There are some things you might expect from a SlutWalk — an annual march designed to bring attention to sexual assault and “rape culture.” You would expect participants to show up in fishnets and tutus and pasties, carrying protest signs and chanting things like “My dress is not a yes!” You would expect that the marchers would attract attention from passersby, especially tourists, and that there might be some conflicts with local law enforcement, particularly if the chants included insults to the police and if the march obstructed traffic. You might even expect arrests. All of these things did, in fact, happen at Saturday’s Chicago SlutWalk.
You would probably not expect loud chants of “Free, free Palestine!” But that happened, too.
The SlutWalk is the latest chapter in a summer of increasing tensions between the city’s Jewish community and some LGBTQ groups. In June, at the Dyke March — a more radical alternative to the city’s main Pride parade — three women had been asked to leave because their rainbow flags emblazoned with Stars of David were supposedly making other marchers uncomfortable. It reminded some Palestinian marchers, the organizers said, of the Israeli flag.
After the story went viral, the Dyke March organizers faced accusations of anti-Semitism, and Chicago Jews began wondering if there was a place for them within the LGBTQ community. In the middle of this, the organizers of SlutWalk declared that, in solidarity with Dyke March, they, too, would be banning Jewish stars from their own march. They later rescinded the ban and said it only applied to nationalistic symbols such as flags; religious symbols would be permitted.
Amanda Berman, a lawyer in New York, had been following the story from afar. She had been participating in progressive politics, including events like SlutWalk, since she was a teenager. She is also the director of legal affairs for the Lawfare Project, a nonprofit that describes itself as “the legal arm of the pro-Israel community.” It upset her that recent public conversations had started to conflate Jews and Israel. “I’m not Israeli,” she said. “I’m not the Israeli government.” She also supported the message of SlutWalk, that women should be able to express their sexuality without fear of harassment or assault. Last week, she formed her own self-described progressive Zionist women’s organization, Zioness, and announced her intention to come to Chicago to march in SlutWalk.
The name Zioness was deliberately chosen to provoke. “Zionism has become a provocative word,” said Lawfare Project executive director Brooke Goldstein, who also came to Chicago to march in SlutWalk. “But Zionism is the civil rights movement of the Jewish people. It’s a sad state of affairs that it’s considered provocative that Jews should be proud of their civil rights.”
Goldstein believed that by marching in SlutWalk, the members of Zioness would be setting a positive example to young Jewish women who felt rejected by progressive politics. They would also be making sure that the Dyke March would not have set a precedent of ejecting Jews.
Other people involved in SlutWalk didn’t interpret Zionism in the same way Berman and Goldstein did. Two days before the march, SlutWalk organizers announced that Zioness would not be welcome.
“SlutWalk Chicago does not support the ‘Zioness progressives’ planning on coming to the walk Saturday,” they wrote. “We at SlutWalk Chicago stand with Jewish people, just as we stand for Palestinian human rights. Those two ideologies can exist in the same realm, and taking a stance against anti-Semitism is not an affirmation of support for the state of Israel and its occupation of Palestine. We oppose all oppressive governments whether they be the United States or Israel, as we recognize these regimes often disproportionately oppress women and femmes. We find it disgusting that any group would appropriate a day dedicated to survivors fighting rape culture in order to promote their own nationalist agenda.”
The post prompted a lengthy and angry debate about the nature of Zionism, whether SlutWalk and the entire left were anti-Semitic and deliberately rejecting Jews, and whether SlutWalk was abandoning its mission of opposing rape culture in favor of opposing Israel. Some insisted the two causes were deeply intertwined.
“Freedom of women is a core value of Judaism,” said Scout Bratt, a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, a pro-Palestinian group. “I’m speaking as an American Jew who stands with Palestine and BDS. There are so many ways in which Israel perpetuates oppression in my name—my Jewish identity and my tax dollars as an American. Israel is a highly-militarized society that is integral to gender-based violence.”
Members of JVP also argued that Berman and Goldstein were not as progressive as they claimed, since the Lawfare Project has received funding from the MZ Foundation, which also funds right-wing Jewish groups like the Zionist Organization of America.
Nonetheless, Zioness insisted it was their legal right to march—“as an American,” said Goldstein, “it is your right as a civilian to stand in a public place, and no other civilian can make you leave”—so on Saturday at noon, they gathered with the rest of the marchers in Lake Shore Park. In contrast to the other marchers, who carried homemade signs, theirs had been professionally printed and featured a Shepard Fairey-style illustration of a woman wearing a very conspicuous Jewish star around her neck. Although the group was only four days old, it had already attracted local supporters.
“This is an important time,” said one of them, Nate Stender. “We can’t afford to say, ‘If you’re not with us, you’re against us.’ I’ve been a feminist my entire life. I’ve been a Zionist since my political awakening. It’s only since 2017 that I’ve been told I can’t be both.”
As the rally began, with speeches two African-American queer activists in support of incarcerated black women and sex workers, the Zioness marchers stood behind the makeshift stage, holding their signs high so that it would be impossible to miss them. Other marchers attempted to block the signs with red umbrellas, the international symbol of sex worker rights. The Zioness marchers moved and dodged, and the red umbrella-holders moved and dodged, too, so the signs would remain blocked. They crowded nearer and nearer to the speakers and made it difficult for other people in the audience to see or hear what was happening. Several people in the crowd, including a woman who held a sign that read “Don’t hijack the march,” were visibly and audibly annoyed.
The SlutWalk organizers maintained that the Zioness contingent was to blame for the chaos.
“They were deliberately being confrontational,” said Red Schulte, one of the organizers. “They were deliberately trying to sabotage us. They were blocking people and shouting over speakers and shouting down supporters who were around.”
The Zioness leaders, naturally, felt otherwise.
“They accused us of hijacking the march,” said Berman. “They came to attack us. When we were walking away, they were chasing us around.” Added Goldstein, “How can you stand for women’s rights and obstruct other women?” Nonetheless, instead of putting an end to the distraction, they kept their signs raised throughout the rally.
Despite SlutWalk organizers’ insistence that Palestinians were only one of the many marginalized groups they supported, the speakers who deliberately addressed the Zionism/Palestinian issue received the most attention and applause. “SlutWalk is partnered against all forms of violence,” said Andy Thayer, a longtime LGBTQ activist and co-founder of the Chicago Gay Liberation Network. “We cannot have a democracy defined by ethnic and religious standards. It’s no accident that members of the Christian right support Zionism.”
Scout Bratt also spoke on behalf of JVP: “As a Jew, I have a responsibility to speak out against the racist and sexist occupation.”
The final speaker, a Palestinian woman identified only as Leilah, declared that no one could be both a Zionist and a feminist because feminism supports all oppressed people, while Zionists are oppressors. “Zionist terrorism led to the Nakba,” she said, referring to the “catastrophe” of the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, when more than 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes. “Zionism means violence for Palestinian women!”
The crowd, with the conspicuous exception of the Zioness contingent, responded with chants of “Free, free Palestine!”
Although the organizers warned the crowd several times that the march would not tolerate antagonistic behavior, no one was asked to leave, said Schulte, the SlutWalk spokesperson. Many of the Zioness protesters left as the march began making its way eastward toward Michigan Avenue, and those who remained joined in the chant of “Survivors! We all stand together!”
After the Zioness contingent left, the march assumed more of the mood and tone typical of a SlutWalk. About 100 people marched down Michigan Avenue chanting slogans decrying the patriarchy, rape culture, and the police, particularly when the officers escorting the marchers refused to let them cross the street because they were obstructing traffic. “You should move for us!” the marchers yelled. Tourists stopped and took pictures, and a few raised their fists in solidarity. (“That’s city living,” one woman commented.)
The number of marchers steadily dwindled, particularly after the group passed Trump Tower, about a mile from the starting point. As the march entered the Loop, police officers warned the marchers not to step in the street. When one did, to avoid a pedestrian as the marchers turned off of State Street, the police arrested her and the others who stepped in to help.
“It was very apparent that the cops were grabbing people they had identified as organizers,” said Schulte. “It happened incredibly fast. All the organizers except two were arrested, and one supporter. It was very deliberate.”
Four of the five detainees were released that same day. The fifth was held overnight, but released on bail the following afternoon. This was the first time, said Schulte, that there had been arrests during SlutWalk.
“The police were aggressive,” she said. “They hate SlutWalk. We’ve always done an amazing job of taking streets. They hate that. They hate that we test boundaries and take up so much space for our demonstration.”
Berman and Goldstein left the march long before the arrests and were unaware of what had happened. They were pleased that they had asserted their right to be at the SlutWalk. People from several other cities had already invited them to come spread their message of progressive Zionism and free speech.
“There are teenage Jewish girls who won’t go out into public demonstrations,” said Goldstein. “There are students who don’t wear stars of David on California campuses. This is America in 2017!”
Denise Sprague, a Chicagoan, had heard about Zioness earlier in the week and met up with the group before the rally. She later overheard some of the Palestinian marchers making disparaging remarks about her Zioness sign. She said she wouldn’t characterize it as harassment, but it made her sad.
“It’s a shame,” she said. “In one way, I was glad to be part of [a larger group]. In another, I wonder if maybe I would have been better off being there as an independent Jewish woman. You want your voice to be heard as a liberal Jewish person. I don’t think any organization should be saying, ‘Jews who believe in Israel shouldn’t be a part of this.’ I find it horrible that this is the state of the world.”