One of the privileges of living in a vibrant Jewish community, such as the one in the city where I reside, Chicago, is that there are always unique programs available. On my own time outside of work, politics and activism haves always been a part of my life, and I do like to attend events that interest me. An important interest of mine is equal rights and the LGBTQ community. I have several friends, some of those who are very close, who happen to be part of that community, and I have been passionate about equality for them for a long time.
I also am a staunch and proud Zionist, as that has run in my family for generations. My great grandfather, Louis Vickar was a rabbi in the Douglas Park neighborhood on the “Vest Side” or the West Side of Chicago and sought to expand rights within the fledgling Chicago Rabbinical Council to balance the modern life of the 1920s and 1930s to fit the laws of Judaism and promoted Zionism as well. My great grandfather also passed that love of Zionism and Israel to my grandmother, and to her son, my father who passed it to me, as well as my younger sister.
When I became a Hillel president at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Ill. in 2006, one of the challenges I encountered was the Boycott Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement. On one occasion, we hosted Israel’s 60th birthday celebration on the Martin Luther King, Jr. Commons, which was an apolitical event. There was Israeli dancing and free food on the Commons. While the event was going on, several members of the Muslim Student Association walked to the other side of the Commons and started protesting and chanting against Israel. There was a tension that day, especially when their chants turned to: “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free” among others. Luckily, a brother in my chapter of Alpha Epsilon Pi (a partner of B’nai B’rith International), went up to them and hilariously engaged the protestors on a common love of falafel and disengaged the BDS protest after 20 minutes. However, this would not be the last time I engaged BDS protesters.
On Jan. 22, I decided to go to an event at the Hilton Chicago Hotel, which was a LGBTQ and allies Shabbat being hosted by “A Wider Bridge” and “Jerusalem Open House” at the Creating Change Conference, hosted by the National LGBTQ Task Force. It is basically the LGBTQ version of the megaconferences we are accustomed to in the Jewish community (B’nai B’rith Policy Forum, AIPAC Policy Conference, etc.). However, the Friday before, the board of the Task Force, which was running the event, sensing a “conflict” disinvited A Wider Bridge and the Jerusalem Open House from participating in the Conference. Several organizations from both the Jewish and the LGBTQ communities monitored the situation, including the Jewish Community Relations Council of Chicago, which B’nai B’rith is a part of, and by the next Tuesday, the groups were reinvited by the Task Force at the behest of the Task Force directors, Sue Hyde and Rea Carey.
I arrived that night to support my colleagues who had suffered enough from BDS. A rabbi from Temple Sholom in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago, Shoshanah Conover, was co-leading the event, and more than 100 people were going to attend. Those in attendance included the Consul General of Israel to the Midwest, Roey Gilad, and high ranking leadership and colleagues of the Jewish Federations in Chicago and Milwaukee, an Illinois state representative amongst many others. The service was fine and very well done; however, in the hallways of the Hilton Chicago, we could hear the familiar voices of BDS chants, along with members of Black Lives Matter Chicago who joined in the protest. More than 200 supporters of the BDS movement chanted those now familiar, hateful chants, “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free,” and “No Justice, No Peace” as well as “Hey hey, ho, ho Pinkwashing has got to go,” and “2, 4, 6, 8, Israel is an apartheid state” as they marched through the lobby, holding signs like “Zionism Sucks” and “US stop funding Israel” among others.
Half the attendees, including the Consul General never made it into the reception, and a few protesters got into the reception and, following the chant “shut it down,” proceeded to indeed shut down the event, first by taking the stage and the microphone, and then walking around the room , yelling and shrieking at attendees who tried to reason with them, and shouting down anyone on the microphone, about Israel’s “pinkwashing,” Chicago police brutality, lies about Israel forcing sterilization of Ethiopian and Palestinian children, and several charges of oppression and outright anti-Semitism from those who ended the event by “heckler’s veto,” as attendee Tony Verona wrote.
It was bad enough that some people left the room in tears.
Colleagues of mine from the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago were literally restraining people from the protest from getting into the room, and I chose to watch a side door to try to not let agitated protestors from getting into the room and causing something bad to happen. The hotel security could not manage to remove the crowd from the narrow hall and did not get into the room itself for 10-30 minutes. The Hilton Chicago Hotel staff eventually had to request support from the Chicago Police Department which had to declare a fire hazard. Attendees of the reception had to leave out of side doors to escape the crowd.
The Task Force on January 25, officially condemned anti-Semitism at the conference, with Director Rea Carey stating “I want to make this crystal clear: the National LGBTQ Task Force wholeheartedly condemns anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic statements made at any Task Force event including our Creating Change Conference. It is unacceptable.” While we applaud the sentiment, steps will need to be put in place to avoid this happening in future years
As we know, BDS is growing on campuses and in certain political elements of the country. While it is not a mainstream majority view, we as the Jewish community have to stand up to it now. Today’s activists in movements such as BDS could very well end up being tomorrow’s policy makers.
B’nai B’rith and the Jewish community at large will continue to reach out to do “Hasbara” or outreach to show why Israel is a beacon of light in the Middle East for its citizens and why it is the leading democracy in an unstable part of the world. We also need to reach out to the younger generations, who are growing in influence in the political movements as well as engaging those who are not traditional “allies” of the Jewish community. If we can do this, the U.S.-Israel relationship can remain bipartisan, and sacrosanct in these unstable times.
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