Dyke March Chicago, antisemitism, and a whole lot of disagreement

Here’s what everyone seems to agree on: The 2017 Chicago Dyke March took place on Saturday, June 23, in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood. A group of queer Jews participated in the march, carrying a rainbow flag with a Star of David in the center. There were other queer Jews who also participated in Dyke March, but let’s focus on this one group of flag-carriers for the moment.

The Star of David on a rainbow flag (GETTY)

The Star of David is a six-pointed star, also sometimes called a Jewish Star or Magen David, and has been a symbol of Judaism for centuries. It has also been used as a symbol of Zionism — the movement for and belief in a Jewish homeland in what is now Israel — since the late 1800s. The flag being discussed was not an Israeli flag, but the Israeli flag has the same star, centered and oriented in the same way.

The group carrying this Jewish pride flag was approached by others at Dyke March and asked about their stance on Zionism, and their reason for carrying the flag. The flag-carriers said that they were carrying the flag because they’re proud of their Jewishness and their queerness. They also openly expressed that they were Zionists, and supportive of Israel. Dyke March organizers responded, saying Dyke March is an explicitly anti-Zionist organization — that is, Dyke March Chicago opposes the idea that Jews have a moral or religious right to claim land in or around what is now Israel — and asked the flag-bearers to leave.

As far as I can tell — from news stories, op-eds, and countless Facebook posts — everything else is up for debate.

From Dyke March Chicago’s Facebook Page

According to one narrative, as expressed in Chicago Dyke March’s official statement, this group of Jews was only asked to leave after they “asserted their Zionist stance and support for Israel.” The reason this group was asked to leave had nothing to do with their Judaism, only with their support of Israel and of Zionism. Since Judaism and Zionism are not the same thing, what happened was not antisemitic. LIkewise, this narrative continues, it’s entirely understandable that Palestinian activists and others confused the Star of David on a rainbow flag with the Israeli flag, and it’s understandable that many saw the Star of David itself as a symbol of Israel and the Occupation. [Note: The Occupation is shorthand for the way in which Israel has occupied land since the Six Day War in 1967, particularly in Gaza and the West bank. It may also refer to Jewish settlements in contested areas in or around Israel.]

The view that (for better or worse) the Star of David has become inextricably linked to Israel and the Israeli military is echoed by statements from groups like Jewish Voices for Peace Chicago, which described the flag as “a rainbow flag with a blue Star of David identical in color, size and placement to the one on the Israeli flag” and noted that “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.”

An interview with Alexis Martinez in the Windy City Times, a long-time Chicago activist and Dyke March Organizer, attempted to make that point very clear, saying, “There were Jews there with all kinds of tattoos, bracelets with the Star of David. That was never an issue. It’s being framed that we asked people to leave because of flags. It just isn’t true.”

Other statements of solidarity express the same basic idea: It is possible fight against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land, and to oppose Zionism, without being against Jews or Judaism. Some coverage even went so far as to question the honesty of the Jews who were asked to leave, saying they have “a history of fabrications about attacks against Jews,” and implying the entire confrontation was part of a larger attempt to delegitimize any criticism of Israel.

From Piktochart

Other Jewish activists, allies, mainstream civil rights organizations, traditional news outlets, and more, have put forth a very different narrative. From this perspective, it’s impossible to disconnect the Star of David from Judaism, and asking people to leave for displaying a Jewish symbol is inherently antisemitic. To pick one example of this mindset, the Anti-Defamation League said, in a statement to the Washington Post, “Both the act and the explanation were anti-Semitic, plain and simple.”

People expressing this view may also question why there’s focus specifically on Jews and Israel, when other countries and religions are actively working `to undermine LGBT rights. One participant in the Dyke March, as quoted in the Windy City Times, asked, “Is every nation which does not have a clean civil-rights record and also hosts a pride parade guilty of pink washing? With all the people that so hate the LGBTQ community, for it to tear itself apart in self-hatred makes no sense at all.”

Many of the conversations I’ve seen on Facebook about what happened at Dyke March Chicago eventually have someone chime in along those lines, asking, “Well, why don’t you try to have a Dyke March in Gaza? See how that goes!” Someone else responds with an accusation of pinkwashing, and the whole conversation devolves from there.

From http://www.nopinkwashing.org.uk/

For those unfamiliar with the concept, pinkwashing is the claim that countries like Israel highlight their pro-LGBT positions as a way to distract from other criticisms around civil rights, military actions, public policy, etc. I have not seen evidence that Israel engages in explicit and intentional pinkwashing, where they intentionally frame their LGBT record as a way to distract from other civil rights issues. That said, there is a functional pinkwashing through Israel’s support and promotion of events like LGBT film festivals, Pride parades, and organizations like A Wider Bridge. This is not unique to Israel, even though Israel is the country most often accused of pinkwashing; lots of other countries with imperfect civil rights records (::cough::The United States::cough::) will highlight something that makes them look good as a way to avoid talking about things that make them look bad.

A few large LGBT non-profits have weighed in as well. HRC tweeted that asking people to leave for carrying Jewish pride flags was “not right,” and the Chicago-based Midwest office of Lambda Legal posted to Facebook saying in part “ We are concerned, however, that women carrying rainbow pride flags with the Star of David were questioned about their beliefs and asked to leave. We are even more deeply disturbed by the conversation that has followed the incident, and the anti-Semitic statements that have been expressed in our community’s discussion.”

I’ve also seen people make comparisons between this incident and how other groups or identities are treated. Would a woman wearing a rainbow hijab, they ask, be questioned about her political and religious beliefs? Would someone carrying a rainbow flag with a Christian cross be questioned about their political and religious beliefs? These are hypotheticals, and playing “what if???” can only get us so far. But, looking elsewhere, I’m not aware of any other religious group, who was at a Pride Parade or Dyke March because they supported LGBT rights, being asked to leave because of their political or religious views.

EDIT, 7/16/17: The previous paragraph leaves out an important detail: There was a group of anti-LGBT Christian protesters at Dyke March. According to Chicagoist (and other reports I’ve seen on Facebook), “a small cadre of Christian extremist protesters gathered at the park’s edge, where they chanted homophobic rhetoric until a marching band from Dyke March marched around them and drowned them out.” I do view this as different than asking the Jewish pride flag-holders to leave, in that the group of Christians was not approached or asked to leave specifically for displaying symbols of Christianity; they were asked to leave for anti-LGBT signs and chants. That said, I’m including information about the anti-LGBT Christian protesters for the sake of completeness.

When thinking about what we should learn from this, some use this as an opportunity to more broadly criticise the progressive left as a whole. An op-ed in the New York Times argued that what happened at Dyke March should make us question how we talk about power and privilege, particularly the idea of intersectionality:

“…in practice, intersectionality functions as kind of caste system, in which people are judged according to how much their particular caste has suffered throughout history. Victimhood, in the intersectional way of seeing the world, is akin to sainthood; power and privilege are profane.
By that hierarchy, you might imagine that the Jewish people — enduring yet another wave of anti-Semitism here abroad — should be registered as victims. Not quite.
Why? Largely because of Israel, the Jewish state, which today’s progressives see only as a vehicle for oppression of the Palestinians — no matter that Israel has repeatedly sought to meet Palestinian claims with peaceful compromise, and no matter that progressives hold no other country to the same standard. China may brutalize Buddhists in Tibet and Muslims in Xinjiang, while denying basic rights to the rest of its 1.3 billion citizens, but “woke” activists pushing intersectionality keep mum on all that.”

A similar take, published at the Huffington Post, put it this way: “Zionism is racism? Jews don’t have the same right to national self-determination as others? That attitude is blatant anti-Semitism.”

Credit Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson

So who do we believe? Was what happened a classic example of antisemitism? A number of Jews were asked to leave, at least partially because of how they chose to display the Star of David, a symbol that has been used for centuries to express both Judaism and Jewish identity. In that framing, of course what happened was an example of antisemitism, particularly of growing antisemitism within the progressive left.

Or, was what happened anti-colonialist, anti-Israel, even anti-Zionist, but not about Judaism as a religion? Was what happened an example of political disagreement, but not an example of anti-Jewish bigotry or prejudice? Both Dyke March Chicago as a whole, as well as individual organizers and activists, have attempted to draw that distinction. They maintain that we can and should draw lines between Israel as a country, Zionism as a belief, and Judaism as a religion. They might overlap, they might even be intentionally conflated sometimes, but they are distinct. Most importantly, it is possible to criticize Israel and Zionism without being against Jews or Judaism?

These are not easy questions to answer with simple either/or distinctions. It is entirely possible that the people who approached these Jewish marchers were truly not concerned with their Judaism, and that they were specifically worried about a symbol (the Star of David, centered on a flag) that, to them, represents Israel, the Israeli military, the Occupation, and all the violence and bloodshed those things imply.

It’s also possible that the people who were approached and asked to leave experienced being questioned as an objection to their Jewish identity. Asking people to leave for carrying a flag with a Jewish Star is, at the very least, poor optics. Organizers should have been able to predict what would happen if Jews were asked to leave an LGBT march, regardless of how appropriate that decisions may have been. Likewise, from the perspective of the people who were asked to leave, it might not be possible to separate their Judaism and their Zionism. It’s possible that, to them, saying “Dyke March is anti-Zionist” is the same thing as saying “Dyke March is anti-Jewish.”

Perhaps most confoundingly of all, it’s possible these two conflicting narratives both happened at the same time. That what happened was Dyke March Chicago holding to its anti-violence and anti-colonialist political ideals, not an example of antisemitism. And also, simultaneously, what happened at Dyke March was an example of growing antisemitism within the progressive left; and that asking people to leave because of they define or express their Jewish identity makes all Jews less welcome.

If Not Now Chicago’s statement on the Chicago Dyke March is one of the few pieces I’ve seen that attempts to address this complexity and nuance (emphasis added):

This incident, and the media storm that has surrounded it, bring up once again the need for deeper conversations about antisemitism. Too often, we see conversations about antisemitism reduced to simplistic binaries: Either antisemitism is rampant on the left, or antisemitism couldn’t possibly exist in these spaces. Either antisemitism is on the rise, or antisemitism is a problem of the past. Either criticizing Israel is always antisemitic, or it is never antisemitic.
We seek to reframe this conversation entirely. We know that antisemitism has historically come into play in leftist spaces, just as it has on the right. We know that antisemitism never works alone, but is always operating in conjunction with other forms of oppression: with white supremacy, with Islamophobia, with xenophobia, and with all forms of racial oppression. We know claims of antisemitism are often wielded by those on the reactionary right to drive a wedge between Jews and other oppressed groups. This is particularly true in moments of political and social unrest, when complex conversations and active solidarity are most needed. The ongoing public narrative claiming that intersectionality is somehow a tool to silence and marginalize Jewish voices is a perfect example — it serves to villainize exactly the solidarity and coalition building that help us resist repressive authoritarian governments, resist antisemitism, and build community with other oppressed people.

That’s not a very satisfying answer for those seeking clarity or simplicity. It also doesn’t address the deeper question of who should be ‘allowed’ in progressive spaces. Are people only welcome if they’re anti-Zionist? Should someone be asked to leave if they don’t agree with all of guiding principles of Black Lives Matter? What if they support trans rights, but would never date a trans person? How about if they served in the US military, or are in law enforcement?

More broadly, how can we work with people that agree with us on 90% of our views, but not 100%? What about 80%? 50%? Should we even try to work with people we disagree with?

An obnoxiously cheerful and impressively diverse game of tug of war (iStock)

Almost all of the discussion I’ve seen around the 2017 Chicago Dyke March avoid these questions or ignore them outright. Contributing to this, DMC has been deleting criticism from their Facebook page. I don’t question their right to do this, as they can and should control the discussion on their own page. But I saw DMC deleting comments and questions that were honestly attempting to engage in discussion, treating them no different than comments or questions that were clearly intending to attack DMC or troll their supporters.

Similarly, I have seen people share their own accounts of attending Dyke March — including reports that other, non-Zionist Jews were also asked to stop displaying the Star of David — only to be attacked because they “aren’t supporting the POC leadership of DMC” or for people to claim that they are “spreading false information.” I’ve also spoken privately with people who hesitate to publicly criticize DMC out of fears that they’ll “ousted from the radical queer community.” That thought crossed my mind more than once as I was writing this piece.

On the other hand, there are Jews (and people attempting to be allies) who consider any possible support of DMC — or any questioning of whether or not this incident was antisemitic — as further evidence of antisemitism. This creates its own echo chamber, where any and all criticism, however valid, is seen as further evidence that there’s a vast hidden current of antisemitism in the left and that no further discussion is necessary or productive.

I’m not pretending I know how to enforce civility on the Internet. I also know from experience how horrible it can be to feel attacked online, whether or not the intent of the perceived attacker is truly negative. Layering those modern issues of online communication on top of discussions of colonialism, antisemitism, racism, and all the other -isms of the world only makes things more complicated.

Frustratingly, many people engaged in these discussions don’t seem to see any nuance worth discussing. After all, if Israel is truly an apartheid state (as some claim) then criticizing Israel and its supporters (even if they’re Jewish!) is not only appropriate, it’s a moral imperative. If, on the other hand, Israel is the Jewish homeland and is doing the best it can in a region surrounded by enemies (as others claim) excluding pro-Israeli Jews is clearly antisemitic.

But what if both of those perspectives, and more, are all true at once?

If nothing else, I would like to see a whole lot more questions and a whole lot fewer accusations. Why might a Palestinian activist see the Star of David as a threat? Why might Jews see questioning a flag featuring the Star of David as an attack on Judaism?

I hope this doesn’t come across as making a false equivalency between those two positions, or that I believe that it’s always possible to find a middle ground. Rather, I would like people to be able to take a step back and emotionally empathize with people expressing a different point of view. Even when someone is wrong, simply yelling “you’re wrong!” is unlikely to win them over.

This is also an opportunity for progressive, anti-Zionist Jews (and allies) to really sit down and think: What does it mean to be proudly Jewish and anti-Zionist? This piece makes a compelling and persuasive argument (persuasive to me, anyway) that many anti-Zionist Jews “have no idea who they are or what being Jewish is.” As an anti-Zionist Jew myself, I want to use this incidentas an opportunity to better understand myself, my political position, and my identity as a Jew.

Finally, I would like to see more forward thinking about what comes next, and less hand-wringing about what happened at Dyke March. Let’s reframe this conversation to be about what should have happened, and what we would want to happen in the future. With that in mind, I’ll leave you with the questions that have been bouncing around my head, none of which I see as having satisfying or concrete answers.

Is it possible to criticize someone for celebrating their Judaism, without being antisemitic? What if that Judaism is inextricably linked to Zionism and support for Israel?

Is it possible to share space with someone you disagree with? How much overlap of beliefs or goals does their need to be for a coalition to hold, or for individuals to maintain solidarity with each other?

Should I silence myself if my voice makes you uncomfortable?

Should you silence yourself if your objection makes me feel attacked?

How do we make the impossible into the possible?

And last, but certainly not least, where do we go from here?

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