No Apartheid in Our Name: LGBT Jewish Groups Block “Celebrate Israel” Parade

A group of queer and trans Jewish activists and allies organized by Jewish Voice for Peace protests in the path of the Celebrate Israel parade's LGBT contingent in New York City on June 4, 2017. (Photo: Mike Henrich)A group of queer and trans Jewish activists and allies organized by Jewish Voice for Peace protests in the path of the Celebrate Israel parade’s LGBT contingent in New York City on June 4, 2017. (Photo: Mike Henrich)

On Sunday, June 4, 2017, I participated with a group of queer and trans Jewish activists and allies in blocking the Celebrate Israel parade in New York City. We were one of six groups organized by Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) to put our bodies on the line in support of the struggle for justice in Palestine. We came together to proclaim loudly and unequivocally that apartheid and occupation are nothing to celebrate. One group organized by JVP blocked the Celebrate Israel contingent that included Mayor Bill de Blasio, decrying his support for Israeli state violence. Other groups targeted the NYPD as part of JVP’s new campaign, Deadly Exchange, which seeks to expose and end partnerships between US police departments and Israeli security forces.

Our group organized in reaction to an open call posted on Facebook to join an LGBT contingent of the Celebrate Israel parade sponsored by a variety of national and local LGBT Jewish organizations. We felt we could not let this contingent march without disruption because of the particular ways Israel uses LGBT people to distract from its brutal suppression of Palestinians.

In 2005, in consultation with marketing and advertising firms, the state of Israel launched a multifront program (called Brand Israel) to improve its image by convincing the global public that Israel is aligned with progressive values. Consequently, Brand Israel has promoted the idea that Israel is a safe haven for LGBT people in the Middle East. Tactics of Brand Israel include funding LGBT film festivals around the world, sponsoring delegations of Israeli LGBT activists to visit US cities and promoting gay tourism, such as Tel Aviv Pride. Palestinian activists have labeled this strategy “pinkwashing” — meaning that Israel is using its putative support for LGBT people to cover up its human rights abuses, violations of international law and ongoing forcible removal of Palestinians from their lands and homes.

When the time came to begin our protest, we stood in formation, holding signs that read “No Pride in Apartheid” and “Queer Jews for a Free Palestine.” We were full of firm resolve, knowing we carried a four-fold responsibility to take action: as citizens of the US, which funds Israel’s occupation and apartheid regime and blocks international action against Israel; as residents of New York City, whose police department targets and murders our Black and Brown neighbors and collaborates with Israeli security forces, enabling their violent and daily oppression of Palestinians; as people of Jewish ancestry in whose names Israel’s ongoing nakba is committed; and as queer and trans people who are being used to cover all of this up.

Within a few minutes, the Celebrate Israel march’s LGBT contingent rushed us, attempting to force their way through. They and members of the crowd called us “dogs” and “kapos.” Some called us disgusting. Others wished death upon us. Parade participants grabbed our signs. In what can only be understood as a perfect expression of the political contradictions of our movement, some members of the LGBT contingent literally struck us with the poles of their rainbow flags.

As we were pushed and shoved by screaming marchers, members of the NYPD Strategic Response Group swarmed and grabbed us. In our run-throughs leading up to the action, our group discussed the importance of maintaining eye contact as a way to communicate during our action. What I remember most clearly as this chaos enveloped us is the eyes of my fellow protesters. As we repeated our chant of “No pride in apartheid,” it felt we were chanting not just to the crowd, but directly to one another — reminding each other why we were there. I am in awe of the calm and dignity of my comrades, and it is their bright and clear eyes that carried me through to the end.

Some commentators have argued that because JVP is not a specifically LGBT organization, it crossed a line with this action and unfairly targeted a marginalized group. Of course, queer and trans people have long been at the forefront of the movement for justice in Palestine, as we have been in countless other justice movements. At the same time, in supporting this action plan, the leadership of JVP deepened their commitment to its queer and trans members, as well as our queer and trans Palestinian comrades. JVP leadership offered its unqualified support. As queer and trans people, we needed to interrupt this moment of pinkwashing to claim queer space from those who would align it with forces of racism, and to challenge a local police force that harasses and criminalizes queer and trans people of color. Our action emerged from JVP leadership’s recognition and validation of our queer political analysis and their granting to us of a central position in the day.

As queers and Jews, not only is it appropriate for us to challenge members of the communities of which we are a part, it is absolutely necessary.

The contingent organizers, meanwhile, have labeled our action “homophobic” and a hate crime. This is the same as calling Jews who speak out against Israel anti-Semitic — a patently absurd claim that is meant to discredit us rather than engage the actual content of what we are saying or doing. As queers and Jews, not only is it appropriate for us to challenge members of the communities of which we are a part, it is absolutely necessary. Time and again, movements have asked exactly this of us, to begin our organizing in our families and friend circles, to make change where we live and work. This is where any efforts to dismantle colonialism and white supremacy must begin.

In their attempts to discredit our action, contingent organizers have stressed that their group included Orthodox youth who face extreme homophobia within their families and communities. From within the contingent, which seemed to be less than 40 people, we saw only a handful of youth. The director of JQY (Jewish Queer Youth, one of the organizers of the LGBT contingent in the parade) has gone so far as to claim they do not take a political stand on Israel. This is an absurd assertion to make in the middle of a parade convened in express support of Israel by organizations that have condemned the Palestinian movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. Furthermore, contingent co-sponsors included a number of committed right-wing Zionist groups, such as A Wider Bridge and Stand With Us. JQY states their participation in the parade was meant to publicly claim a queer Jewish identity. A celebration of apartheid and occupation is no place to do that.

Some parade participants have expressed a sense of betrayal because we did not reveal our original purpose when we joined their contingent. Again, an open call was posted, and we responded to that call, bringing the conviction of queer and Jewish refusal of apartheid and occupation. We took the necessary action to make our message heard. There is a blackout on voices of dissent in the US regarding Israel. Elected officials criminalize our activism. The corporate media denies or distorts coverage of our movements. Most Jewish organizations silence any criticism of Zionism and Israeli state practices. In such a context, people of conscience have no choice but to take bold action and seize opportunities to bring our messages to the people however we can. This is precisely what we did on Sunday. We claimed space that Palestinians and their allies have been denied.

There is some irony in the fact that a group of peaceful protesters who were taking a principled stand against the violence of the Israeli state and were subsequently pushed, shoved and pummeled by members of the LGBT contingent and the NYPD now find ourselves accused of being violent and creating an unsafe and harmful environment. In fact, our preparation for the action included training in de-escalation and role-plays to deal calmly and safely with exactly the kind of verbal and physical confrontations we experienced. And to be clear, halting a parade is not violence. Holding signs is not violence. Chanting is not violence. To argue so is an insult to those who endure, survive and lose lives to real forms of violence every day, from Black communities killed by police in the US to Palestinians living under a settler-colonial apartheid state. If all those who expressed outrage at our action directed their energy to dismantling actual systems of violent oppression, imagine the world we could bring into being.

We planned this action as a way to step up our commitment to the Palestinian communities that have privileged us with the opportunity to join their struggle and to help embolden our comrades in our fight. I don’t think we expected to find converts in the crowd, but that does not mean we did not offer that. Throughout history and around the world, social movements have used tactics of direct action and civil disobedience to challenge unjust state practices and disrupt the status quo. Political actions such as ours are meant to wake us from complicity. We showed up not only to denounce Israel’s violent settler colonial state and its practices of occupation and apartheid, but also to convey to members of our LGBT and Jewish communities that their participation in the status quo — at best ignoring, and oftentimes directly endorsing Israel’s atrocities — is no longer acceptable.

Part of being a human is facing moments that challenge our assumptions about the world and our places within it. In those moments, we have a choice of how to respond. We can turn inward, shutting out what’s happening and wrapping ourselves in what we already believe to be true. Or we can pause and open ourselves to the invitation to grow and change. I do hope that any youth who participated that day saw that we conducted ourselves with a kind of solidity and serenity that comes from knowing that the risks you take are worth it because you are supporting a movement you believe in with all your heart. I hope youth and any other participants learned that there is dissent within all communities, including our Jewish and LGBT ones. I hope that our action interrupted a story that to be Jewish is to align yourself with the state of Israel, to accept and support the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. And I hope everyone in the LGBT contingent can take this moment to remember that just because we experience oppression as LGBT people does not abdicate us of responsibility for injustices done to other communities, especially when it is done in our names. In fact, when we recognize the links between our various oppressions — between homophobia and racism, for example — we can forge life-saving connections to other communities.

There are real losses when Jewish people take a stand against Israel — often we lose our relationships with family and some of our friends, and maybe even some sense of who we thought we were. But there is so much to be gained, and there is a whole wide world ready to welcome you into its complex, beautiful, difficult, painful and joyous struggle for freedom.