Halifax Pride 2014. Image: Glenn Euloth/Flickr

The Atlantic Jewish Council (AJC) took over Halifax Pride’s annual general meeting the evening of October 5, packing it with over 200 people, an action that one Palestinian activist likened to “an occupation.”

Halifax Pride is a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) association whose main activity is organizing that city’s Pride Week every July. The AJC is the mainstream body that claims to represent Halifax’s 1,500 Jews.

The AJC reportedly had offered to shuttle its supporters to the meeting and to pay for child care, parking and membership fees in Pride. (In the event, the Pride executive waived the membership fee.) The AJC also provided a hospitality room at the same hotel as the Pride meeting, with drinks and snacks. It did not hurt that the Pride meeting took place a day after the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) where hundreds of community members gathered at synagogue services and could have been encouraged to attend the Pride AGM.

It was clear from the start that the outcome would be a simple question of numbers.

It is ironic that the mostly white, straight and male and cisgender invaders overwhelmed the 100-plus LGBTQ people who attended, approving resolutions they liked and rejecting those they didn’t. Willem Blois, chair of Pride Halifax, noted that previous Pride AGMs had garnered no more than 30 participants.

An excellent blow-by-blow chronicle of the evening is provided by El Jones, Halifax’s former poet laureate, in the online blog The Halifax Examiner. In the chronicle, she also includes tweets from other observers.

A main bone of contention was a resolution from Queer Arabs of Halifax (QAH) to disallow the distribution at the Pride Fair of materials touting the state of Israel for its alleged LGBT-friendliness. QAH and its allies claim that these materials allow for the “pinkwashing” of Israel’s violations of human rights against the Palestinians of the occupied territories.

A. Awad, a Halifax-based Palestinian who grew up in a refugee camp, and member of QAH, says that the meeting felt ominously like the Israeli occupation of Palestine. He adds that his group and others had complained to the Pride leadership for several years about the “Size Doesn’t Matter” booth. Awad says they were eventually told to submit resolutions on the matter to the Pride AGM. The one they did submit called for the organization to:

  • Actively identify content that pinkwashes violations of international humanitarian law by portraying LGBTQ+ friendliness in locations where these violations occur
  • Actively remove and disengage from the pinkwashing content presented by “Size Doesn’t Matter” and any other content that is identified to pinkwash violations of human rights and international humanitarian law

The debate on that resolution itself lasted over an hour, with organizations like Independent Jewish Voices, Students for Justice in Palestine, Jewish Youth for Equality and many others speaking in favour of the resolution. Members of the Halifax Jewish community spoke against the resolution, telling the audience that the resolution targeted Jews and their affinity towards the state of Israel. Resolution proponents insisted that the resolution only targeted threatening political messages and not any religious or ethnic group, all of whom are welcome at Pride.

A group called the Nova Scotia Rainbow Action Project (which submitted its own resolution calling for greater inclusion of Black, Indigenous and people of colour, BIPOC, people in Pride) presented a 503-name petition it had collected among Halifax’s LGBTQ community, condemning the Size Doesn’t Matter booth.

AJC executive director Naomi Rosenfeld contended that the petition was invalid as it incorrectly identified the booth as “Tel Aviv Tourism.” But others pointed out that the provenance of the booth was always murky. It is only quite recently that the AJC came forward as the official sponsor of the booth.

“Size Doesn’t Matter” was an Israeli campaign directed at males age 18-35, meant to impress them with Israel’s modernity and sexiness despite its small geographical size. Emily Davidson, of the Nova Scotia Rainbow Action Project had reminded an earlier meeting of how heteronormative it was [promoting heterosexuality as normal and preferred,] and how insulting it is to women. Said Davidson, “‘Size Doesn’t Matter’ is all about dicks.”

A few days before the Pride AGM, a group called Jewish Youth for Equality published an op-ed in the weekly Halifax newspaper The Coast entitled “We’re Young Jews, and We Support Queer Arabs of Halifax.” In it, two young women, Rebecca Segal and Maxine Julia, wrote:

Size Doesn’t Matter not only diminishes the presence of queer Palestinian and Arab people of colour, it also exploits queer Israelis…

“Jewish Youth for Equality,” [is] an emerging coalition of progressive, young Jews who affirm the humanity of Palestinians as equals. We have felt, and continue to feel that the AJC is out of touch with our values. We are offended that they claim to speak on our behalf without consultation. And we feel hurt as they push us to choose between our Jewish identity and our desire for a better world for all — including Palestinians.

Noteworthy was the number of voices in the Pride AGM who said “I’m Jewish and I condemn pinkwashing.” Others said “I’m Jewish. I’m queer. And I support Queer Arabs of Halifax.” Even the director of the AJC had to acknowledge the diversity of Jewish voices at the meeting.

Throughout the debate, people speaking against the resolution repeated tropes often heard by marginalized Canadians. Those supporting the anti-pinkwashing resolution were told that they were lucky to live in Canada, where “reasonable” debate was the order of the day. They were also told that Israel was the only state in the Middle East where LGBTQ people were not persecuted. Several middle-aged men, playing the Holocaust card, reminded the audience that their parents were survivors.

But the comment that took the cake for irony was the admonition that ethnic groups should not bring disputes from other countries to Canada, conveniently forgetting that the “Size Doesn’t Matter” campaign is 100 per cent about Israel and has nothing at all to do with Canada.

When the vote was called, the resolution was defeated with 210 against and 106 for. It was apparent that in the absence of the interlopers, the resolution would have passed.

At that point, someone yelled out “Straight white pride wins again” and a contingent of BIPOC people, many with tears in their eyes, angrily left the room.

Indeed, the ugliest part of all was how violently marginalized were queer people of colour (Arabs, African-Canadians, Indigenous people) at the meeting. As one of them said with tears in their eyes (and I paraphrase) “Once again a bunch of straight white people are telling me what to do and how to think right here in what’s supposed to be my safe space.”

Also ugly were tweets, Facebook posts and other social media condemning and insulting people on supporting Queer Arabs of Halifax. The far-right Jewish Defence League also weighed in with threats such as calling the JYE authors “Modern-day kapos” [Kapos were Jews chosen by the Nazis to, among other tasks, drive their fellow Jews to the gas chambers] and warning of violence. In response, organizers alerted the police. Representatives of the AJC vehemently denied any involvement with the JDL.

Many of those groups and individuals supporting the anti-pinkwashing resolution have openly discussed leaving Halifax Pride.

A contrary resolution, to affirm “freedom of expression” in Pride events, was met by an amendment to stipulate that such freedom had to be consistent with international humanitarian law. The amendment went down to defeat, and proponents reminded the meeting that it had just rejected international humanitarian laws, to which Canada is a signatory.

As Nora Loreto says in an October 8 rabble.ca article, “This is a classic example of where one group hides behind the guise of free speech until the moment where they can take their free speech and beat it over the head of everyone else.”

Members of Independent Jewish Voices distributed a leaflet before the meeting that questioned just how LGBTQ-friendly Israel really is:

  • Ha’aretz columnist Barak Ravid commented in 2015 on Israeli prime minister Netanyahu’s very selective approach to the issue: “I do not recall Netanyahu ever saying ‘homosexual’ or ‘lesbian’ in Hebrew. I do, however, recall at least 10 instances in which Netanyahu spoke about ‘gays’ in English, in his American accent…at the AIPAC conference and before the U.S. Congress and the UN General Assembly.” Netanyahu says one thing inside Israel and another outside.
  • Many Israeli LGBTQ activists themselves condemn pinkwashing. During the 2013 Tel Aviv Pride parade, the group Mashpritzot staged a “die-in” to protest the use of the event to cover up the occupation.
  • Israelis’ acceptance of LGBTQs is among the lowest in the “developed” world. In an international study, European countries stood the highest: (88 per cent in Spain, 87 per cent in Germany). Canada stood at 70 per cent. But only 40 per cent in Israel. Paradoxically, in this regard, Israel belongs with its Arab neighbours, not with the liberal West.
  • While the Tel Aviv pride parade takes place in a relatively safe bubble, at last year’s Jerusalem pride march, a knife-wielder injured six marchers and killed one. He had attacked the same event in 2005, injuring three, gone to jail, been released, and returned.
  • In 2009, a masked gunman entered the Tel Aviv office of Aguda, Israel’s oldest LGBT group, and shot indiscriminately at people killing two and injuring 12.
  • There will be no recognition of gay marriage in Israel anytime soon as the orthodox rabbinate controls everything having to do with marriage and to them, homosexuality is an abomination.
  • Israel deliberately exploits Palestinian aversions to homosexuality by threatening to expose Palestinian gays to their families in return for collaboration; in fact, 43 Israeli soldiers and officers in surveillance unit 8200 wrote a letter in 2014 denouncing this abhorrent practice.

Larry Haiven is a steering committee member of Independent Jewish Voices Canada. 


Image: Glenn Euloth/Flickr

Editor’s note, February 26, 2020: An earlier version of this story misstated the last name of the executive director of the Atlantic Jewish Council. She is Naomi Rosenfeld, not Naomi Feldman.