Healing the gay-Jewish divide in Canada

To read Elle Flanders' story Pride Toronto reverses its decision to ban QAIA, published simultaneously, please click here.

As a Canadian Jew who grew up in Israel, I am stymied. My Israeli friends debate what is happening in their country freely. I say the same in Toronto, and I am not only an anti-Semite, but an enemy of the state. As a gay Jew I am told that my only legitimate presence at Pride would be as pro-Israel, running down the street with Israeli flags to "show my allegiance" to the Jewish state. As a gay Canadian I have NEVER carried a Canadian flag at Pride, homo-nationalism has never been my thing. Does that mean I am anti-Canadian and a Canada hater? Does it make me an enemy of the Canadian state? Why do I have to show my Jewish pride by not only carrying an Israeli flag, but also silencing all debate on what's happening in Israel at the moment?

And what about all the Jews who have NO affiliation with Israel whatsoever? Should they have to join Kulanu's pro-Israel stance if they simply want to march showing their Jewish identity? Is allegiance to Israel-at-all-costs the prerequisite for being Jewish at this point? Bernie Farber and the Canadian Jewish Congress, the B'nai Brith, Hillel, Kulanu and the United Jewish Appeal would like you to think so and it's damaging our community.

Kulanu, which means "all of us" in Hebrew, is a gay Jewish contingent that marches at Pride; it claims to be Canada's only gay Jewish organization. I think some other gay Jewish groups may beg to differ, but as they are not pro-Israel they are dismissed for all intents and purposes. Kulanu says in its mission statement that they do not take a position on the Israel-Palestine conflict, yet their actions over the last two years would lead one to believe otherwise. I am guessing that although I fit the bill of "all of us," I would not be welcome with my Israel critique at Kulanu, whose members have said expressly in their emails and website that they march in support of Israel and all Jews who feel similarly, gay and straight, should join them this year.

According to Martin Gladstone, the anti-QuAIA crusader (Queers Against Israeli Apartheid), we should not be marching, as our issues are not "queer." With all due respect, one might ask what "support for Israel" has to do with queer issues? But unlike Gladstone, I would never argue that they should not march. If that is their expression of queerness, "support for Israel at all costs," so be it.

The truth is that Israel, through its ministry of foreign affairs, has launched a campaign here in North America to turn all eyes away from the human rights abuses and violations, towards the "good stuff": gay rights, innovations in science, technology, the arts, etc. This campaign as it relates to the gay community has been called Pinkwashing -- the using of a gay agenda to cover up less-pleasant realities in Israel at the moment. That's where this all comes together. That's one of the reasons QuAIA marches, saying don't use our queer bodies to justify your war crimes. Sure there is a gay parade in Tel Aviv, that's fantastic, but it doesn't make the rest of the issues disappear does it?

Back to the issue of why mainstream Jews in North America seem to be liberal on so many issues yet cannot bring themselves to critique Israel, even in the slightest way. There are issues there that would make the average queer's hair stand on end, and that get debated in Israeli society regularly. Specifically to the gay plight, do we ever hear about how Rabbis and religious members of the Knesset lead the fight against Gay rights there? Or do we only hear about Israel, the land of tolerance and democracy that has a Pride parade? Do we talk about the gays that got stabbed at a Jerusalem Pride two years ago by orthodox Jews, or do we simply celebrate that a Pride parade occurred? Why the silence on the complexities in Israel by the mainstream Jewish community?

From a liberal perspective, how does a Canadian Jew distinguish between rights for gays and rights for Arabs for example? Just recently, the Knesset passed a law forbidding Arab citizens of Israel from purchasing homes within Jewish settlements (those inside Israel, not the West Bank). Effectively the law states that based on one's ethnicity (not citizenship), one may not buy property in certain areas. If we simply replaced this for "gays," would the liberal Canadian Jew then be outraged? What if a gay person was forbidden by the Canadian parliament from settling in Alberta? Or let's make it simpler: What if a Jew was forbidden from living in Mississauga? Sounds ludicrous? Well, it may, but that's one of the many laws recently passed as it relates to Arab citizens of Israel. But the community remains mum; they'd rather talk about Iran and its threat to Israel's existence rather than the daily erosion of democracy therein.

My Israeli friends are baffled by the lack of honesty in the Jewish-Canadian community and my Jewish Canadian gay friends are nervous that they have become targets in the ever-more polarizing campaign of Kulanu and the mainstream Jewish-Canadian organizations who maintain that "either you are with us or against us, you are pro-Israel or for its destruction." For Jewish members of the LGBT community and their friends, this has produced acrimoniousness and a sense of fear as evidenced by a young gay man who would not take my free speech pamphlet at an event last week. He glared at me and said: "I'm Jewish!" I retorted, "Wow, cool, me too!" His confusion was legitimate in the face of Kulanu's messaging. He looked even more baffled when I told him I grew-up in Israel. He said, "So, you've even been over there? What's it like?" Despite his absolute ignorance, his mind had been made up -- those who questioned Israel were the enemy.

I would hence forth ask Israel's liberal supporters, when IS it justifiable to speak out against one's country (or one's that you support in any case)? Amongst my Israeli friends, the line was crossed so long ago that this is not even the question anymore -- their question is back at us is: "As Jewish gays in Canada, when will you speak about what is really happening here? Because our government, the rise of the religious right, and the erosion of democracy makes Israel a dangerous place to live in for gays and straights alike. When will you support us as people and not as an ideology?"

Elle Flanders is a Canadian filmmaker and a driving force behind Queers Against Israeli Apartheid.

 

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