Chicago has long been home to one of America’s largest and most thriving Jewish communities, a vibrant and nurturing setting that gave the nation everyone from Saul Bellow to Julius Rosenwald, the founder of Sears.
For the city’s thriving progressive and LGBT Jewish community, Chicago has as much been that cherished home as it has a sheltered harbor offering the freedom to proudly express spirituality right alongside an individual’s political, sexual, or gender identity. Reform synagogues have seen a continual membership growth, which even includes a migration of Conservative Jews.
Yet, over the past 18 months, the city has made headlines for a series of ugly snubs targeting Jewish organizations and individuals, leading many—the city’s Jews first and foremost—to wonder just what’s going on.
The first sign of trouble came on January 22, 2016, at the National LGBTQ Taskforce’s Creating Change Conference. Held at the downtown Chicago Hilton, the event, bringing together gay rights activists of all stripes, included a Shabbat service and reception, held by the Jewish LGBT advocacy organization A Wider Bridge (AWB). To its participants’ shock, the quiet reception turned into a riot both in the corridor outside and in the meeting room when two anti-Zionist activists stormed the stage and chanted slogans like “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” denying Israel’s right to exist.
Condemnation followed even from progressive commentators. An open letter to Taskforce Executive Director Rea Carey was signed by a list of over 60 leading progressives, including renowned Rabbinical leaders, academics, philanthropists, politicians, advocacy organizations, attorneys, and celebrities.
“It is intellectually, politically and morally dishonest to claim that in the name of freedom, liberation, or some other progressive ideal, there is a right to target and exclude Jewish/Israeli groups, to foment physical intimidation and harassment, and to encourage anti-Semitism,” the letter stated. “The larger question posed by all of this is where do we as a progressive social movement go from here?”
On June 24, 2017, an answer was delivered, once again in Chicago, when three Jewish women who were carrying a Jewish Pride flag were ejected from the city’s annual Dyke March by the event’s organizers the Dyke March Collective. This time, the outrage was worldwide, and by the time another progressive march, Chicago’s Slutwalk, became a battleground between liberal Zionists and their detractors on August 12 of this year, the Windy City became nearly synonymous with a particular brand of progressive politics not particularly tolerant of Jews.
As Conservative commentators have pounced on the idea that for every alt-right there is an equal and opposite alt-left, Chicago’s progressive Jewish Rabbinical, advocacy, academic, political and business leaders have tried to look beyond the politics of identity to examine the reasons why they have been faced with a surge of anti-Semitism threatening to push progressive Jews into historically familiar shadows as they find themselves surrounded by hatred not only from extremists on the right but within their own community.
The answers they propose tell a troubling story, one that should raise red flags for Jews nationwide.
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Rabbi Shoshanah Conover is the Associate Rabbi of Chicago’s 150-year-old synagogue Temple Sholom. As an LGBTQ community ally, she was one of a number of rabbis asked to organize the AWB Shabbat service in 2016.
“I didn’t realize what the protest was going to become,” Conover recalled. “When I walked through the corridor right after the service, there were people on drums; young, queer folks who were in this festive atmosphere speaking out for the oppressed. I could see how that could be compelling.”
But, she added, that atmosphere soon became “jarring.”
“I am pro-Palestine and pro-Israel and to see that complete disconnect with the protestors in speaking out about one source of perceived oppression and then chanting for another, to hear what they were using this energy for was deeply troubling,” she said.
Edwards Buice agrees. An openly gay Jew and a Chicago business owner who has lived in the city for 25 years, he was trapped, together with four others, in the same corridor, surrounded by protestors trying to force their way into AWB’s reception.
“They poured into the hallway from all different directions,” Buice remembered. “We were huddled together to protect ourselves. There was a lot of pushing and shouting. They were very vocal about their hatred of Israel and what its stands for. It just kept getting bigger and bigger and, the more they couldn’t get into the room the madder they became. I was shocked and mystified as to why they were protesting something when they didn’t have all the facts. At the same time, I was not going to be intimidated by them.”
So, Buice and his friends started to sing.
“We were trying to show that we weren’t scared and were standing proud as who we are—gay Jews who support Israel,” he said.
Just as AWB’s presentation was to begin, two young women forced their way inside the meeting room and commandeered the stage.
“They were just screaming into the microphone,” Buice said. “Calling us oppressors and killers.”
Refusing to leave, the women demanded to know if the police were going to be called in order to “brutalize” them. “I felt like they called our bluff,” Conover recalled. “Of course, we didn’t want anyone to be brutalized on behalf of the Jewish people trying to gather in this room. But there was no talking them down, no getting them off the stage and no help. We didn’t know what was going to happen next. Were people going to come into the room en masse?”
She began to look around to see if anybody needed help. “People were totally immobilized,” she recalled. “Like they were their younger selves being bullied all over again. I wasn’t going to try and engage these two young women. This was not the time or the atmosphere. To come into a room like that and let your voice be heard does take courage, but to stay and try to shut something down is bullying.”
While Conover’s emotional language may sound overwrought to outside observers, other community leaders use similar evocative terms.
“I am dismayed that certain parts of the community with which I felt a kinship would have this kind of response and vehemence towards the State of Israel,” said Rabbi Evan Moffic, who has led Highland Park’s Congregation Solel since 2009.
But just what does this vehemence mean, exactly? Ask the anti-Israeli protestors, many of them Jews, and they’ll tell you that anti-Zionism is about “intersectionality between oppressed minorities” as well as outrage at “Israeli apartheid” and “white Israeli privilege” which “appropriates marginalized groups.” They declare themselves in opposition to pinkwashing—a theory that Israel only promotes LGBTQ equality and tourism to distract the entire world from the country’s treatment of Palestinians—alongside a host of cited isms, including racism, imperialism, and colonialism.
In a statement of solidarity with the actions of the Dyke March Collective, for example, the LGBTQ prison abolitionist organization Black and Pink wrote “while for many the Star of David is a religious symbol, and not inherently associated with Zionism, it is also important to point out that many acknowledge the co-optation of the Magen David as a widely accepted symbol representing Israel’s settler colonial project.”
Tyler Gregory strongly disagrees. Currently serving as AWB’s deputy director, he will assume the role of executive director early next year. And he’s convinced that the big talk on the radical left is meant to conceal a much simpler, and uglier, truth.
“This idea that A Wider Bridge is the bad guy; that we are the establishment all comes back to this age-old, anti-Semitic trope that Jews are doing one thing to accomplish to another, that Jews are somehow disingenuous,” he asserted. “Time and time again, we are faced with a roadblock of anti-Zionism and, in certain cases, anti-Semitism in this community. There’s this really ugly us versus them mentality that does not have to exist.”
So when, precisely, does anti-Zionism become anti-Semitism? “I think that it is a difficult line to figure out but a Jewish State and nationality is an intrinsic part of Judaism,” said Rabbi Moffic. “If you say that ‘I am not anti-Semitic but I am anti-Jewish State’, I think you are getting pretty close to anti-Semitism because you are undermining a core pillar of our identity.” And in doing so, he argued, the radical left is careening into a dark and dangerous territory.
“I think there are people who are just angry and looking for an enemy,” he added. “Israel is an easy scapegoat. Zealotry is dangerous; when you are so ultra-confident of your cause being 100 percent right that you’re willing to do things that are out of bounds. I think expressions of anti-Semitism are part of that. There are people in the anti-Zionism community who are Zealots. They so believe that they have the most important cause that they are willing to undermine others with whom they might be in alliance. They also know that this is an area that they can get attention.”
And with anti-Israeli agitation making headlines, the issue has become a hot-button one in Chicago politics. A member of one of Chicago’s wealthiest and most renowned Jewish families, in April 2017, JB Pritzker launched a campaign to unseat Illinois Republican Governor Bruce Rauner in next year’s elections. Pritzker said that “The rise of anti-Semitism in our country is dangerous and appalling. I say this as a proud Jew, but also as an American. Anti-Semitism instills fear in our families, brings harm and vandalism to our communities, and threatens the values that make our country strong. Instead of addressing this injustice, Donald Trump looks the other way as Nazis take to the streets, letting hate and antisemitism fester and grow. I’ve spent my life fighting for social justice and against hate—and that work has been guided by my faith. I worked with Holocaust survivors to build the Illinois Holocaust Museum to inspire the next generation of Illinois children to take up that mantle. ‘Never forget.’”
But slogans are one thing, and the work of the diplomats another. That work, say those who do it, is getting much harder.
Both as a part of his present position in Chicago as Consul for Public Diplomacy for the Consulate General of Israel to the Midwest and, prior to that October 2016 appointment, as Deputy Consul General for the Mid-Atlantic region, Moran Birman speaks at college campuses and with minority communities across the United States. “I find the US fascinating,” he said. “Especially now and especially when I think of the Jewish community here. I think my role today is harder than if I was doing the same thing even ten years ago.”
He added that certain groups, such as Students for Justice in Palestine, cannot be reasoned with.
One way to combat the rising anti-Semitism, community leaders agree, is to address the biased and bigoted views college students hear from their professors.
“I have heard about incidents where professors have told students about [Israeli] apartheid, oppression and the occupation without giving them context, history or both sides,” Birman said. “I will get questions [from students] about Israeli settlements, about Gaza. When I think about the way the questions were asked, I understand that they didn’t have the full context or information so I try to give it to them.”
Danny M. Cohen is openly gay and an Assistant Professor of Instruction at Northwestern. His principle field is the study of how people learn, with a focus on human rights and atrocities including Holocaust history and contemporary global and domestic human rights violations.
“Even though they are a bubble in some ways, college campuses don’t exist completely in isolation,” he noted. “To say that they are where the anti-Zionist or BDS movements originate feels like we are ignoring a broader context. We have to acknowledge that any movement that is connected to the human rights of any group has its origins in the realities of suffering and an authentic and very real need to talk about the rights of an oppressed group.”
Moffic believes the left has been pushed into a sorry state of groupthink. “There is so much group think when it comes to Israel,” he said. “‘The Palestinians are oppressed so they must be in the right.’”
Still, Rabbi Moffic—as well as virtually all Chicago rabbis and Jewish activists with whom Tablet spoke—believes the path forward is through attempted dialogue.
“Outside of the shrill cries of public demonstrations,” said Rabbi Conover, “I think engagement and communication across difference is vital.”
AWB told Tablet that, in the weeks following June 24, they tried to engage the Dyke March Collective in conversation through noted leaders in the LGBT community who have acted as mediators.
“On day one, some of these LGBT leaders asked us if we were going to meet with [the Collective],” Gregory said. “Every day, for the next three to four weeks, we reaffirmed our willingness to talk and discuss. There’s been no reciprocation of that offer to get together and have a difficult but really important conversation about these issues. We just get silence.”
Dyke March Collective member Alexis Martinez told Tablet that no one has reached out to either her or any other Collective member that she knows of.
“We stand by our position that we did nothing we need to apologize for, or that was anti-Semitic,” said Martinez. “As a starting point for a discussion with A Wider Bridge, they need to apologize not only to the Dyke March but the Mexican-American community in Little Village for disrupting our event and making this about themselves. It’s just another example of people of color not being able to hold their own spaces and set our own agendas.”
She dismissed the accusations of anti-Semitism leveled against her organization as no more than “a lot of innuendo, rumors and gossip.”
With such animosity from fellow progressives, Chicago’s Jews, many of them left-leaning, must now confront a future in which their safe harbor of expression is beginning to flood.
“I must continue to stand proudly as a gay Jew and as a supporter of Israel while keeping the at the forefront the facts about why I stand,” Buice said. “We must create a space where everybody can communicate their viewpoints without being condemned or shouted down.”
“I don’t know everything,” wrote Rabbi Rachel Weiss, who heads Chicago’s Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation. “What I do know is that this place feels vulnerable, uncomfortable and filled with nuance. Let us embrace complex feelings and ideas, both ideologies and identities, and create spaces for all who desire a seat at the table for collective liberation.”
A similar note of cautious hopefulness was sounded by Rabbi Moffic. “I’m a short-term pessimist but a long-term optimist,” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to have any solutions soon but I think there will be. At my synagogue, we’ve had wonderful relationships with local Muslim communities. As we build stronger ties, there’ll be a deeper appreciation of Zionism and what it stands for. It’s hard for me to contemplate the other side of that hope.”
Gretchen Rachel Hammond is an award-winning journalist and a full-time writer for Tablet Magazine.