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What I Learned at the D.C. Dyke March

Listen to those directly affected. Show up. And never lose sight of the bigger picture.

Carly Pildis
June 12, 2019
Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images
Activists take part in the Dyke March in Washington, D.C., on June 7, 2019. The author appears on the left.Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images
Activists take part in the Dyke March in Washington, D.C., on June 7, 2019. The author appears on the left.Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

This past Friday, just before Shabbat began, I attended the D.C. Dyke March with a group of queer Jewish women. I came because I stand with my sisters and with the LGBTQ community, but also because I never thought I’d have to stand with queer Jewish women in order to ensure they were safe from anti-Semitism in their own community.

On Wednesday, June 5, I got a series of emails about the march, informing me of an offensive policy of banning the Jewish Pride flag. I was asked to help, along with several Jewish organizations, including Zioness, A Wider Bridge, the Jewish Democratic Council of America, and the JCRC. Immediately, I worked to amplify the voices of directly affected women, including A.J. Campbell, one of the queer Jewish women who had reached out looking for solidarity, and make sure that all queer women attending the Dyke March could attend as their full authentic self, with whatever Jewish iconography they wished. The march responded with an inflammatory statement to the Washington Blade, in which they attempted to police how Jewish women can show up in queer spaces in ways that were as ahistorical as they were anti-Semitic. The march’s leaders made no attempt, private or public, to engage with those they had hurt. Where did that leave queer Jews? And where did it leave those of us who wanted to stand with them?

Attempting to answer these questions, we created a hashtag, printed placards with the rainbow flag with brown and black stripes on top with the Magen David proudly displayed in the center, posted a Facebook event we aggressively pushed to our networks, and set ourselves up to march. We stressed that this was not a counterprotest: All we wanted was to be able to join the march and have the Jewish Pride flag flown by the queer women who were passionate about it. We wanted to shower them with love and support, and let them know if they faced anti-Semitism in queer spaces we had their backs.

The day of the march, we woke up to good news, the National LGBTQ Task Force was pulling their support from the march. At 4 p.m., I met Amanda Berman, the founder of Zioness, at a coffee shop in McPherson Square. We were exhausted, exhilarated, and nervous. We stared at each other and laughed nervously: Was anyone going to come? It was Pride Shabbat, and it was Shavuot. If five people showed up, I told her, I would be very pleased.

More than two dozen did, including senior Jewish communal leaders, local students, and other grassroots activists, a serious show of support for queer Jewish women. We walked to McPherson Square jubilant, energized, and proud. I organized our group with queer Jewish women in the front, leaders directly behind them, and male allies respectfully asked to walk in the back. A.J. Campbell draped me in a tallit. We all held up Jewish Pride flags. We were proud to stand with queer Jewish women and proud to be our loudest, most Jewish selves. It was a heady, empowering experience after months of fear, anger, and anguish over rising anti-Semitism on a global scale.

Reality hit as soon as we entered the park. Visible from the entrance was a long line of women dressed in yellow, protest marshals intent on blockading our entrance to the march. Their arms were crossed. My heart dropped. The queer Jewish women leading the way were unbowed, determined to engage, and unwilling to leave. Dyke March was their community, and they weren’t being pushed out so easily. I was honored to back them up.

IfNotNow Jewish activist Jill Raney greeted us and there was a respectful but tense exchange. Raney and others expressed that Dyke March was a sacred space just for queer women, and that allies, especially men, were generally asked not to attend. We asked if other groups had been stopped from entering the march. Raney expressed concerns about creating space for Palestinian lesbians, and the discomfort some marchers, including Jewish ones, felt with Zionism, asking why we didn’t simply move the star or create a flag where the star wasn’t centered. Others pointed out that the Jewish Pride flag was identical to other Gay Pride flags featuring religious iconography. In a heated moment, one member of our group suggested that we might just turn the star into a circle, so that no one would know we were Jewish. Another person asked if there were Palestinians in attendance we could dialogue with, and a third cried out that she felt as if she was being forced back into the closet by not being allowed to publicly and clearly identify as Jewish. Raney disagreed, asking us to consider how the flag impacted other marchers.

Then something stunning happened. We compromised. Raney said the Jewish dykes present could come into the march with their Jewish Pride flags, but asked that the rest of us respect this queer-women-only space. Several queer women expressed concern about marching without allies to stand with them if they faced anti-Semitism. A compromise was offered, and a few selected leaders agreed to accompany the queer Jewish women with their Jewish Pride flags. I wished Shabbat shalom to all those who were leaving, and joined my sisters in the march, nervous about what might come next.

Once we entered the march itself, we found a joyful space. While there were heated angry moments I sought to defuse, I overwhelmingly encountered joy and relief that the conflict had resolved, at least for now. There was dancing, chatting about first kisses, and even one marshal sweetly fixing a tangle in my curls. Marchers I spoke with expressed deep sadness that any queer woman felt the need to have allies protecting them at the Dyke March, but a willingness to welcome me in their space and understand the need as a failure of their own movement. I am so sad, one parade marshal said, that this is all anyone will write about. I promised to write something that reflected the event as a whole, not just the controversy. I saw a sea of women that are so often marginalized, attacked, and denigrated, including in male-dominated queer spaces, enjoying a taste of liberation. It was deeply moving. It was a moment where we can imagine olam haba, the world to come, and how beautiful, peaceful, and free it could be. It wasn’t my space to claim—I was very much a guest—but I was honored to see how wonderful it was and understood why queer Jewish women were fiercely determined to continue to be there.

In a year marked with death, hate, and immeasurable Jewish pain, this felt like a win. This is a critical chapter in the story of America. There is so much at stake. We have to do better. All of us. We must build a movement that is more united than divided.

How to do that? The first lesson is to center on those most directly affected, and ask them how they want to proceed. Queer Jewish women called out for help, and we supported them. That guided everything. This was their story to tell, we were simply there to amplify it so it was heard by as many voices as possible. When they wanted to march we marched. When they said they would not be moved, we stood behind them. Let those who are the most hurt and most endangered lead if you want success. This may dismay those who stand at the top of the Jewish organizational hierarchy, but I promise you, in these moments you are most effective and most authentic leading from behind.

The second lesson is to show up. We so often decide to boycott those who hurt us. In our absence, anti-Semitism only grows. If we aren’t at the table, we will be on the menu. If our voices aren’t heard, other voices fill the vacuum. Showing up doesn’t always mean being in the physical space, but it does mean refusing to cede ground and simply allow anti-Semitism to engulf us because it feels safer in the moment than speaking up. Express your anger, your disillusionment, and most of all your pain at facing hatred. When we tell our stories we are powerful. If we choose not to they will be told for us, and we won’t like what we hear. We have to come when we are called and hold those we are apt to agree with accountable with even more vigor than those we are happy to see fail politically.

The third lesson is to express our pain and our anger in a way that allows the potential for movement from those expressing anti-Semitism. We came and we talked calmly, for the most part. We didn’t allow our anger to drive us to angry hyperbole or cruel historic analogy. We had realistic expectations—we wanted queer women to be allowed to march with the Jewish Pride flag—and never lost sight of that. It is so easy to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. These battles are incremental, and, in truth, eternal. Focus on what you want to win that day and live to fight another with more energy, focus, and chutzpah than ever before. Be willing to educate those who may not understand why what they are doing is harmful and give them the opportunity to grow. Respect those you are confronting, because even if we feel disrespected, we should never let the hate we encounter affect who we are as moral actors.

The final lesson is that we that we need to reject a paradigm where Palestinians, Israelis, Jews, Muslims, and those who seek to support them cannot be in a movement together without rejecting core parts of their identities. Movements for social justice must reject the paradigm that one can be only “Pro-Israel” or “Pro-Palestine” and that to be in a movement you must pick the right team and shut down all conversation with the other side, unless it’s to lecture or berate. This is an endorsement of a forever war, of never-ending strife, that blocks any path to relationship building, grassroots peace-building or lasting political change.

There are many historical and personal narratives around the conflict, and a part of what makes it so hard to solve is that there are grains of truth throughout. That doesn’t mean that people with differing views on Israel cannot come together to face the dire threats to their security in America. Earlier in the week, I sat on a panel on Muslim-Jewish Relations at the Anti-Defamation League National Leaders Summit. Rizwan Jaka, who has been engaged in interfaith organizing and advocacy efforts for over a decade, declared that relationships between American Muslims and American Jews were the strongest they had ever been. Everyday, without much fanfare, Jews and Muslims are coming together in order to understand, build common cause and community, and advocate together. It is a more fruitful approach than taking an absolutist stance that denies anyone access to a movement for their own rights. Let’s invest in spaces where we can have difficult conversations about Israel and reject the notion that all spaces must reject or welcome people based on their views on Israel. That paradigm is ripe for both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. We should talk about Israel, we should talk about Palestine, but not every space can or should attempt to hold these painful and difficult conversations. Forcing every space into a litmus test on Israel/Palestine is counterproductive and hurtful to potential efforts to build new understandings. It entrenches anger and fear while doing nothing to ease tensions or further progress on the ground. It causes pain and destroys coalitions and community building efforts with no tangible gain for any involved.

These are perilous times. We face growing anti-Semitism, a white nationalist movement that is recruiting and taking it’s hatred off the internet and into the streets, a government that is rife with dysfunction, an empowered religious far right that is enacting painful and deadly policies for women and the entire LGTBQ community, and a president that is comfortable allowing, if not welcoming, hate for political gain. When we enter movements to fight for our communities and our neighbors, we often encounter anti-Semitism. For much of my life, I simply allowed anti-Semitism in service of the causes I cared about. I brushed it off, I swallowed my anger and continued on the march for freedom, for justice, for equity. This is a catastrophic mistake that so many of us made. I will make it no longer: If we ignore the rising tide of anti-Semitism all around us, we will all drown. We need to fight the rising waters regardless of where we stand politically. We must lift our voices in the political and social movements where we are present—whether they be on the left or right—and show up to support each other. I’ll be there treading water with you. I’ll be proud to stand behind you.


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Carly Pildis is the Director of Grassroots Organizing for the Jewish Democratic Council of America, and an advocacy professional based in Washington, D.C. Her Twitter feed is @carlypildis, and her website is