The nation’s largest conference of LGBTQ advocates has come under fire for allowing a reception by pro-Israeli advocates. The reception was set to occur in Chicago at this week’s 28th annual Creating Change conference — a national summit on LGBTQ equality organized by the National LGBTQ Task Force. The Task Force canceled the controversial reception over the weekend and then, amid criticism and claims of anti-Semitism, un-canceled it two days later.
The Friday evening reception is sponsored by San Francisco-based organization A Wider Bridge, an organization whose mission is building “LGBTQ connections with Israel.” The event features representatives from Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, including executive director Sarah Kala-Meir and development director Tom Canning; the two organizations have been closely linked for years. Jerusalem Open House organized the 2015 Jerusalem Pride parade, an event which resulted in six stabbings and one death at the hands of Yishai Schlissel, an Orthodox Jewish man. Schlissel had just been released after serving ten years for attacking a previous Pride march.
Seattle lawyer and Jewish trans activist Dean Spade first criticized the reception describing A Wider Bridge as “nefarious.” Spade accused the group of “pinkwashing” — that is, the widely-documented phenomenon wherein Israel pushes its pro-LGBT agenda to deflect liberal attention away from human rights violations in Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory.
“It is an organization whose promotion of Israel is designed to make people think of Israel as a site of liberation and freedom rather than a regime producing colonization and genocide,” Spade wrote on their blog. “It is not an organization focused on LGBT Jews, or an organization focused on LGBT Israelis.”
On Sunday the National LGBTQ Task Force canceled the event, which it said was meant to be “casual and fun.” In a statement, Task Force Executive Director Rea Carey explained her actions: “While we welcome robust discourse and political action, given the complexity and deep passions on all sides, we concluded the event wouldn’t be productive or meet the stated goals of its organizers.”
Then came the backlash.
First, A Wider Bridge launched a Change.org petition demanding an apology. “The actions taken by the Task Force completely surprised me,” said Laurie Grauer, the organization’s Midwest manager of programs and operations. “I spoke with the organizers in the fall and A Wider Bridge submitted a program description which laid out the format and purpose of our gathering. Both times, our proposal was approved.”
Arthur Slepian, Executive Director of A Wider Bridge, cried censorship and referred to the cancellation as a blatant double standard. He said:
“We are saddened by what appears to be capitulation to the intimidation of a small number of anti-Israel extremists who want to shut down the voices of those who don’t adhere to their rigid and exclusive party line. They understood that this would be an opportunity for LGBTQ Jews and allies to gather in Chicago, meet one another, and learn more about the work that Jerusalem Open House does on behalf the members of Jerusalem’s LGBTQ community—no matter their color, creed, religion, or nationality.”
Spade disagrees, saying that the conference events are curated, and that there’s a difference between censorship and something that’s just not appropriate:
“Yesterday, the Task Force backtracked. Carey released a second statement: “It is our belief that when faced with choices, we should move towards our core value of inclusion and opportunities for constructive dialogue and canceling the reception was a mistake. We are aware that our original decision made it appear we were taking sides in a complex and long-standing conflict, which was not the intention, and that in canceling the reception we deeply offended many people, and our reversal will offend others.”
Carey said in the statement that the Task Force was also organizing a “facilitated session for dialogue around these issues and welcome people who want to have a constructive conversation and learn more about other perspectives.”
A group of organizations, including the Jewish Voice for Peace, Gay Liberation Network, and three chapters of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid co-signed a statement put out by Tarab NYC, an organization that helps LGBTQ Middle Eastern and North African people in the New York area. Calling out Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory, they write:
“…we’re disappointed that the National LGBTQ Task Force allowed the organization “A Wider Bridge” to host a reception on “LGBT Life in Israel” at the Creating Change conference… A Wider Bridge partners with the Israeli Consulate and the right wing Israel advocacy organization Stand With Us to put on pinkwashing events that are boycotted and protested by queer and trans activists across the United States.”
And they wrote that before the reception was even back on again!
“Many people who know nothing about the occupation are learning about Israel from an Israel propaganda organization and not realizing it because it seems like a gay organization,” Spade says. “A Wider Bridge denies that it is engaged in pinkwashing, but there is nothing secret about it being an Israel advocacy organization.”
Earlier this month, the Task Force was also forced to cancel a controversial panel that included officials from the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency over fears that it would endanger undocumented LGBTQ attendees of Creating Change and make them feel unsafe.