Pro-BDS Columbia prof’s gathering with anti-BDS J Street and Zionist LGBT groups stirs controversy

An example of LGBTQ activists responding to Israeli pinkwashing efforts.

TruthForceinSF Flickr

Katherine Franke, the Columbia University law professor who has endorsed the academic boycott of Israel and the Palestinian civil society call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), has stirred controversy by convening a meeting in New York today with representatives of anti-BDS and Zionist LGBT organizations including J Street.

Haneen Maikey, director of Al Qaws for Gender and Sexual Diversity in Palestine, has strongly criticized the meeting and pulled out of another Columbia event organized by Franke in protest.

Franke did not respond to an email seeking comment for this post.

Franke participated in last year’s LGBTQ delegation to Palestine and is a faculty affiliate of Columbia University’s Center for Palestine Studies.

“Columbia/Israel LGBT Dialogue”

The goals of the gathering, which is entitled “Columbia/Israel LGBT Dialogue,” are laid out in a 12 February 2013 letter to participants co-signed by Franke and Bay Area attorney Frederick Hertz, a copy of which was obtained by The Electronic Intifada.

Franke and Hertz write that they are “dismayed by the polarized conversations on the topic of Israel and LGBT rights, which we believe have discouraged many who are concerned about these issues from speaking out in a coherent and effective manner.”

Franke and Hertz say that they have heard from “progressive Jews who are turned off by the critics of Israel’s propagandistic celebration of its gay-friendly policies, as well as LGBT activists whose support of Israel hardens them to the voices that are critical of Israel’s occupation policies.”

Over the past two years Israel’s efforts to market itself as a haven for gay rights and to denigrate Palestinian, Muslim and Arab cultures in the process, has been outed and criticized as “pinkwashing” by many in the Palestine solidarity movement.

The Franke-Hertz letter calls the New York gathering a “first meeting” in a process from which they hope “a coherent set of principles will emerge, which we can disseminate to others who share our concerns and to the LGBT, middle east, and Israel-oriented social action groups and academics that are engaged in these discussions.”

The letter does not further specify the role or auspices of Columbia University other than in the title of the gathering — and the meeting is at an off-campus location — but the letter does state that, “we are still awaiting responses on the applications for funding that we have submitted, and so at this point we cannot yet offer any financial assistance for travel and accommodations.”

Using LGBT people in the battle to maintain Israel’s Jewish “demographic advantage”

In 2012, co-convener Frederick Hertz taught at Israel’s Striks School of Law in Rishon LeZion on the subject of law and policy for same-sex couples in the United States. Hertz was also the keynote speaker at the inauguration of Tel Aviv’s first LGBT legal clinic.

According to an article about Israeli laws that prohibit adoption and surrogacy for same sex couples in The Israel Project’s magazine The Tower, Hertz went “to Israel to study marriage equality but quickly shifted his focus to the rise of surrogacy.”

Because of the prohibition, Israeli Jewish gay male couples with financial resources will employ surrogates in India, but “legalizing surrogacy for gays in Israel would allow ‘Jewish eggs in Jewish mothers,’ as Hertz puts it.”

Hertz says that Israeli same-sex couples view child-rearing and surrogacy as a “queer contribution to the building of the Jewish state.” Driving this point home, Hertz told the “Out in the Bay” podcast in July 2012 that Israeli Jewish gay activists see surrogacy for same-sex couples as important for “maintaining the demographic advantage over non-Jews.

Since 2012, Hertz has spoken in public about gay rights in Israel and pinkwashing.


Included among the participants listed in the Franke-Hertz letter along with their organizational affiliations is Julie Dorf, a consultant for J Street and for Fenton Communications, the public relations firm founded by J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami. Another participant is Ira Stup, deputy director of J Street U, the Zionist lobby group’s campus organizing wing.

Participant David Robinson was recently hired as the Bay Area regional director of Keshet, a Jewish LGBT organization, thanks to a half million dollar grant from the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund.

The Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund, a major Israel advocacy organization and funder in the Bay Area, is an affiliate of the Jewish Federations of North America which in 2010 launched the multi-million dollar Israel Action Network specifically to fight BDS.

The grant to Keshet spread over three years amounts to a significant portion of the organization’s annual budget of about one million dollars.

Jay Michaelson of Nehirim, another Jewish LGBT group, is also identified as a participant. In January, Michaelson wrote shockingly in The Forward, “Who didn’t entertain a thought of ‘turning Gaza into a parking lot,’ as one conservative friend of mine proposed? It’s natural to feel these emotions.”

In a November 2011 post criticizing academic and pinkwashing critic Sarah Schulman, he deployed common pinkwashing cliches: “Palestine is hell for queer people. LGBT Palestinians live in constant threat of state-sanctioned murder and violence.”

In a more recent criticism of the just passed Homonationalism and Pinkwashing conference at CUNY, he dismissed pinkwashing critique saying “I think the consensus is that this is the same anti-Israel left that’s been around for 30, 40 years in a new context.”

“Shocked and surprised”

Al Qaws director Haneen Maikey told The Electronic Intifada that she was “shocked and surprised” when she learned in recent days of the meeting being organized by Franke and Hertz.

Maikey said she had not been invited but was disturbed to learn that other Palestinians and members of the LGBTQ delegation had been. Maikey told The Electronic Intifada:

I don’t want to be associated with any ‘ally’ who is promoting any kind of dialogue about Palestine with Zionist organizations. Franke is someone who knows something about the complexity of the situation and was a member of the LGBTQ delegation to Palestine. She is also ostensibly committed to BDS. For the past year, she has had numerous conversations with Palestinian Queers for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions about these issues. PQBDS, as part of the boycott movement, does not work with organizations that wish to promote initiatives — or have promoted initiatives — undermining the boycott movement. While Franke invited me to Columbia to speak about sexuality, gender, and Palestine, she was — without disclosing this to me — organizing a parallel event with Zionist organizations. To include people from the delegation and queer Palestinians in such an initiative is, to me, anti-solidarity.

Maikey said that this was the reason she canceled a 16 April event with Franke at Columbia titled “The History and Contemporary State of the Palestinian Sexual Liberation Struggles.”

J Street’s opposition to BDS, Palestinian rights

J Street is a “liberal” Zionist organization that supports a “two-state solution” as a means to preserve what it terms Israel’s “Jewish and democratic character.” For the same reasons, J Street opposes Palestinian refugee rights and other Palestinian demands for full equality.

In a 1 May 2012 statement, J Street affirmed that it “strongly opposes views and positions such as those captured at the Palestinian BDS National Committee’s website,” and, echoing frequent Israeli government propaganda, claimed that, “For some, the BDS movement has become a convenient mantle for thinly disguised anti-Semitism.”

That J Street representatives would take part in a gathering convened by an open supporter of BDS appears to be in line with the organization’s strategy for undermining the Palestine solidarity movement.

“Barring proponents of BDS from participation in communal discussion or events is counterproductive and, more important, is a violation of our values,” the J Street statement said. “We believe that the Jewish, democratic and most effective way to counter views one disagrees with is not to try to silence them, but to subject them to the scrutiny of a vibrant and open debate.”

Affirming the Zionist group’s concern to preserve Israel as a “Jewish” state, the J Street statement also praises the political visions of Ehud Barak, Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni, Israeli leaders directly implicated in serious war crimes in Lebanon and Palestine for which there has never been accountability.

Presumably the J Street representatives would aim to insert their strong anti-BDS position into the “principles” that the Franke-Hertz initiative hopes to develop and disseminate.




So, according to the letter, the topics are:
- "Columbia/Israel LGBT Dialogue"
- "the polarized conversations on the topic of Israel and LGBT rights"
- "the LGBT, middle east, and Israel-oriented social action groups"

See, nothing Palestine or Palestinian. The dialogue is between Israel.


That's a lot of egg on the face of Prof Franke. Maybe she'll learn to pick her discussion partners more carefully.


I'm all in favor of conversation and dialogue. The truth comes out that way.


This episode demonstrates the necessity for clarification of principles and guidelines for BDS of Zionist/pro-Israel institutions on occupied Turtle Island. Thus far, it seems as though the academic/cultural boycott has been mostly utilized as a reactionary measure to pro-Israel/Zionist events (film festivals, jazz festivals, pinkwashing events, etc.). Yet the institutions that hold these events remain largely unscrutinized, save for the campus divestment campaigns. But when settler-colonialism is endemic to the institutions, at what time and in what manner may we address these institutions?

When the United States government and so many universities/media outlets are so dedicated to Zionist settler-colonialism, how then can we defy these institutions and drive them to cease colonizing Palestine?


There are two problems I see in the critique of Franke. First, insecurity: the presumption seems to be that Franke's engagement will inevitably advantage Zionist groups. This effectively rejects the idea that BDS arguments have force and efficacy, and denies that Zionists are affected by confronting those who recognize the injustices of occupation. Second, whether one regards her strategy as a good one or not, it is neither honorable nor politically effective to so stringently police the tactics and strategies of allies.


The irony of selective liberalism... "Free discussion" for us; prison for you.
Its just amazing how 'liberal' is performed as an identity, particularly in this context. AS IF the BDS movement itself isn't, at a fundamental level, a form of dialogue: as if it is not occupied by continual debates, cultivating challenging new engagements, etc - and how much more so compared to the silence of soft Zionism!