You’d have to be living on a small, Jew-less island not to know that Jewish communities around the globe are defining and redefining themselves through their orientations toward Israel (hello, Pittsburgh!). What might be less obvious is that, on a smaller scale, LGBT communities are, too.
Exhibit A, at the moment, is a fracas going on in Toronto, which will host its 30th annual Pride parade on Sunday, July 4 (because Canadians hate America). Back in April, the city of Toronto threatened to revoke funding from Toronto Pride if a group called Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (which has participated in previous years) was allowed to march in the parade; a month later, Toronto Pride’s board of directors banned the group. Last week, though, after community members who are being honored at the event announced that they would not accept their awards unless this group was allowed back in, Toronto Pride reversed its ruling—and the outcry switched again to the other side.
On one level, this clash involves the same arguments that always come up when an activist group wants to build an “apartheid wall” on a college campus or stick “Israeli apartheid” on a sign at a public (and, in this case, taxpayer-supported) event: One side maintains the necessity of open political discourse, and the other side responds that calling Israel an apartheid state falls outside politics and into hate speech.
But there are also a couple of factors at play that make fights about Israel within LGBT communities unique, and both are related to whether Middle East politics have anything to do with being gay (at least for LGBT folks who don’t live in the Middle East). “What’s next? An anti-Israel float in the Santa Claus Parade?” the heads of a Toronto gay Jewish group and the Canadian Jewish Congress wrote in a joint op-ed last Sunday. But as at least the former writer should know, Pride parades around the world—because they bring together very different parts of LGBT communities—already bring dissent with them, wracked as they are by tensions between “gay politics,” which are about the rights of same-sex lovers to be recognized and protected by the law, and “queer politics,” which take sexual and gender nonconformity as the jumping-off point for a much more expansive critique of systems of power. In this sense, Israel is just one more site around which a debate flares up about what it means to be an LGBT person in a straight world. (This predicament should actually sound familiar to Jews.)
The second and more Israel-specific factor at play has to do with what some LGBT intellectuals and activists are (increasingly audibly) calling “homonationalism,” which refers to the argument one often hears that non-Western (usually Muslim) countries are horribly homophobic, and thus should lose a large measure of credibility when they complain about their own treatment by the West. Israel’s hasbara campaigns have used a lot of this rhetoric recently, so in another sense, groups like Queers Against Israeli Apartheid are responding to that along the same lines as the American liberals who formed the group Not in Our Name at the outset of the Iraq War: Don’t use our American values to justify bombing Baghdad; don’t use our gayness to justify Israel’s occupation.
None of this, of course, resolves the question of whether calling Israel an apartheid state is accurate or acceptable. But it does help to explain why it’s happening, this weekend, on the streets of Toronto.
Ari M. Brostoff is Culture Editor at Jewish Currents.