Friday, August 07, 2009

Report after Monday's Vigil

On Monday night, about one hundred people assembled at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav and then proceeded to the SF LGBT Center in a memorial vigil honoring the young people who were killed and injured in the Tel Aviv LGBT Center last week.

To be honest, I was dreading this event. I needed to mourn – for the youth who were killed, and also for the sense of safety that I lost, years ago, when I first realized that my own LGBTQ youth center was not the safe space I needed it to be. I
worried, though, that I wouldn’t be able to mourn, but would instead be distracted by anger and alienation at the Zionist rhetoric that almost always accompanies any public Jewish event.

I was pleasantly surprised in so many ways.

Monday’s vigil focused entirely on the tragedy of the youths’ lost lives. Speakers from the Jewish community and the broader community emphasized the need to stand up for queer youth in our own communities and worldwide. One speaker talked about creating safety for “all residents” of Tel Aviv – not “all citizens,” as pro-Israel speakers usually say.

Nobody used this event as an excuse to repeat the nonsensical rhetoric of many official Israeli sources, that this level of violence is “unheard of” in Israel. In fact, people hardly mentioned Israel. And that is as it should be – these youth were targeted because they were queer, not because they were Jewish, not because they were Israeli. The organizers of this vigil did an amazing job of keeping Zionist politics out of it, to an extent I have never seen at any Jewish event.

Even the default Jewish event default Israeli flags, which some people seem not even to realize are political symbols, were not as big a presence as I'd expected. There were only two, and one of them was the rainbow version created for this June’s Jews March For Pride contingent– which, despite my dislike for all
national flags and especially this one, I can see the relevance of for this particular vigil.

The vigil brought together groups that rarely share space, much less mourn together. There
were many Jews but also many non-Jews – rare at a Jewish-organized event! There were many congregants from Sha’ar Zahav (a predominantly LGBTQ shul), and also some “unaffiliated” Jews and many Jews from other congregations, including two Chabad rabbis.

Perhaps even more surprising, it brought together people from across the spectrum of political stances on Palestine/Israel. I personally spoke with one representative from SF Voice for Israel and one from IJAN – the right and left poles of SF Jews organizing around Palestine/Israel – and both said the vigil was “really nice.” Voice for Israel and IJAN agreeing on something!? My vision went blurry, I was so surprised at that one. Now, anyone who likes one of those groups probably thinks the other is vile. But still, there are queer folks (or LGB anyway) in both groups, and they all needed a space to mourn these losses. It’s a good thing that our community was able to create a broad enough space, in that moment, to be meaningful for all of us.

This vigil teaches us some important lessons about inter-community organizing, and also raises some important questions for us to grapple with. With less than one day of lead time, a small team pulled together a well-attended, successful, diverse event. We have skills, resources, and a smoothly functioning network to draw on. What can we pull together next?

I have some ideas:
  1. Some of us have wondered, why didn’t the LGBTQ community take the lead on this vigil? Why, worldwide, is it primarily Jewish communities who are mourning this homophobic hate crime? Since many of us are part of secular/gentile LGBTQ communities as well as Jewish communities, we can use our experience with this vigil to make sure that our LGBTQ communities also hone their capacities for rapid, organized, inclusive response.

  2. We can build on the relationships freshly forged to create dialogues, within our Jewish communities, about our varied and complex relationships to Palestine and Israel. There is a moment of opportunity, as the eyes of the global Jewish community are on Jewish queers, for us to leverage an influence we have never had before. On average, LGBTQ Jews and younger Jews are farther left on Palestine/Israel than our straight and/or older counterparts. This week, established community leaders, including rabbis, turned to some young queer Jews for instructions on how to create inclusive community programming. They asked for and followed our advice on how to avoid excluding people like us from Jewish community. They want to hear our concerns and to understand where we’re coming from. When else have Jewish leaders ever invited us to speak and be heard about Palestine/Israel? Let’s take this opportunity!

  3. As much as I appreciated the opportunity to acknowledge this tragedy communally without being distracted by Israel, it is not a coincidence that it happened in Israel. There are connections that need to me made. In a state where practically every man owns a firearm… Where entire ethnic groups are routinely and officially dehumanized and murdered … Where the state uses queers as a tourist attraction without regard for the likely backlash… Where the ultra-Orthodox have disproportionate power in the political system … In a state like Israel, this, or something like this, is always inevitable and ongoing.

    Now that we had a successful community-wide vigil, I would like to create other spaces in which my grief need not be depoliticized. I want to say to fellow mourners that we stand against all violence - including the violent evictions of two Palestinian families from their East Jerusalem homes that took place that same weekend, the violence of drafting children to participate in the murder of other children, the violence against immigrant workers that is widespread and tolerated in Israel and here, and of course, the ongoing horrific violence perpetrated by Israel in Gaza. When I acknowledge and speak out against all those forms of violence, then I am able to mourn more honestly.

  4. And finally, we can use our organizing capacity to build community that is not about Israel or Palestine, but is about our community here and now. Zionism is all about there and someday, about a fantasy of a homogeneous Jewish homeland where we'll somehow magically be safe from everything. To which I say, nisht geshtoygen, nisht gefloygen - this idea does not have wings, never got off the ground. Safety is not built with guns and walls. Instead we need to build safety, home, and family here – wherever we are at – and now – because if not now, when? The more that we can create vibrant, supportive and sustainable communities here, the less people will lean on the idea of there to soothe their fears and insecurities.

I plan to start by buying coffee for a young, queer Jew I’ve never hung out with before, and finding out what that person is thinking and feeling about all this.

How about you?

(This article is cross-posted on indybay.)

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Painful Irony in Tel Aviv LGBT Teen Center Shooting

In their own words, Stand With Us and other Zionist organizations "play gay card"; "Tel Aviv's burgeoning gay scene may be the single most effective Israel-advocacy instrument in the Zionist toolbox."
On Saturday evening, August 1, a shooter (presumably a Jewish Israeli, based on police reports' language, but no confirmation yet) injures 15 and kills 2 (with 3 more in critical condition) in LGBT teen center in Tel Aviv (as reported in Ha'aretz).

The mayor of Tel Aviv says "we will fight for every person's right to live their lives as they see fit."

I wonder what he means by "every person."

The irony makes me furious and scared. Furious at Stand With Us and organizations like it, furious at the shooter, and furious at the Jewish community here in the U.S. for pressuring me to "love Israel," when every bone in my queer body is screaming to run for safety.

(But, oh yeah - youth centers like the one where the shooting took place are exactly where I ran for safety when I needed it. And violence happened there, too. Machine guns are harder to come by in the U.S., but fucked up power dynamics are easy to find. And we did get hurt, in those moldy church-basement youth centers.

I've learned that safe spaces aren't always safe - for Jews, for queers, for anybody. That's because safety isn't a matter of place and walls. Safety has to be made some other way.)

Stand With Us wants you to love Israel. If you love Israel, love it for what's true about it. Not for an ad campaign.

Hey, queer Jews: Do not let them fool you! Israel is no more gay-friendly than any small, non-coastal U.S. city, and is less friendly than most. Don't let Tel Aviv's bar scene trick you into thinking it's some kind of San Francisco. (Not that San Francisco's perfect, either.)

Hey, straight Jews: Talk to your queer Jewish friends. Talk to queers from Israel. Just because Israel can wave a rainbow flag, doesn't make it a friend to the queers. (Remember HRC?)

Hey, queer Jews: Here in the U.S., we are doubly (at least) marginalized. In Israel, Jews are privileged. When Stand With Us says they dig the gays, which gays do you think they mean? When the mayor of Tel Aviv says he'll fight for "every person's right to live their lives as they see fit," do you think "every person" includes Palestinians? Do you really want to ally yourself with people for whom a Palestinian doesn't count as a person?

Hey, queer gentiles: Talk to your queer Jewish friends. Most of us are farther left on Palestine/Israel than you might imagine. Most of us are not fooled by the rainbow flag waving. You can support us best by hearing our concerns about these issues, and making your own thoughtful and informed decisions. To be an ally to the Jewish community, support the Jews you are in community with. This may or may not align with supporting Israel, in general or on any particular issue.

Hey, queer Jews: Check where you're standing! We don't need Tel Aviv to be our queer / Jewish homeland. We have been building homeland and building family wherever we go for generations. Who's your queer / Jewish community, here and now? How will you protect and nurture it? How will it protect and nurture you? How will you make your community what you need it to be?

Hey, everybody: It's not so complicated. Well, okay, it is. But you're smart! Don't let "it's complicated" become an excuse for not having an opinion. Gather information. Share news sources. Exchange perspectives. Listen. Speak. Don't be afraid to say something you might later think is wrong. Don't believe everything you're told. Question. Argue. It's the Jewish thing to do! It's the queer thing to do! And if you're not Jewish or queer ... you know, this is something we've got right. Give it a try. Don't let someone do your thinking for you. Don't let someone else define "home" for you. You gotta do it yourself. We gotta do it together.

(This article is cross-posted on indybay.)