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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
- National LGBTQ Task Force
- Creating Change
- Black Lives Matter Chicago
- Brown People for Black Power
- Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity
- A Wider Bridge
- Jerusalem Open House
- Jewish Telegraphic Agency
- Tony Varona
- Mark Joseph Stern
- Arthur Slepian
- Windy City Times
- American Jewish Committee
- Avi Mayer
- Chicago Police Department
- Hilton Chicago
- Rea Carey
- Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago
- Anti-Defamation League