israel is kind and tolerant towards such persons?

In other words, what specific protections are afforded LGBT people by a state that is engaged in the destruction of their homes, their families and their nation?

Ali Abunimah

Ali Abunimah's picture

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.