Israelis carry a gay pride rainbow flag with the Star of David during the annual Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade on July 21, 2016.

Was The Chicago Dyke March Controversy A Misunderstanding, Or Something Worse?

There are a few things that everyone can agree on about what transpired at the Chicago Dyke March last Saturday. Somewhere along the two-mile parade route through the Little Village neighborhood, a discussion began between a group of queer Palestinians and three Jewish women carrying rainbow flags with blue Stars of David in the middle about whether the flags were an expression of Zionism.

The discussion escalated into a heated argument. March organizers intervened and explained that the event was an anti-Zionist and pro-Palestinian space and asked the Jewish women to leave. After a protracted debate, the Jewish women did. The Windy City Times, the city’s LGBTQ paper, reported the incident in its coverage of the march. Then the Internet blew up.

Were the three Jewish women Zionists who promoted the destruction of Palestine? Were they deliberately provoking the march organizers with their flags, which, with their blue stars, bore a resemblance to the Israeli flag? Was the Dyke March Collective anti-Semitic? Was the entire left anti-Semitic? Was it possible to be pro-Israel and also support Palestinian rights? And meanwhile, members of the Dyke March Collective reported that they’d been receiving online rape and death threats.

The Dyke March began in 1996 as an alternative to the city’s main Pride Parade in the Boystown neighborhood, which its organizers, known as the Dyke March Collective, viewed as too male, too white and too corporate. Though many of the marchers are lesbians, the event was intended to be a safe space for anyone who felt marginalized or oppressed.

Laurel Grauer, one of the three women who were ejected this year, has participated in the march for many years, always carrying her flag, which she’d received from Congregation Or Chadash, a now-defunct LGBTQ synagogue. The flag, she said, was a symbol of her intersecting identities as a Jew and, as she puts it, a “Chicago dyke.” In 2015, she began working as the Midwestern director of A Wider Bridge, an organization that encourages cooperation between the LGBTQ communities in the U.S. and Israel. At the 2016 LGBTQ Task Force Creating Change conference, also in Chicago, A Wider Bridge’s presentation was disrupted by protesters who accused the group of “pinkwashing” — using Israel’s support of gay rights as a distraction from its treatment of Palestinians. It was a harbinger of things to come.

Over the past few months, tensions have been rising in the Chicago LGBTQ community over the issues of Jews and Zionism. Stephanie Goldfarb, a social worker with the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, had noticed what she described as “anti-Jewish rhetoric” on the Dyke March’s Instagram and Twitter feeds, and saw a friend vilified by acquaintances in the Collective for making a tallit for her partner, who had recently converted. (The Instagram feed was deleted earlier this month for violating usage terms.) When she tried to confront the Collective on social media, she was blocked. “There are a lot of people on left who don’t realize it is anti-Semitic to tell someone that they’re supporting genocide by supporting a Jewish ritual object,” she explained. Goldfarb had been an active supporter of the march in the past, and her partner had been a member of the Collective, but this year they decided to stay home.

Grauer was also aware of the tensions, but she decided to attend anyway. The evening before the march, she messaged Alexis Martinez, one of the core members of the Dyke March Collective, and asked if she would be protested if she brought her flag. Martinez wrote that she’d remembered seeing Grauer’s flag in previous years and that the march did not support any form of anti-Semitism, though the Collective also took the position of support for a Palestinian state.

The march was full of people who were obviously Jewish. Some wore kippot or t-shirts and buttons with Jewish slogans, and representatives of the Workman’s Circle wore sashes with messages in Yiddish. But Grauer and two other marchers, Eleanor Shoshany Anderson and a woman who preferred not to be identified, began attracting attention for their flags, which other marchers thought resembled the Israeli flag because of the blue Stars of David. “People were making assumptions based on it,” said Grauer. “A woman carrying a Palestinian flag started yelling at us, telling us everything the Star of David is. Tempers flared.”

The march concluded with a rally in Piotrowski Park. Martinez told the Windy City Times in an interview that Grauer and her companions were disrupting the chant “From Palestine to Mexico, border walls have got to go” by substituting “everywhere” for “Palestine.” After about 15 minutes, the Palestinian marchers asked Martinez to intervene.

“[Grauer] tried to make it about the flag,” Martinez told the Windy City Times. “I said, ‘Nobody’s got anything against your flag. Wave it proudly. I am asking you if you’re trying to present a pro-Palestinian, pro-Zionist point-of-view.’ She said that she was proud of her Zionist views and she needed to be able to express them. I told her, ‘This isn’t the format to do that. Either you have to stop or you have to leave.’ They refused.”

In retrospect, Grauer said, she should have recognized that “Zionist” was a loaded word. “Before all this happened, I thought Zionism was one thing, and I’m sure the women at the Dyke March thought Zionism was one thing and people out in the internet ether thought Zionism was one thing. We all think it’s one thing, but it’s not the same thing.”

For Grauer, Zionism means that Israel is a homeland for the Jewish people, but she also recognizes it’s a homeland for others, including Palestinians. She also believes her love of Israel does not mean she always has to approve of its policies. But if she tried to make that distinction—Martinez said she didn’t hear it—it was lost in the shouting. “For the people seeing me with the flag,” Grauer said, “there was only one thing that could be.”

In a statement issued on Tuesday, the Dyke March Collective supplied its own definition of Zionism: “Zionism is an inherently white-supremacist ideology. It is based on the premise that Jewish people have a God-given entitlement to the lands of historic Palestine and the surrounding areas….We recognize that Zionism is not synonymous with Judaism, but instead represents an ideology that uses legacies of Jewish struggle to justify violence.”

After Martinez told Grauer, Shoshany Anderson, and their friend to leave, they continue to argue. The conversation lasted two hours. Members of the pro-Palestinian group Jewish Voice for Peace joined in to relieve Martinez, who had to return to her duties as a march organizer. One of the JVP members, Stephanie Skora, said that Grauer chased after the organizers when they left, and then a bystander joined in the discussion in order to defend the flag-wavers and accuse the Dyke March Collective of anti-Semitism. Skora said she explained repeatedly that the flags weren’t an issue. “They kept asking why the organizers were discriminating against them, because they were Jews? I myself am Jewish. They were making people uncomfortable.”

In a post on Facebook, Shoshany Anderson wrote that she felt criticized for the way she chose to express her Jewishness and that if she’d rolled up her flag, she’d have been allowed to stay. “Yes, Israel exists in a complicated way,” she wrote. “But in this case, it doesn’t matter what Israel does or doesn’t do. This was about being Jewish in public, and I was thrown out for being Jewish, for being the ‘wrong’ kind of Jew, the kind of Jew who shows up with a big Jewish star on a flag.” She left the park sobbing.

The reaction from the internet and social media after the story broke was so rapid and so strong in its accusations of anti-Semitism that Martinez told the Windy City Times that she suspected it had been Grauer and A Wider Bridge’s intention all along to discredit the Dyke March Collective. “I have never seen any member of the Collective make anti-Semitic statements,” she said. “We’re anti-Zionism and people are conflating that into being anti-Semitic. They’re saying that we acted against Jewish queer women and it’s just a complete falsehood.”

The Dyke March Collective has received support from several organizations, including JVP. But the backlash has been more severe. There have been editorials in both the Jewish and mainstream press, including The New York Times, interpreting the incident as a sign that Jews aren’t any more welcome on the left than they are on the alt-right. There have been calls for the city of Chicago to revoke the Collective’s marching permit. An online petition posted by A Wider Bridge, which demanded that the Collective apologize to Grauer and the wider LGBTQ and Jewish communities and sit down for a dialogue with A Wider Bridge and the Anti-Defamation League, has received more than 10,000 signatures. (The Collective did not respond to an e-mailed inquiry from the Forward about whether they would be willing to have such a conversation.)

Many people in the local LGBTQ Jewish communities have been badly shaken. Goldfarb wrote a long Facebook post about her thoughts that went viral. A lawyer who saw it contacted her and asked if she was interested in suing the Dyke March Collective for emotional damages. She was not. “Jews see anti-Semitism and are ready to fight,” she said, “but that’s not what’s going on here.” What is going on, she believes, is not enough direct communication and too many assumptions and people who are unwilling to examine the nuances of other people’s beliefs.

Rabbi Rachel Weiss of the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in suburban Evanston, who is a lesbian, said that she had seen similar conflicts at the intersection of the Jewish and LGBTQ communities; she was previously an associate rabbi at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, an LGBTQ synagogue in New York that has sometimes been at the center of controversy over related issues.

“There are not a lot of spaces in the LGBTQ world or the Jewish world to explore complexities of queer identity, relationships to Israel/Palestine, and the intersections of all of these,” Weiss said. These conversations, she added, can often be painful, largely because they force people to recognize how they have been complicit in the pain and oppression of others, and because they bring up people’s own vulnerabilities. “For Jews, this is not easy to do,” she said. “For LGBTQ people, this is not easy to do. But it’s necessary to improve the way we interact with one another.”

Grauer said she has been going over the events of Saturday again and again in her mind. She and Martinez are part of the same social and philanthropic circles in Chicago; they will have to see each other again eventually. She’s not entirely discouraged. At one point in her argument with Martinez, she asked if Martinez believed that Israel should not exist. Martinez said no, her problem was with the Israeli government.

“I’m a Zionist and love Israel,” Grauer said, “but there are things they do that I don’t agree with, and I try to speak out. Alexis said, ‘I don’t agree with the Israeli government as it is.’ What if we were saying the same thing, but the words got in the way?”

Update, June 30: This article has been updated to clarify Rabbi Rachel Weiss’s relationship with Congregation Beit Simchat Torah.

Aimee Levitt reports regularly on Chicagoland for the Forward. Contact her at feedback@forward.com. Follow her on Twitter, @aimeelevitt.

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