Jewish queer youth are a vulnerable population of Jews being unfairly targeted for Disruption and sabotage by an organization called Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). While it is important to counter the distortions and dishonesty disseminated about the group’s disruptions at the Celebrate Israel Parade (and I will below), it is far more urgent to unpack what this means going forward. JVP has made it clear that they intend to continue harassing us and vandalizing our future programming. This threat puts one of the most at-risk cohorts of the Jewish Community, LGBTQ youth from religious families, in even more danger.
My name is Mordechai Levovitz. I am a social worker and Executive Director of JQY, an organization that supports and advocates on behalf of at-risk LGBTQ Jewish youth from religious families. We run a weekly Drop-In Center where LGBTQ teens facing rejection in their communities can come to find a safe space, a hot kosher meal, access to counseling, HIV testing and an opportunity to meet other young people like themselves. Our intake interviews reveal that over half of our young participants have attempted suicide. Yet despite these hardships, at JQY, these teens learn to rebuild their self esteem and regain the belief that their whole selves have a valued place in the Jewish Community.
On Sunday, that healing process was sabotaged by a group so blinded by their obsession with one vulnerable minority that they were willing to trample on another. In their leadership’s own words, Jewish Voice For Peace protesters “targeted the LGBTQ Jewish contingent” of the Celebrate Israel Parade for an action they call “Deadly Exchange.” At least seven JVP protesters secretly infiltrated our marching group pretending to be part of our cluster. They took our t-shirts, ate our rainbow bagels, and befriended our teens under fake personas.
As our group reached 72nd street, one of the protesters lunged at the speaker system trying to break it and kill our music. Suddenly the other JVP protesters revealed their red “Deadly Encounter” shirts and formed a human chain in front of our group. They proceeded to block our banners with their own anti-Israel signs, physically preventing us from moving forward. They began screaming at us at the top of their lungs, and when some of our marchers tried to move forward, they were were pushed, shoved and clobbered by the banners. Almost 30 armed cops poured into the parade route causing momentary chaos, but eventually five of the JVP disruptors were captured and arrested. Half of the marching group ran away in fear, and the other half regrouped and completed the parade route.
Plain and simple, our LGBTQ community marching group was specifically targeted, infiltrated and sabotaged by JVP. What’s worse was that even after it became clear that our cluster was made up of predominantly at-risk LGBTQ youth, Jewish Voice for Peace not only refused to apologize for targeting this vulnerable population; they gleefully boasted about it. When asked by Tablet Magazine whether or not it would have made a difference if the organization knew the number of minors that were in the group, and the extent of the vulnerability of the population, JVP’s Executive Director Rebecca Vilkomerson said, “No, we were just targeting the LGBT contingent [in general].” In my own conversations with JVP board member Seth Morisson, he asserted that “We take pride in targeting the entire LGBTQ contingent that happened to include your organization. We have no intention of apologizing for fulfilling our mission.”
When I asked Morrison on Facebook why, if all groups were equally celebrating Israel, JVP decided to target the LGBTQ contingent, Morrison replied that “since you chose to march as LGBTQ Supporters of Israel, you branded yourself, you could have marched in any other part of the parade.” Precisely. JVP targeted us because we had the audacity to march openly as LGBTQ. We were singled out and punished for being honest about our sexual orientations and gender identities. For JVP, if you simply identify as LGBTQ and celebrate Israel, you are subject to special disruption. There is a word for that kind of prejudice: Homophobia. Can you imagine if a non Jewish organization especially targeted Jews for disruption? It would not matter if there happened to be Jewish people working in that organization. If any right-wing organization admitted to targeting LGBTQ people for disruption, we would call them a “hate group.”
In an article defending the JVP action, Rabbi Alissa Wise calls the condemnation of JVP “hyperbolic.” She downplays the incident’s effect on LGBTQ Jewish youth. The nonchalance in her description of the events exemplify an unbelievable lack of empathy. It is truly ironic that in trying to amplify the struggle of one oppressed minority, this rabbi feels the need to minimize the suffering of another. Wise seems completely tone deaf to the greater context in which this act of LGBTQ sabotage took place. This is the one year anniversary of the attack against queers in Orlando’s Pulse Night club. It’s been two years since the stabbing of 16 year old Shira Banky at the Jerusalem Pride parade. Queer bodies have been particularly under attack in public spaces. Yet Wise completely misses (or ignores) the kind of trauma that JVP’s action had on LGBTQ Jewish youth marching that day.
Rabbi Wise insists that JVP did not target LGBTQ youth in this action. She argues that youth were only a small part of a more nefarious LGBTQ Israel propaganda contingent. She falsely claims that the organization “A Wider Bridge” was a group in our cluster, even though the truth is that they only helped sponsor the t-shirts and were not officially marching with us. She conveniently leaves out that the other only other two groups marching with JQY that Sunday was Keshet’s teen program of Mosaic Westchester and Eshel, an organization for LGBTQ Orthodox Jews, another particularly at-risk population. Aren’t activists at least required to do their due diligence before a disruptive action? Evidently, either they are misrepresenting the truth or it’s the case that neither Rabbi Wise, nor Jewish Voice for Peace, did any research into the group they had planned a direct action against.
Any responsible research into the LGBTQ contingent at this parade would have revealed that the very existence of this cluster was the work of LGBTQ teens. In 2012, JQY teens fought hard to be included in the parade and overturned a 20 year ban on LGBTQ inclusion. Jewish Queer Youth organize each year to get speakers, t-shirts, banners and even rainbow bagels. It is true that there are organizations that help sponsor this effort, but the contingent is predominantly run by incredibly brave youth. They meet at JQY’s weekly Drop-In Center and encourage those who are newly out to join them march. Marching is an act of incredible courage for these teens because the audience is predominantly made up of orthodox families; often from the very communities that rejected them.
For these youth, marching in the parade is the farthest thing from justifying any Israeli policy. They grew up going to this parade and participating is more about feeling that they belong in this community. Celebrating Israel (the 3000 year old country, not the 69 year old State) is part of their heritage, culture and years of everyday ritual. Being able to Celebrate Israel as openly LGBTQ Jews is part of their process of rebuilding collective self esteem. From a clinical perspective you meet the client where they are. The intervention of collective self esteem is the currently the hallmark approach in healing the stress, shame, and wounds that come along with being a minority.
JVP seeks to deny this essential therapeutic tool for at-risk LGBTQ Jews from Orthodox families. They are committed to disrupting all LGBTQ programs, even support resources, that suggest Israel can be seen in any light but negative. They see any activity that involves LGBTQ people embracing Israel as part of one’s heritage, as part of a “pink washing” plot that Israel is using to distract the world from human rights violations. However, this approach makes no sense. Even if is true that some Zionists exploit the LGBTQ community for their own benefit, that’s all the more reason NOT to further sabotage an already exploited community. Why would JVP single out and punish a population that they admit is being mistreated?
I have been an activist for over 20 years and I know that one of the basic tenets of nonviolent disruption is not to target the weak. The tactic of Direct Action that Rabbi Wise speaks so highly of in her article, is meant to be used against the powerful and the privileged. Targeting oppressed populations is cruel and counterproductive to social justice causes. Rabbi Wise, Direct Action can indeed be holy, but that is why we need to be careful not to defile this tool by using it to hurt the vulnerable and the powerless.
As we look forward it is clear that Jewish Voice For Peace is abandoning all ethics of responsible activism. They have rededicated themselves to targeting and disrupting any and all LGBTQ Jewish programming that they find unacceptable. LGBTQ Jewish support programming is at risk for sabotage. Now that JQY has been brandished as Zionist propagandizers by JVP, no event seems safe. We are planning for our march in the upcoming LGBTQ Pride parade but have to take into account that JVP may decide to sabotage that contingent too because our flags are rainbow stars of david that they deem a form of pink-washing and homonationalism. Their approach threatens to disrupt our JQY weekly LGBTQ Drop-In center programming because we sometimes invite LGBTQ Israelis to share their stories. Their ideology means our JQY holiday programming is at risk to be sabotaged because most of traditional Jewish holidays are rooted in celebrating Israel.
Where does it end? Must at-risk LGBTQ Jewish youth from religious homes live under constant threat of Jewish Voice Peace? JQY is the only organization in New York that tailors its support resources for at-risk LGBTQ Jews from religious homes. We are a tiny organization with hardly enough money to keep our Drop-In Center open, how can we alone combat the constant risk of sabotage by a much larger militant non-LGBTQ Jewish organization like JVP? How can we assure any vulnerable LGBTQ teen a safe space under this hostility? We need to make it stop, but we can not do it alone.
So I turn to you Jewish Community. What is a community for if not to protect its most vulnerable members? We need you to not only condemn the actions of Jewish Voice for Peace, but help to stop them from continuing to target oppressed minorities. We need you to tell JVP that Jewish Queer Youth are off limits.
This is how you can help:
-If you know a JVP leader or member, encourage them to target their direct actions against the powerful and avoid vulnerable communities.
-If you are a JVP activist and are inspired by direct actions in protest of Israel, consider joining more responsible organizations like If Not Now, who limited their Direct Actions on Sunday to organizations with offensive stances, and released a more thoughtful statement about holding sensitivity for LGBTQ Jews.
-If you are a part of a Jewish Institution, ask them to speak out against JVP targeting of LGBTQ Jews, and pledge to protect LGBTQ jewish youth when threatened.
-If you are a Jewish funder, invest in resources that help support and empower at-risk LGBTQ Jewish youth organizations like JQY, so that we have the staff, structure and wherewithal to secure our programming and prevent infiltration and sabotage.
-If you are an LGBTQ Jewish youth, know that you do not have to choose between your Jewish and queer identities. You are free to openly love not only who you choose, but where you come from. Let noone tell you that you can not celebrate your heritage. Finally, always remember that in both the Jewish and the LGBTQ communities, you belong. You belong. YOU BELONG.