Mark Segal: Calling out insensitive, anti-Semitic protest at Creating Change 2016

When I was a boy of 13, my grandmother took me to my first civil-rights demonstration to teach me about racism and social justice. She knew those issues well: Our family fled from the pogroms in Russia, others in our family perished in the Holocaust and Grandmom even fought for women’s rights.

On that day, I marched with Cecil B. Moore and Robert N.C. Nix. Five years later, in 1969, I’d be a member of New York’s Gay Liberation Front and, in the name of justice, we’d march with The Black Panthers to free Angela Davis from her arrest and detention, chanting “Hey hey, ho ho, House of D [New York’s Women’s House of Detention] has to go.” But last week, when I heard LGBT activists at the National LGBTQ Task Force’s Creating Change conference in Chicago using part of that slogan against our own community, it was a sad day. And it sickened me to the pit of my stomach.

Creating Change is the largest gathering of LGBT activists across the nation. Typically, all issues affecting our communities are discussed, with people being able to agree to disagree with respect. But a major controversy happened this year.  And what usually is and should be a place for dialogue became  unsafe. This incident was at the very least insincere, and at its worst anti-Semitic.

A Wider Bridge, which promotes ties between LGBT Americans and Israel, was scheduled to have a reception at Creating Change. But some conference participants complained about an event featuring a group with ties with Israel. Presto, the Task Force cancelled the event. This led to a debate about anti-Semitism, apartheid and political correctness. Eventually, conference organizers did the right thing and reinstated the session. After all, this conference was about “creating change,” and change occurs with communication. However, the event led opponents of Israel to protest; such protesters essentially urge people to boycott any LGBT event relating to Israel, not due to its LGBT laws, but because of how it treats Palestinians. They use terms like “apartheid” and “racism.”

Here’s what they don’t state. While Israel is welcoming to LGBT people, Palestinian law criminalizes homosexuality. If you call the Palestinian Authority at the UN Office and ask about LGBT rights, as I did, you’ll be treated to hang-ups (first call), laughter and a “Don’t you understand our culture?” question (second call) and finally, “We don’t talk about that.” A fourth call offered a phone number in the Palestinian state for me to call.

Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 1.12.15 PMThe protesters want us to support people who laugh at and criminalize us. They don’t explain that LGBT Palestinians escape to Israel for protection. It is so unsafe that the group fighting for Palestinian queer rights is located in Israel. Why? The Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip has declared homosexuality punishable by death. Hamas co-founder Mahmoud al-Zahar has said, “You in the West do not live like human beings. You do not even live like animals. You accept homosexuality. And now you criticize us?”

I’ve visited and written about the region on many occasions. In fact, I spent time with the first out LGBT organization in Beirut, writing about lesbian women in Jordan and the oppression in Egypt, among other topics. I know the people on both sides well. I was embraced in Beirut and spit on in Jerusalem.

I was at Creating Change to speak about my just-published memoir, which speaks of my numerous arrests and nickel rides fighting for social justice. In many of the cities on my book tour, a young LGBT person asks, “What can we do today to create activism?” So I appreciate many in that crowd at the protest who were there wanting to do something. Unfortunately, they weren’t given the facts. They were misled into what became an ugly anti-Semitic rally.

The first question we should ask protest organizers is: If you’re suggesting a boycott of Israel because of non-LGBT issues, why not speak out about Palestine’s antigay laws? Why not explain that many LGBT people have had to escape antigay violence in Palestine? If you were fair, the position should be boycott both, but instead you single out one. And that one place has become a safe haven for LGBT Palestinians. That is anti-Semitism, with a dose of self-hatred. Supporting those who wish LGBT people — us — dead is the definition of self-hatred.

Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 1.24.27 PMThe next question to ask protesters is even simpler: Why are you not protesting the anti-LGBT position of the Palestinian state? Do you approve of the draconian laws of Putin’s Russia, or those of Uganda? Palestine is equally as, if not more so, antigay as those countries.

Then there’s the issue of racism. That same term has been used to describe our country by the “Black Lives Matter” effort. Have you called for an international boycott of the United States? No, you single out one entity: Israel, the Jewish State. Yes, “Jewish.” We all know why Israel was created, as a safe haven for Jews. We also know how Palestinians have fought Israel, at times suggesting it be wiped off the face of the earth, along with its people, the Jews. Yasser Arafat coined that into a slogan: “From the [Jordan] River to the Sea.” To Jews, that slogan represents extermination. Now, imagine being a Jew in a room with 200 people outside banging on the doors yelling that slogan, or wrapping a Palestinian flag over the head of a Jew trying to make his way into the room. That is what happened in Chicago. Windy City Times did a great job of capturing most of the demonstration on video.

Many of us would gladly protest Israeli treatment of Palestinians — I myself support a Palestinian state, the so-called “two-state solution” — but that is different than supporting the Palestinian government that wants you put to death if you’re LGBT and live on the Gaza Strip. But trapping Jews in a room yelling what is as close to a death slogan as there is … Does that conjure something? Look up “Kristallnacht.” Insensitive at the very least.

It’s great to see this generation wanting to protest injustice, but they need to understand the issues and the lessons of our early fight for equality. Fight first for our community’s rights, since if we do not, nobody else will. LGBT Palestinians can’t speak out in their homeland, and your protests only embolden those who keep them from speaking out.

The Task Force acknowledged its mishandling of the situation and said it will work to prevent future incidents. While they may have been unprepared, protest organizers are the ones who need to apologize — not just to those in that room who were forced to leave through a back door for safety, but to the entire LGBT community for their insensitivity and for supporting  those who support our oppression.

The term these individuals use is “pinkwashing.” From this time on, pinkwashing equals self-hating anti-Semites.

We members of Gay Liberation Front have varied views on Israel and Palestine, but one thing we would never do is act with such insensitivity and suggest support for those who wish to put LGBT people to death or eradicate an entire race of people. Shame on you!

Mark Segal is the publisher of Philadelphia Gay News and the author of the critically-acclaimed memoir “And Then I Danced: Traveling the Road to LGBT Equality.”

Editor’s note: Rabbi Joshua Lesser, leader of Congregation Bet Haverim in Brookhaven is among  over 40 LGBT activists and clergy that signed a letter to Rea Carey, Executive Director of the National LGBTQ Task Force in response to the protest. You can read the letter here.