February 24, 2020

The summer our rainbow flag became a red flag

The Jan. 31,1969, cover of Time magazine bore the headline “Black vs. Jew: A Tragic Confrontation.” Our rabbi brought a copy to our class of high school juniors and seniors, and used it as an opportunity to teach us a Latin expression.

Cui bono?” he asked. “ ‘Who benefits’ from a cover and a story like this?”

I walked away from our discussion that night with an understanding that has served me all these years. Of course there will be disagreements among friends and those with shared values and passions, but can we avoid letting those disagreements distract us from the causes and people most deserving of our attention?  

The disputes we’re encountering this summer stop us from working together and, more importantly, from sitting together and making a deliberate effort to understand where we are coming from and where we might go together.

My brother, Larry Edwards, is rabbi emeritus of the LGBT synagogue Congregation Or Chadash in Chicago. Long a participant in the Chicago queer Jewish community, he has been reflecting on the recent conflicts, especially the one that originated in Chicago last month.

He writes: “By now many are familiar with the controversy surrounding Chicago’s Dyke March on June 24. (And I want to clarify up front — because there does seem to be some confusion out there — that the event was not the Chicago Pride Parade. The Pride Parade, held the next day, has always been open to wide and diverse participation.) My friend Laurie Grauer, a longtime member of my former congregation and a long-time participant in Chicago Dyke Marches, was asked to leave because of a flag. Or perhaps not just because of the flag, but because she was closely questioned about her Zionist affiliation, and told that there was no space for a Zionist in this Dyke March.

“The flag in question was designed and produced by members of Congregation Or Chadash in Chicago during the time that I served as its rabbi. As far as I know, this was the first version of this flag, a Star of David on a Rainbow flag, though similar versions may have been produced elsewhere. It was a fundraiser, as well as a way to express — both playfully and seriously — queer Jewish identity. It was carried by us in numerous Pride Parades, typically to cheers from many in the crowd. So it was a bit surprising to hear that Laurie was harassed for carrying our flag, or that it was perceived by some in the crowd as a ‘trigger’ which made them feel threatened.”

My brother recommends a recent article in response to the Dyke March controversy by historian Judith Rosenbaum of the Jewish Women’s Archive, who offers some nuanced and historically informed insights into the current dilemma.

“Intersectionality,” she explains, “is not about enforcing alignment of identities and politics. In fact, by definition, ‘intersectionality’ is the opposite of alignment! Intersecting lines touch at only one point; everywhere else, they are heading in different directions. The purpose of intersectionality is to help us all realize that identities are complex and diverse and multi-faceted; that we can’t create simple equations to explain, describe, or prescribe them. …

“As a historian, I am keenly aware that social movements have often come undone over the attempt to enforce rigid ideological alignments. … In this historical moment, we do not have the luxury of splintering in pursuit of ideological purity.”

Rosenbaum, my brother and I join a growing number calling for real dialogue rather than absolutes, in the hopes, as my brother says, “such dialogue will lead to a stronger (if less pure) coalition — something sorely needed in a time when powerful forces are seeking to reverse the gains of recent decades.”

Indeed, in a decades-long struggle for queer rights, and in this time of angst, of threats real and perceived, none of us is lacking for examples of the way dismissals, quick judgments, assumptions and demands for apologies serve to alienate us from one another.

Cui bono?

Not our aching hearts nor our anxious minds, and not our community nor the people and causes we seek to support. We know it is easier asked for than accomplished, but we have some walls of our own to dismantle. Let’s talk.  

Rabbi Lisa Edwards is senior rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim (bcc-la.org), an inclusive Los Angeles congregation founded in 1972 as the world’s first lesbian and gay
synagogue. This article was written in conversation with
Rabbi Larry Edwards, rabbi emeritus of the LGBTQ synagogue Congregation Or Chadash in Chicago.