Queer Zionists ask: ‘Where are our allies?’
Ahead of Pride Month this year, New Jersey-based trans activist Hannah Simpson reached out to the head of a trans organization to help plan an event. But when she suggested including groups like a Wider Bridge, a non-profit that connects American and Israeli LGBTQ communities, Simpson was booted.
“I was told ‘because you’re a Jew, you support Israel, that’s your job. Jews are wrong about Palestine and have no place in our event,’” Simpson said, paraphrasing the conversation. “When I pointed out that excluding Jews from a pride event was antisemtic, they said, ‘we only work with Jewish groups that denounce Israel.’”
Some LGBTQ and left-leaning activists have long viewed Zionism as incompatible with a progressive mission. In the wake of Israel’s recent conflict with Hamas, and a spike in antisemitism, LGBTQ Jews say the pressure to renounce Zionism has only intensified. Many said they felt too unsafe to be outwardly Zionist at at this year’s pride events.
Though Bryan Bridges-Limon, 48, a marketing strategist in New York, has pushed back against anti-Israel rhetoric from LGBTQ groups in the past and proudly held his rainbow Magen David flag aloft in previous New York pride events, he was reluctant to do so this year.
“We’ve seen people grabbing Israeli flags and Jews being attacked in major cities,” he said. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable with my daughter by my side.”
Ariel Turner-Lipson, 24, has been grappling with his dual identities — queer and Jewish — ever since he came out. But Lipson said the harassment he and other queer Zionists have faced lately has worsened.
When he was younger, the kids at his LGBTQ summer camp targeted him with anti-Zionist taunts while queer peers in his Seattle high school called him “dirty,” “a baby killer,” and a “kike taking part in a genocide.”
A trip to Israel with Reform group Mitzvah Corps when he was 18 years old made him feel “proud to be who I am—Jewish and queer,” said the self-proclaimed ay’lonit, a term for someone who’s born a girl but develops male qualities at puberty.
But Turner-Lipson said his Jewish roommate was attacked last week after the man he was on a date with learned that he was Jewish. The man tried to choke him and shouted the words “dirty Jew rat.” Lipson said his roommate is “doing OK,” but the incident left the two of them shaken.
Other LGBTQ Jews harbor similar fears, but believe that the only way to fight feeling closeted as a gay Zionist is to be seen. That’s one of the reasons, Simpson said she started selling Jewish pride pins, kippot and other accessories on Etsy.
She said she noticed that sales surged during the latest conflict, and perhaps rose too in reaction to the anti-Israel rhetoric of groups like the Chicago Dyke March, whose 2021 poster featured a woman waving burning Israeli and American flags. After an outcry from groups like A Wider Bridge, it modified the poster, but called protests against the original image “censorship.”
A Wider Bridge unveiled a new “inclusive Jewish pride” flag, and a campaign hashtag — #WeRefuseToChoose — to push back against LGBTQ groups that target Zionist members.
A problem within progressivism?
Intersectionality, the idea that all oppressed people’s struggles are interconnected, is embraced by many progressive activists. But Sandy, 23, a trans man who works in theater in New York and asked that his last name not be used for fear of harassment, said it’s been used against him.
“It’s the concept that you can’t separate pieces of yourself and you shouldn’t have to. So I don’t understand why LGBTQ Jews are magically supposed to be able to do this,” he said.
Those who track antisemitism have also noticed how intersectionality can be invoked to exclude Jews. “The idea of ascribing the actions of a country to anybody who identifies as Jewish or Zionist is reprehensible,” said Oren Segal, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. It puts the left’s “intersectional agenda ahead of their concern for their people. That is always unacceptable, especially at a time when Jews are feeling so vulnerable.”
A recent college graduate, Sandy said he was rebuffed by members of a campus trans group after he refused to denounce Israel. Their behavior then prompted him to carry his Jewish pride flag and wear his kippah while advocating for other progressive causes.
“I’m too pro-Israel for the BDS crowd, and I’m too critical of Israel for many in the Jewish community,” said Sandy.
Last month, after a rock was thrown through the front window of Saba’s, his favorite Manhattan kosher pizzeria, he decided to dial back his Jewishness in public. Though he brought a Magen David rainbow pride flag to Sunday’s Queer Liberation March in New York, he never took it out of his backpack “to avoid any altercations.” And while he didn’t mind the many Palestinian flags and slogans surrounding him, he bristled when he heard shouts of “intifada.”
“Supporting Palestine doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive to supporting Israel,” said Sandy. “Calling for Intifada or for the removal of Jews or harm to Jews is past the line for me, just like calling for the removal of or attack on Palestinians is.”
‘Where are our allies?’
Many queer Zionists are frustrated by progressive politicians who, they say, are failing to take a strong stance against antisemitism. Sandy said he was disappointed in Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s outreach to her Jewish constituents following vandalism this spring at synagogues in the Bronx, which he considered meager, and contrasted it to her strong condemnation of Israel during its 11-day clashes with Hamas in May.
His feelings are echoed by other LGBTQ Jews who have championed Black Lives Matter, rallied against the Muslim ban and helped elect progressive Democrats like Ocasio-Cortez. They feel isolated and vulnerable, caught in the crosshairs between left and right.
“I feel sidelined,” says Elizabeth Ziff, a Jewish queer member of feminist trio BETTY. “I’m protesting misogyny, racism, Asian hate, was an AIDS activist, fought against apartheid in South African…where are our allies?” Ziff said.
Though BETTY didn’t perform at this year’s scaled-down pride parade, Ziff draped herself in a rainbow Magen David flag as she always has and marched without incident Sunday and in Saturday’s New York Dyke March, which is not affiliated with the Chicago march.
“No one is taking away my Jewish gay pride,” she said. “When people who are waving the Palestinian flag are screaming ‘rape their daughters and mothers, kill all Jews,’ and shouting other slurs at Jews, that is not about Israel, she said, referring to recent incidents.
Some LGBT Zionists say that progressives’ demonization of Israel stems from a leftist narrative that filters the Middle East conflict through the lens of race in America.
“There’s a false equivalence between Black people in this country and Palestinians” in the Middle East, Sandy said, noting that many BLM organizations in 2016 jointly released a platform that referred to Israel as “an apartheid state” and the occupation as “genocide,” alienated even left-leaning Jewish groups.
“I’ve noticed more Jews willing to say ‘Black Lives Matter,’ but I haven’t noticed a lot of change [within] BLM to connect with Jewish people.”
Sandy said he is still committed to the movement for Black lives and his progressive activism generally. He worries though, that a year after the BLM protests, the increasingly common conflation of Israel with white supremacists will only make things harder for LGBTQ Zionists.
Protecting queer youth
Zac Mordechai Levovitz, founder and clinical director of Jewish Queer Youth (JQY), a nonprofit that advocates for LGBTQ Orthodox, Sephardic and hasidic teenagers, had its rainbow Star of David flag approved ahead of time by the organizers of this month’s Queer Liberation March in New York, just so there wouldn’t be questions later.
JQY had initially hired private security to avert a potential incident like the one it endured four years ago when Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) harassed them at the Salute to Israel Parade. But the group decided it didn’t need private security after parade organizers assigned one of their marshals to JQY.
Though the Free Palestine Contingent of the Parade (sponsored by JVP) met on the same block at the same time as JQY, Levovitz says there was no confrontation this time. “I support many of JVP’s disruptive actions,” says Levovitz, “as long as they target the powerful, not the most vulnerable, like teenagers who were terrified to be out in front of the communities that shunned them.”
He and others say the Jewish community could do more to support LGBTQ youth so they don’t feel so abandoned by the left and the right. The right may be pro-Israel, the ADL’s Segal said, but it promotes a conspiratorial world view that endangers Jews, and is the source of a recent surge of anti-LGBTQ legislation.
Idit Klein, founder and CEO of Keshet, a Boston-based national organization that advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews said she’s been outraged by the recent violent attacks on the Jewish community. “But I can’t overstate the impact of the hundreds of bills that aim to deny rights to trans youth,” she said.
She’s currently lobbying the Jewish community nationally to support passage of the Equality Act, which would obviate the many anti-trans bills filed in 33 states and, she said, assuage the fears of Jewish LGBTQ kids who feel no one has their back.
“Our LGBTQ kids feel personally attacked,” she said.