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.)

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