Queers Against Israeli Apartheid refuse to be silenced

LGBT activists must not let their struggle be co-opted. (Oren Ziv/ActiveStills)

On the morning of 25 May, the Board of Pride Toronto held a press conference on the lawn outside its offices to announce that the phrase “Israeli Apartheid” would be censored from the upcoming 2010 Pride Parade. The decision, aimed at banning the Toronto-based activist group Queers Against Israeli Apartheid from the parade, set off a firestorm in the community, including refusals to participate in the festival and an open letter denouncing the decision by eight founding members who organized the first Toronto Pride parade in 1981.

The attempt to ban political speech at Pride Toronto fits a clear pattern — Israel’s public relations machine has attempted to malign critics and silence dissent around the world for decades. And these attempts have recently reached new heights in Canada, in response to the success that Palestine solidarity activists in Canada have achieved in recent years.

The first Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) — now an annual, international political gathering — was held on the University of Toronto campus in 2005. The organizers of IAW have endorsed the call by Palestinian civil society for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it complies with international law. The BDS movement is modeled on the boycott campaign that was successful in helping to bring apartheid to an end in South Africa through nonviolent means.

The apartheid analogy has put Israel and its apologists on the offensive because it has garnered unexpected levels of support through BDS and other tactics that aim to challenge Israeli state policy.

On 2 June 2009, the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat anti-Semitism (CPCCA) was formed “… for the stated purpose of confronting and combating anti-Semitism in Canada today.” However, most people involved in the BDS movement saw this as a thinly-veiled smear campaign against critics of Israel. The real goal of the CPCCA seems to be to conflate all meaningful criticism of Israeli state policy with anti-Semitism — in fact, many believe it may attempt to amend Canada’s anti-discrimination laws to label criticism of Israel as hate speech.

Outright censorship is not the only means in the Israel lobby’s toolkit for silencing opposition. In recent years, Israel has embarked upon a “re-branding” campaign to promote an image of itself as a modern, liberal society with open values while whitewashing its deplorable human rights record.

A key component of this campaign has been the promotion of Israel as a nation with a progressive outlook on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues, especially in relation to its neighbors and Palestinian society. There is truth in this, at least for the Israeli Jewish population, but claims that this is of widespread benefit to Palestinian queers and trans people (e.g. Tel Aviv as a “gay Mecca”) are unfounded. More importantly, that Israel recognizes same-sex marriages performed in other countries does nothing to excuse the humanitarian disaster that has resulted from its siege and attacks on Gaza.

It was in response to this re-branding campaign that Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) formed. In fact, there are several members of QuAIA who also marched against South African apartheid during the 1980s in solidarity with South African anti-apartheid activist Simon Nkoli, who was a black gay man. Even then, critics disparaged their presence in the Pride parade in Toronto, pointing to relatively greater acceptance of homosexuality in the white South African community compared to blacks living under apartheid. Today, queer activists have begun to label this type of expropriation of the LGBT struggle to distract from other human rights abuses with the term “pink-washing.”

QuAIA also endorses the Palestinian civil society call for BDS, and in particular a September 2009 initiative to boycott LGBT leisure tourism to Israel. This campaign was initiated in response to the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association’s decision to hold a tourism conference in Tel Aviv in coordination with an Israeli LGBT group, Aguda, despite the Palestinian call for the boycott of Israel.

To challenge the re-branding campaign, QuAIA took its message to the 2008 and 2009 Pride festivals in Toronto, marching without incident. The Israel lobby responded to QuAIA’s presence with outrage and initiated a smear campaign against the group. Israel lobby groups such as B’nai Brith and the Simon Wiesenthal center attempted to portray QuAIA as an anti-Semitic hate group, despite the fact that many of our members have histories of anti-racist activism and many are Jewish themselves.

After the 2009 parade, a propaganda film was made against QuAIA by a local gay Jewish lawyer and self-proclaimed “gay activist.” The film was distributed to city councilors in an attempt to convince them to pass a city resolution that threatened to defund Pride Toronto unless they banned our group from marching in 2010. What followed was a complex series of events; eventually, it was revealed through a freedom of information request that a small group of city bureaucrats, councilors and pro-Israel lobbyists colluded to eject QuAIA from the Pride parade despite the fact that they were aware that QuAIA in no way violated the city’s anti-discrimination policy. Notwithstanding this revelation, the Board of Pride Toronto voted 4-3 on 21 May to ban QuAIA, giving in to this year-long smear campaign.

The fallout from Pride Toronto’s decision has been tremendous. The queer community of Toronto was galvanized to confront Pride about censorship — after all, censorship has been previously used in Canada to force LGBT individuals back into the closet — and it has also brought forward other concerns about de-politicization, corporatization and fair representation of less privileged communities within the LGBT umbrella. And after a month-long community organizing effort, Pride rescinded the ban on 26 June — a significant victory for free speech and the Canadian Palestine solidarity movement as a whole.

In a more general sense, across North America — and even the world — the realization seems to be spreading in the LGBT community that our identities and our rights are being used as an excuse to deny the identity and the rights of another people, halfway across the globe.

Well before QuAIA formed, Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism has been championing the message of queer solidarity with Palestine in San Francisco. In the wake of the ban against QuAIA and the massive attention it has received, at least four new groups have formed worldwide projecting a similar message.

Further, a channel of communication has begun to develop between queer activists in Palestine and those in the Palestinian Diaspora. The two main Palestinian LGBT organizations, ASWAT and al-Qaws, have released a joint statement condemning Pride Toronto’s banning of our group while a new queer Palestinian group has formed endorsing the call for BDS. In the end QuAIA invited the Palestinian director of al-Qaws to visit with QuAIA during Pride — she will be marching with us in the upcoming parade. In light of all this, the claim some in Canada make that “the Palestine/Israel conflict has nothing to do with the queer struggle” is further deflated every day.

So it seems that while LGBT people in Palestine have begun speaking out both for themselves and for their people as a whole, LGBT activists in the West are starting to realize they cannot allow their struggles to be co-opted by Israel’s colonization schemes. And here in Toronto, Queers Against Israeli Apartheid will not be silenced. QuAIA will march in this year’s Pride Parade this Sunday, 4 July, and our demand for justice for all Palestinians, queer and straight alike, will be voiced.

Savannah Garmon is an activist for transgender rights, sex worker rights and has been active with various groups in the Palestine solidarity movement since 2002. She will proudly carry a sign in Toronto’s upcoming Pride Parade reading “This trans woman is against Israeli apartheid and queerer than you.”