Hate at the Creating Change Conference

After four years of attending the Creating Change Conference, I was shocked and dismayed by the anti-Semitism I experienced. Let me give you some background and then I will tell you what happened to me this past weekend.
January 28, 2016

After four years of attending the Creating Change Conference, I was shocked and dismayed by the anti-Semitism I experienced at the 2016 conference last month in Chicago. Let me give you some background and then I will tell you what happened to me.

I was expecting to reconnect with my colleagues and friends from all over the world. Imagine thousands of LGBTQ and ally activists gathering each year to celebrate, learn from one another and grow as an international community. Creating Change is the LGBTQ National Task Force’s pride and joy. It’s an environment that is supposed to excite participants, fuel their drive to be activists and celebrate all the facets of our vibrant LGBTQ communities. With so much social justice work to be accomplished, it is usually an awe-inspiring experience to see individuals riled up to make a difference in the world.

At each conference, there is a Jewish Working Group that hosts a range of workshops and programs meant to strengthen the intersection of LGBTQ and Jewish identities. Two of those events planned for this year were a community-wide Friday night Shabbat service, followed by a reception at a different location, with speakers from the Jerusalem Open House (JOH) and hosted by A Wider Bridge, the pro-Israel organization created to connect Israelis, LGBTQ North Americans and their supporters. After months of recovering from the deadly extremist attack during last summer’s pride march in Jerusalem, the JOH has been busy caring for its community. This was an opportunity to lift up the leaders of JOH. As the organizers from A Wider Bridge said, it was a chance to embrace JOH as part of a global community with common goals across borders regardless of religion, nationality or citizenship.

Our Shabbat service was a beautiful event and concluded with Salaam, a Hebrew and Arabic song with lyrics that speak of peace for all people. The second that our service was over, we heard the raised voices of hundreds of protesters waiting for us in the hallway just outside the service. They were calling for the destruction of Israel. They were yelling that we are the “oppressors of people of color.” They yelled that we were “responsible for Black people being killed and sterilized.” We weren’t at the reception for JOH yet, but for those of us who went, the crowd of protesters were there attempting to block us the entire way.

At the reception, they blocked the door, letting only some of us through. Within minutes, they stormed into the reception and took over the stage. The representatives from the JOH had to be escorted out to safety. Protesters continued to run around and scream in our faces. After 30 minutes of this relentless screaming, the event was shut down.

I was reminded of the stories I’ve heard and read about the European ghettos being stormed by torch-wielding anti-Semites, blaming our ancestors for countless horrors. Fortunately, none of us were physically injured, but many of us were yelled at for the rest of the weekend and called “Zionist racist oppressors.”

My own personal views were irrelevant to these protesters. I am what most people would consider to be on the left of the discussion about Israel and how it should it make peace with the Palestinians. But because they saw me as an Ashkenazi Jew, they cast me into a group to be demonized and attacked. They gave up an important opportunity to find a connection with me and instead labeled me a racist because of what I looked like and because I am a Jew.

The organizers of the Creating Change Conference have expressed apologies and made statements about the events that transpired, being careful not to blame one group over another. However, their statements make it clear that the organizers need to revisit their own policies so something like this doesn’t happen again.

Those of us in the Jewish Working Group spent several days supporting one another and standing strong against those who were bullying us. Our goal is to always share as many viewpoints and opinions as possible in order to have an honest and transparent dialogue. Where we go from here is still to be determined, but as one of the leaders of JQ International and the Jewish Working Group of Creating Change, I promise we will continue to work to eliminate the type of incorrect assumptions about LGBTQ Jews that were displayed at the conference. We will continue to demand safe spaces for all community members regardless of their skin color, religion or nationality.

I don’t have a quick fix for the problem at hand, but for those of us who have spent our lives working on social justice causes, we know that, unfortunately, the solutions are never swiftly realized.

Asher Gellis is executive director of JQ International, jqinternational.org.

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