Online Extra: Political Notes:
Gay Jews say critiques of Israel
don't make them anti-Zionist
by Matthew S. Bajko
Perhaps no other issue on the world stage is as polarizing as the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestinians over the creation of a Palestinian state. The issue is particularly divisive among the Bay Area's LGBT Jewish community.
Many queer Jews in the San Francisco region are vocal critics of Israel's policy toward building in the disputed West Bank and East Jerusalem territories; construction of a wall dividing Jewish and Palestinian neighborhoods; and its actions during the most recent military fighting in Gaza, of which both sides were accused of committing war crimes.
Tensions have ratcheted up lately as President Barack Obama has taken a more muscular stance toward the Israeli government. He has demanded that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu halt construction of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem, which the U.S. sees as the capital for a future Palestinian state. During a visit to Washington, D.C. last week, Netanyahu defended Israel's right to build in the area.
As the dispute heats up and further strains attempts to find a durable Middle East peace agreement, gay Jews in the U.S. who raise objections to Israeli policies find themselves on the defensive, accused of being against Israel.
But many argue they can be both pro-Zionist and questioning of Israel. So was the message during a panel talk last week billed as a first-of-its-kind discussion on "Queer Perspectives on Zionism."
"I am proud to call myself a Zionist. I firmly believe the Jewish people deserve a state like Israel. LGBT Jews have a big stake in that project," said Arthur Slepian, a former president of Congregation Sha'ar Zahav, the LGBT synagogue in the Castro, and founder of A Wider Bridge, which aims to encourage LGBT Jews in America to take a stronger interest in Israel. "Whether we like it or not, it is going to be a part of how all of us are judged."
But Slepian objected to the current state of affairs where one must either believe Israel can do no wrong or Israel can do no right.
"Most LGBT Jews are looking for an alternative," said Slepian. "I may support Israel but I come with major concerns and questions."
Rabbi Sydney Mintz at Temple Emanu-El, San Francisco's largest synagogue with 6,000 members, said her being a lesbian who supports Israel does not negate her speaking out against what she sees as misguided policies from the Israeli government.
"I believe the Palestinians should have their own state and independence," said Mintz, adding that at the same time, "We can be queer Zionists."
However, Einat Wilf, a Labor Party member of the Knesset in Israel who is straight, said there is a limit to her acceptance of Israel's U.S. critics. She said many do not want to see an Israeli state.
"The conflict is also a conflict of values. When someone tells us to integrate into the rest of the region and that we can't be a western outpost in the Middle East, what am I supposed to be integrated into?" asked Wilf. "I am an emancipated, free woman. We have very different values of what it means to be an open society.
"The one thing I can say about Israel is it tries," added Wilf. "It keeps trying to be in the forefront. That can't be said about many other societies, certainly not about those around Israel for miles and miles."
The panel was part of the monthlong Out in Israel LGBT Culture Festival being presented by the Consulate General of Israel to the Pacific Northwest. Believed to be the first time another country has hosted an LGBT cultural festival in the U.S., the San Francisco-based diplomatic office has faced criticism that it is trying to "pink wash" Israel's actions toward Palestinians by changing the subject to LGBT rights.
Consul General Akiva Tor bristles at the allegations, saying nothing more could be further from the truth.
"Truly, that is not what we are doing here," he told the audience of nearly 70 people at the Roxie Theater in the Mission last Thursday, April 15. "Not to do it would be a form of cultural suppression."
Tor wanted the panel on queer Zionism to be a part of the discussion because of his surprise at seeing how vocally critical the Bay Area's LGBT Jewish community has been of Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians.
"With this panel I hope we will investigate a conundrum I feel internally. Some of Israel's sharpest critics are within the LGBT community, which I do not understand fully," said Tor.
One woman who did not give her name during the question and answer segment of the talk defended her being what she labeled an "LGBT anti-occupation activist."
"I see a great moral crime being committed by my own people so I stand up to it," she said.
Yet Israel's most vocal critics on the far-left within the Jewish community refused to take part in the panel, admitted the consulate and the panel's moderator, Jay Michaelson, a writer and queer activist who has been pointed in his critiques of Israel's actions in the West Bank and Gaza.
One panelist who had agreed to appear pulled out days prior while others declined to participate for fear they would lose their jobs or government funding for their programs if they aired their grievances and opinions in public, said the organizers
"We are not as broad a range of opinions as we would have liked," acknowledged Michaelson.
The festival continues all month. For a schedule of events, visit www.outinisraelsf.org.
Gays split support in lt. gov race
The intra-party June primary fight between Democrats Gavin Newsom, San Francisco's mayor, and Los Angeles City Councilmember Janice Hahn in the lieutenant governor race continues to divide the state's LGBT voters.
As the Bay Area Reporter has been reporting over the last month, both online and in the paper, the race has split LGBT Democrats, and upended the normal north/south divide in the state. Newsom has made inroads into Hahn's base of support in her hometown.
Most recently he has received endorsements from West Hollywood Mayor Pro Tem John Duran and Eric Bauman, chairman of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party and co-vice chair of the California Democratic Party. He also earned the support last month of the state's Assembly Speaker John A. Perez (D-Los Angeles).
Joining Hahn's list of supporters recently was Cathedral City Councilmember Greg Pettis and West Hollywood City Councilmember Jeffrey Prang.
Former state Senator Sheila James Kuehl of Los Angeles not only endorsed Hahn, as the Political Notes reported last week, she dual endorsed in the race. But to date none of the endorsement announcements from Newsom's campaign has included her among his list of endorsers.
Jason Kinney, a consultant on Newsom's campaign with the Sacramento-based firm California Strategies LLC, did not respond to a question from the B.A.R. as to why her name has been left off the statements sent to the media.
In an e-mail Kuehl sent to local Democratic Party activist Paul Hogarth, she wrote that "I've endorsed them both, Janice just got the announcement out more quickly. My endorsement means that a candidate has been good on all my key issues, health care, civil rights, the poor."
Meanwhile, in his column last week in San Diego's Gay and Lesbian Times, Nicole Murray-Ramirez chastised the heavily LGBT San Diego Democratic Club for backing Hahn over Newsom in the race.
"If any public official has earned the support and loyalty of the GLBT community statewide, it's definitely Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco. His leadership and dedication to the issue of marriage equality cannot be touched by any other elected official," wrote Murray-Ramirez. "Even state Sen. Dean Florez dropped out of the race and endorsed Newsom as did U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. SDDC is all wrong in its endorsement."
At last weekend's state Democratic convention, neither Newsom nor Hahn received enough votes for the party's endorsement in the race.
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Got a tip on LGBT politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 861-5019 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.