Last year, Israeli adult film star and newly-minted right wing activist Michael Lucas used his financial clout to bar an anti-Israel group from meeting at New York’s LGBT Center. I was one of many who protested: LGBT community centers are meant for the entire community, including groups with whom we may disagree.
But in case we needed a lesson that intolerance exists on the Left as well as the Right, a reciprocal outrage took place last week in Seattle. There, an anti-Israel LGBT activist pressured the city of Seattle’s LGBT Commission to cancel an event featuring three LGBT activists from Israel, scheduled for March 16 at City Hall. I write to protest this action as well. It is unconscionable, reprehensible, and ignorant. And the fact that it was undertaken in the name of fighting oppression, led by transgender activist Dean Spade, makes it even worse.
There are some differences between the two cases. First, the Seattle LGBT Commission’s meeting was in City Hall, not an LGBT community center, and thus conveys a higher level of endorsement of the program’s views. On the other hand, unlike the Siegebusters/Queers Against Israeli Apartheid meeting in New York, this program had absolutely nothing to do with the Israel/Palestine conflict. In fact, I happen to know some of the intended speakers personally, and they happen to hold quite left-wing views on that conflict. This program — one of many coordinated by the American organization A Wider Bridge, seeking to unite LGBT Jews and Israel — was purely about the struggles and successes LGBT people have faced inside green-line Israel.
Now, I know some would object that any discussion of anything having to do with Israel is ipso facto about legitimizing Israel and defending its policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians. But, as I wrote in these pages recently, this is nonsense. A program in London discussing LGBT activism in America has nothing to do with the American war in Afghanistan. A British art exhibit in Los Angeles has nothing to do with the occupation of the Falkland Islands. This was not a political rally. And it had no political agenda relative to the Palestinian conflict outside the fevered brains of some activists who see any discussion of LGBT people in Israel as “pinkwashing” intended to divert attention from the Palestinian issue. Individuals are free to boycott such events, but to use one’s political clout to bar civic institutions from holding them is an outrageous form of censorship and coercion.
To reiterate what I said in that earlier article: Pinkwashing is real. It does exist. There are some people who say that gays should always support Israel because Israel supports gays, and who extend that support to blanket approval of Israel’s policies in the occupied territories. But not every LGBT Israeli program is pinkwashing, and this one made no such claims.
As the aftershocks of the cancellation have reverberated, activists have changed their tune. Now, they say, the issue was that the event was co-sponsored by a right wing group called StandWithUs and the Israeli consulate. Interestingly, a liberal rabbi in Seattle contacted me a month ago with similar concerns. I replied then, and affirm now, that while I disagree strongly with many of StandWithUs’s actions, they were not the producers of the event, and that being part of a coalition means occasionally having strange bedfellows. I usually do not stand with StandWithUs, and it’s possible that they indeed sought to use the Seattle event for their own pinkwashing purposes. But we do not always agree with all our partners in Jewish communal work. Such disagreements do not mean that we can never work together on projects of mutual interest, or that one organization’s involvement poisons the entire affair. Again, one may choose not to support such an event — but this was about silencing it entirely.
At the end of the day, the action in Seattle is more like Michael Lucas’s censorship than different from it. In both cases, activists with strong views successfully barred other people from coming together and sharing information. In neither case was the “information” hate speech or otherwise contemptible; it was simply speech with which the activist in question disagreed. And in both cases, exactly the wrong people were silenced.