Credit: Wendy Somerson.
Credit: Wendy Somerson.

Tikkun Magazine, July/August 2010

The Intersection of Anti-Occupation and Queer Jewish Organizing

by Wendy Elisheva Somerson

Near the end of the anti-Occupation Passover Seder held by Jewish Voice for Peace in Seattle this spring, I looked around at my community of more than one hundred queer Jews and friends and felt an internal shift. After leading the concluding prayer, I told everybody that only six years ago, I didn't know any other radical Jews with whom to celebrate Pesach. This year, I felt like I was taking a deep nourishing breath after years of shallow breathing. As a queer Jew who is deeply critical of the Israeli government and deeply inspired by Jewish ritual, my desire for both political and spiritual fulfillment was finally being met.

This experience highlighted for me how important it is for radical Jews to create alternative spiritual and political spaces, instead of begging to be let into Jewish institutional spaces that offer us inclusion only when we leave our anti-Occupation politics behind. Similar to how Jewish mainstream organizations welcome us as long as we toe the line on Israel, mainstream GLBT organizations represent us only if we validate heteronormative institutions such as marriage, militarism, and the prison industrial complex. In both movements, we need to create spaces outside of institutions that help us envision a world in which we want to live.

Our chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) provides a model of queer activism grounded in resistance to institutions that promote militarism and state violence. Queer-identified folks make up the majority of JVP-Seattle, which tries to think beyond mainstream Jewish notions of what is "in our best interest" as Jews. We aim to use our Jewish and queer histories of struggle and resistance to become allies to other oppressed groups, including Palestinians.

Refusing to let mainstream Jewish groups speak for us, we reject the disingenuous ways pro-Occupation groups use the notion of Israel as a "gay-friendly oasis" in the Middle East to divert attention away from Israel's brutal occupation of Palestine. As queer Jews, we will not allow the notion of our supposed safety as both Jews and queers to blind us to the oppression of others.

As queers, we also hold a broad vision of what is in our "best interests" and insist on working from the intersection of queerness with other identities. Mainstream GLBT rights organizations increasingly clamor for GLBT folks to be let into heteronormative mainstream institutions by pouring their energy and resources into legalizing gay marriage, passing hate crimes legislation, and insisting on our "right" to serve in the military. Instead of knocking on the doors of these notoriously oppressive and homophobic institutions, where so many folks experience abuse, we need to start creating alternative ways to validate relationships, create accountability, and challenge nationalist militarism within our communities.

Challenging a Pro-Occupation Rally

The summer of 2006 was difficult for many Jews in Seattle, both because of escalating aggression by the Israeli government against Gaza and Lebanon and because of shootings at the Jewish Federation. At a Stand with Israel rally that summer, one week prior to the shootings, a handful of queer Jews brought an alternative voice to the unconditional support for Israeli military aggression. On a hot summer day, we entered the park with signs that said, "As a Jew, I cannot support bombing civilians" and "Judaism taught me to question the justification of war for peace." When we tried to join the rally, we were stopped by the police. We were told we couldn't enter the rally with our signs, yet most folks in the rally carried signs, just ones with different messages. It was increasingly frustrating to be told that we were welcome at the rally only if we left part of ourselves behind.         

The police didn't know how to deal with us because we were Jewish protesters. They were told to keep protesters out, but many of us had been invited to the rally by our congregations. Did we belong inside or outside? Finally, several of us just walked into the rally and sat under a tree with our signs. The police left us alone, but various folks at the rally were infuriated by our presence: some insisted that we leave; some tried to talk with us; many yelled at us, calling us traitors and self-hating Jews. We were told that if we lived in an Arab country, they would cut off our heads for being "homosexual." Some teenage boys wanted to stand next to us with signs that said "I'm with stupid" and take our pictures. It was overwhelming and sad for all of us; I had just started to develop connections in a local GLBT-friendly synagogue, which helped sponsor the rally, and I felt the immediate effect of this political rift.                   

When the rally came to an end, we stood on a hill near the exit singing peace songs in Hebrew, which proved to be our most effective strategy. As folks left the rally, they saw queer Jews with pro-justice signs, but they heard us singing songs with which they were very familiar. Glancing up at us, they could no longer pretend we were only outsiders, and many of them unconsciously starting singing the songs. Singing "Loy Yisa Goi," I felt connected to my fellow protesters and rooted in the Jewish tradition of challenging the status quo. It was a small glimpse into the power of creating a Jewish cultural space to call our own.

The Impact of Anti-Semitic Violence

Just five days later, when I was out of town on vacation, I got a call from a friend who told me that an armed man had entered the Jewish Federation in Seattle and shot six women who worked there. Killing one and wounding five, he said that he was "angry at Israel." Shocked and disoriented, I kept hearing from my Jewish friends in Seattle about how upset, scared, and isolated they felt.               

Devastated by the shootings, I was also scared to publicly mourn the anti-Semitism that led to the shootings, for fear that our mourning would be used to promote Israeli nationalism.

The rally and the shootings seem intimately connected. The Stand with Israel rally demonstrates the attempts of mainstream Jewish communities to provide one unified outlook on Israel—one that is sadly based on fear. Many of us grew up hearing about our Jewish history of trauma and persecution and believing that our personal safety depended on the safety of the State of Israel. Unable to recognize our relative security and privilege, particularly in Israel and the United States, many of us can only see our vulnerability as Jews, not the vulnerability of Palestinians in the current Middle East.

Holding onto fear so tightly, some Jews hear any questioning of the Israeli government's actions as anti-Semitic. Some of us believe that we need the State of Israel as a safe space when anti-Semitism rears its head. An incident such as the shootings simply reaffirms this need for many Jews. Many non-Jews, angry at Israel's brutal occupation of Palestine, blame all Jews for the actions of the Israeli government and do not recognize the Jewish history of persecution that led to the formation of the State of Israel.

Countering the Occupation and Anti-Semitism

During the High Holy Days that autumn, the Seattle chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace held a ceremony to help build awareness about the complicated intersection of anti-Semitism and anti-Occupation work. On a beautiful sunny day near Lake Washington, we led a Tashlich L'Tzedek—a social justice casting-off ceremony. We decided to cast off the sins of the Occupation, naming each sin as we threw our rocks into the lake.

During the second half of the ceremony, non-Jewish allies led other non-Jews in casting off the sins of anti-Semitism, including ignorance about Jewish history and historical trauma, not speaking up against anti-Semitism, and equating all Jews with the policies of the Israeli government.

By linking the two portions of the ceremony, we were making a connection between the struggle to end the Occupation and the struggle against anti-Semitism. Supporters of the Israeli government use any insensitivity toward Jews to discredit the anti-Occupation movement and justify the continued oppression of Palestinians. If anti-Occupation activists start taking anti-Semitism seriously, we can support anti-Occupation work by refusing to give pro-Occupation groups ammunition. When Jews see folks taking anti-Semitism seriously within the Palestine solidarity movement, more Jews will feel encouraged to join our movement.

In this way we acknowledged anti-Semitism and how the shootings affected us, while speaking out against the Occupation. We created our own space that combined political commitment with spiritual ritual and healing.

Informing Queer Activism

The lesson for queer struggles is that our safety and desire for belonging as queers should not rest on the oppression of others. Rather than insisting on our right to the benefits that come with legal marriage, we should insist that everybody should have access to health care, immigration, and economic rights, regardless of their relationship status. Challenging state intrusion into our relationships, we need to build relationships that exist outside of the traditional nuclear family. Known for our creativity, queers have historically constructed a wide variety of relationship models, chosen families, and countercultural practices, but this creativity gets lost in the model of inclusion that says, "We're just like you, except for our sexuality."

What happens if we use our queerness as a site of resistance to multiple forms of oppression, not just homophobia in isolation? While hate crime laws do not deter crimes against targeted groups, they do subject perpetrators to higher mandatory sentences and thus increase the power of the prison industrial complex, which has never been known for its fair treatment of queers or other marginalized groups. If we can start to create alternative systems of accountability and justice in our communities that do not rely on prisons and policing, we will be able to envision what justice might look like outside of a police state. We can also work toward creating more economic opportunities and demilitarizing our society, so that many poor and younger folks of color do not have to keep risking their lives for U.S. militarism that perpetuates horrific violence around the world, including the Middle East.

As we refuse to let the mainstream Jewish and LGBTQ organizations speak for us and define our identities, we are simultaneously building and envisioning an alternative world where we do not rely solely on our individual access to privilege to keep us safe, but also on our solidarity with each other.

Wendy Elisheva Somerson is a queer Jew who helped found JVP-Seattle. In addition to writing, she metal-smiths, makes art, and cavorts with other radical Jews. Her work has appeared in Bitch and other publications.

Somerson, Wendy Elisheva. 2010. The Intersection of Anti-Occupation and Queer Jewish Organizing. Tikkun 25(4): 58

tags: Anti-Occupation, Gender & Sexuality, Israel/Palestine, Queer Spirituality & Politics, Vision for Israel/Palestine  
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