In the last few weeks, controversy has erupted about events on the Chicago Dyke March, held on 24 June. Colin Wilson argues that we should stand in solidarity with the march’s organisers.
The Dyke March has taken place annually for over twenty years as an alternative to a Pride Parade as its founders believed was too white, too male and too corporate. This year, three Jewish women were asked to leave the rally at the end of the march: they were carrying rainbow flags with blue Stars of David in the middle.
Accusations of antisemitism were made in the following days in a range of mainstream media outlets, as well as in LGBT and Jewish publications. The Washington Blade ran an article headlined “Dyke March aims for safe space for all — unless you’re Jewish”. Time’s article was headed “Anti-Semitism Is Creeping Into Progressivism”. Members of the Dyke March Collective, the ten-strong group which runs the event, received threats of rape and murder.
However, the response of the collective, supported by Jewish groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now, has made clear that the dispute which led to the individuals being asked to leave was not about them being Jewish. As a statement by Jewish Voice for Peace Chicago explained, “Many other Jews, including members of Jewish Voice for Peace Chicago, were present at Dyke March wearing Jewish symbols, including Stars of David, t-shirts with Hebrew, kippot, and sashes with Yiddish script, and none of them were asked to leave the event, interrogated about their politics, or were the target of any complaints because of their visible Jewish presence.”
The dispute, rather, was about the women’s vocal support for Israel. Dyke March is an anti-racist and pro-Palestinian event. The Dyke March Collective’s statement on the events explains that the people they later removed were disrupting pro-Palestine chants – “replacing the word ‘Palestine’ with ‘everywhere,’ saying: ‘From everywhere to Mexico, border walls have got to go.’” Even after this had happened, organisers sought to reduce tensions so the pro-Israel marchers could remain at the event, rather than asking them to leave at once – the expulsion happened at the rally after the two-mile march was over.
The people concerned, it turned out, were far from being politically naive. Laurel Grauer, one of the people expelled from the rally, is Regional Director of A Wider Bridge, an Israel advocacy organisation. A Wider Bridge’s activities are typical of what has become known as “pinkwashing” –the cynical use of claims about Israel’s record on LGBT issues to divert attention from its crimes against Palestinians. Anti-pinkwashing activist Dean Spade describes the organisation’s activities as follows:
A Wider Bridge aims to connect LGBT people in the US with Israel and promote the image of Israel as an LGBT tourism destination. It coordinates tours funded by the Israeli Consulate bringing LGBT Israelis to the US to talk about gay politics in Israel, it hosted a conference with many US LGBT leaders last summer in Israel and had those leaders participate in Gay Pride in Tel Aviv, it promotes Israeli-government funded films that portray Israel as a haven for gay rights in which Palestinians seek refuge, and it brings tours of LGBT people from the US to Israel.
Nor is the Dyke March controversy the first time A Wider Bridge has faced opposition in Chicago. In January 2016, there were protests when the organisation tried to hold a reception at Creating Change, a national LGBT conference. Two hundred pro-Palestine activists marched around the venue and got the event closed down.
The track record of A Wider Bridge makes it impossible to believe Laurel Grauer’s account of events – that the dispute on the Dyke March was essentially the result of a misunderstanding. Grauer knew that the march was going to call for a “free Palestine”, but claimed she didn’t see this as contradicting her support for Israel because she supports a “two-state solution” in which a Palestinian state would live in harmony alongside Israel. The thinness of this excuse makes equally unbelievable her claim that she was present in a personal capacity, not as a Wider Bridge staff member.
It’s for this reason that the response of anti-occupation Jewish group If Not Now stated that they found it “deeply distressing… to see our fellow American Jews… wilfully spreading harmful misinformation” and that, while it was initially suggested that women had been expelled from the rally for carrying the Star of David, those “initial reports were false”. Alexis Martinez of the Dyke March Collective went further in an interview with local alternative paper Windy City Times:
This was not just some isolated incident. This was orchestrated to smear the Dyke March Collective. A Wider Bridge has a history of going after LGBT groups that are anti-Zionist. They’re well-funded, highly coordinated and use media tools to stifle any criticism of the State of Israel. Her story was totally false.
Indeed, Martinez asserts that A Wider Bridge came to the event with the intention of provoking an incident which they could then claim demonstrated antisemitism– a belief she holds because “the media and social media outrage was almost instantaneous and we got hit from every possible site and angle.”
The events on the Dyke March, an event led by people of colour, have to been understood in the broader context of American radical politics. The last few years have seen the growth of Black Lives Matter and a heightened awareness of racism. That awareness has included racism in the LGBT community – a report in Philadelphia in January found that racism was commonplace in the city’s gay district, and this June the city added black and brown stripes to the rainbow flag to recognise people of colour. Radical activists have stressed the importance of politics which relates to the totality of people’s lives, including class, gender, race, sexuality and gender identity. At a personal level, many leading figures in Black Lives Matter were queer, and many of the protestors against A Wider Bridge at Creating Change were people of colour.
At the same time, attitudes to Israel within the US are changing. One opinion poll, for example, has found that among people born after 1980, support for the Palestinians has increased three-fold since 2006. This change in attitudes to Israel is also happening among American Jews – as reflected by the establishment of Jewish Voice for Peace in 1996 and of IfNotNow in 2014, when the group organised Mourner’s Kaddish actions in American cities to lament the loss of both Israeli and Palestinian life. Meanwhile, support for the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions has been growing on American campuses, with further support from churches and trade unionists. And many young Americans of colour see similarities between militarised, racist policing in their own country and the oppression of Palestinians under Israeli apartheid. These developments mean that Israel and its supporters have come to see opposition to BDS as a crucial battle.
The principal tactic of Israel and its supporters in that battle is to associate opposition to Israel with antisemitism. One good example is that of Canary Mission an anonymously run pro-Israel website which lists the details of hundreds of Palestine activists on American campuses. The aim is to ensure that, when a student graduates and looks for a job, and a prospective employer googles their name, that name will appear on a website accusing the applicant of antisemitism and links to terrorism. Similar attacks have been made against academics. Sarah Schulman, a professor at City University of New York, was presented in March 2016 with a 14-page list of allegations. She commented:
they went after the student group to which I am the faculty advisor, Students for Justice in Palestine at the College of Staten Island. We systematically went through all of the accusations, ALL of which were fabricated or absurd. For example, SJP was accused of drawing swastikas on the walls of our college. However there is no record of such an incident ever taking place. There is no incident report of anyone ever doing such a thing at CSI, even the president of the college does not recall this ever happening.
Similar smear campaigns have targeted other pro-Palestinian academics in America. And in Britain, of course, we’ve seen accusations of anti-Semitism used in a cynical and manipulative way to undermine the position of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party.
There’s a similar cynicism in the response to the Dyke March controversy. Time’s article claims that there exists “a trend of creeping anti-Semitism among some segments of the political left.” Yet it says nothing about genuine anti-Semites with huge power in American society – such as those in the White House. Statements made by the ex-wife of Steve Bannon, Trump’s Chief Strategist and a key figure in the so-called “alt-right”, made clear his views about the right school for their daughters – Bannon “didn’t want the girls going to school with Jews” because Jews “raise their kids to be ‘whiny brats’”.
This broader context, as well as the facts about what happened on 24 June, means we have to stand squarely in solidarity with the Chicago Dyke March Collective. We need to reject attempts to brand support for Palestine as antisemitism – and we need to fight the real anti-Semites, not fake ones.