RABBI KERRY CHAPLIN, Resident Rabbi
I was traveling recently in Cuba, wearing my kippah, and while standing in line to change money, an Austrian man asked me if I was from Israel (comical for those of us who know something about being female and kippah-wearing). Another time, I was talking to a repairman at my grandmother’s house. He noticed the mezuzah on the doorpost and proclaimed that the End of Days was coming and encouraged me to move to Israel (I guess my grandmother was too old?).
Whether a kippah or a flag or even a mezuzah – no matter the symbol of Jewishness these days, if you wear one, use one, or fly one, you will be associated with Israel. We can scream and shout about this, say it’s not right, call this association anti-semitism, etc., but it is our current reality. Jewish symbols are associated with Israel.
I won’t claim to know what happened that day at Dyke March beyond the conflation of a symbol that means different things to different people with different backgrounds and identities and politics. But I will claim to know what it’s like to walk the increasingly narrow bridge of queerness and Jewishness.
As a rabbi and a queer person, I’ve walked this bridge, many, many times. Sometimes alone, but often with other queer Jews, who feel we must prove our queerness or Jewishness, depending on the people around us. There are very few right ways to prove oneself, and the right answers change depending on the company. In the company of many other Jews, including family, friends, and communities of origin, the right and only answer is Israel. Among fewer Jewish communities, it’s Israel and Palestine, and rarely, but sometimes, it’s Palestine. And in the company of other queers, the right and only answer is more and more often Palestine. Give the wrong answer in a particular community, and you can lose family and friend relationships, your communities of support, even your job. These answers are not theoretical or ideological. These answers have real life consequences.
For most straight/cis Jews and non-Jewish queers, there is no problem here. Different communities can advocate for what they believe is morally right or wrong. A byproduct of this often intense advocacy, however, is the squeezing of queer American Jews – and not the good kind.
Here’s what’s happening and what’s hurting: a largely non-Jewish queer and a largely non-queer Jewish population each ask queer Jews to chose between their Jewish communities and their queer communities because every Jew and every Jewish symbol is automatically associated with Israel – on both the left and the right. And as I said, these choices have painful real life consequences. We are seeing this pattern repeat itself over and over. It’s a pattern today’s college students are exquisitely familiar with. It’s a pattern that I understand also profoundly affects Jews of color.
Beginning with its first legal usage by Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectionality has taught us that people can’t choose. It damages people (in her argument, legally) to choose one part of themselves over another. Moreover, it is not possible to chose. No matter where I walk, I will walk with a kippah and I will read as queer to anyone who picks up the book.
To non-Jewish queers and non-queer Jews: Do not ask me to chose. I will not. I will not play the long-tired game of good Jew, bad Jew with my own soul, or with the souls of the Jews and queer folks who look to me as their rabbi.
To the queer Jews who ask me to chose: Let’s talk about Israel and Palestine. Let’s advocate together when we can. Let’s pray together, and sing together, and mourn together, and joke together. If you know me, you know I care about you. I hope you too care enough that when you ask me to choose, you respect my refusal to do so.
RABBI AMICHAI LAU-LAVIE, Founding Spiritual Leader
Scandal! Rabbi Boruch Shochet, the Hasidic leader of the Karlin-Stolin sect danced with his daughter, hand in hand, at her wedding this week in Tel Aviv, in front of thousands of his followers. Mixed gender dancing, even among family members, is not acceptable in that world and the dancing video made it to the news in Jewish media where the esteemed leader was branded brazen by some, heretic by others, and, worse yet – “A Zionist!” – for taking on modernity and its woes instead of sticking to the good old ways.
Who or What is Zionist exactly anyway anymore? This past week spins not just that loaded word around but also challenges many other sacred symbols and assumptions about who or what counts, can be counted on for solidarity or who has crossed affinity lines. From Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to Chicago and New York – the summer heat is taking a bizarre toll, yet again, on the very civil ways of interaction in the face of conflicting views. It has been a painful week of discord, with many heated words, and it meets me, like so many of us, in a triggering mix of rage, despair and a deep desire for some clarity and the messy patient blessing of much needed nuance.
On the same day as the wedding in Tel Aviv, things got messy in Jerusalem. The Israeli government announced that some Jews are better than others and that I and my liberal community don’t really count and are not really welcome – certainly not at the Western Wall. Israel’s politics, now decided by the type of rabbis who frown upon fathers dancing with their daughters, reflect an increasingly problematic political Zionism prioritizing, cynically, some over others and discriminates, now openly, against those who are not considered good enough or Jewish enough.
Global Jewish leaders who’ve looked the other way while the occupation and its toll continues to ravage Palestinian and Israeli society and divide us further, chose and rose to their feet this week decrying the so called Zionist betrayal of liberal American Jewry.
And just to make things more confusing, let’s queer it up.
This past weekend In Chicago, my Dyke sisters accused some of my Jewish Dyke sisters that they are too Jewish, and not as Queer as others, and shouldn’t really count or march with pride. Only Anti-Zionist Jews are allowed, they later wrote, to march with the LGBTQ community. The rainbow flag with a Star of David in its center, in increasingly seen as too Pro-Israel and not just Jewish but a Zionist thus hated and contested symbol. How have we come to that?
Ironic and tragic, leaders in both Jerusalem and Chicago, mirroring each other perfectly, acted in the same exact way, betraying Ignorance of nuance, insensitive intolerance and the inability to face the facts: Narrow definitions of who’s welcome anywhere make for hostile environments everywhere.
When you dis invite me, as I fully am, with all my human messy contradictions, to march with my queer family or to pray in my homeland’s sacred shrine – you’re closing the door in the face of human decency and opening the trapdoor, wide open, to fall in it yourself.
When a Jewish dyke and a Hasdiic rabbi are both accused of Zionism and the prime minister of Israel is accused of being non-Zionist – all in one week, you know we’ve got a problem. And it isn’t just semantics. In this Trump era of half truths and either/or incitement a tribal approach to humanity is seemingly prevailing and fences go up fast and high. But the truth is, sadly, that this louder trope of intolerance has been building up and many of us liberals chose to hope it’s not that bad.
Five years ago or so I marched with my family in the NYC Pride Parade, joining an LGBT rights organization. We walked down 5th avenue with big smiles. It was my first time marching in NYC with my children, who were then just toddlers, happily waving rainbow flags and eliciting a lot of oohs and ahhs and cheering.
A few groups ahead of us marched groups that also waved Israeli flags and as kept on walking one of the kids picked up one of the small Israeli flags and started waving it around. The oohs and ahhs were suddenly replaced by some frowns and some nasty comments, addressed to me, on whose shoulders the kid sat. “Shame on you for teaching him to hate!” one woman scolded. The kid finally consented to exchange the Israeli flag for a small rainbow one and the happy day continued. I haven’t thought about this incident until this week and all its woes. This week I marched again in NYC, with my Lab/Shul community, proud and loud to rise and resist and join so many others chanting ‘love is love is love.” With every step of pride I took I healed another memory of being shamed by rabbis, leaders and so many others claiming that who and what I am is just not good enough, pious enough, sexy enough or worthy of love. We have so much more patience to add to the mix of pride to help heal the endless shaming and hurting that in names of held truths we keep hurling hate at each other.
In a week I’ll be with these kids in Israel, and though I doubt I’ll take them to the Western Wall (Thank you, Bibi, for making me feel so welcome at the site where I once swore, as a young paratrooper, to defend my Zionist homeland. I find it increasingly difficlut to defend my beloved home as it continusouly denies the rights to exist for increasing groups of so-called ‘others’. ) I do intend to make sure we’ll go all over Jerusalem, East and West, to better understand how co-existence does or does not happen and how critical its careful care is for their and our lives.
I am a citizen of Israel and the United States, an openly gay rabbi doing my best to open doors with more love and less fear to sacred experiences that make for meaningful lives, deeper connections and a better world – for all. The Jewish wisdom that I cherish is deeply rooted in the rainbow-ways of diversity and co-existence despite deep differences and it makes me so mad and sad that for so many today, on all sides of all conflicts, so much of that wisdom is discarded, mislabeled, used for harm and not for global good. I am a son of a Holocaust survivor who built the state of Israel as a safe haven for him and his family. I come from many generations of communal leaders devoted to the well being of all, including the lesser served and marginalized. And yes, I am a Zionist, not without recognizing how fraught the term has become and how it makes me part of what so many in my world consider privileged, racist and colonial. I am pro Israel and pro Palestine, in favor of democracy and anti occupation, a peace activist who believes in a new narrative that will share our dreams and lands. And ,I am so frustrated that Zionist and Star of David have become identified with all that’s wrong in Israel and not also what’s good and right.
I am a Jew, knowing that my brand of Jewishness is radically different from those of others in my family and community whom I love and respect. I am many other things and somehow I, like man of us, try to choose wisely and to also respect your choice and the wish to be welcoming and welcomed, anywhere, even and esp. when it’s crowded with the colors that are way beyond ye same old black and white.
It’s up to us who cherish human dignity and progress, rising up for justice and and pluralism, fighting for the rights of all of us to live and love, to dance, to pray, to march. Dyke, bride, Zionist or Queer, Western wall, fifth avenue, It’s both/and not either/or and we can handle the nuance. We have to if we want to survive.
Add more colors to the rainbow flags, pin up stars and open hearts for what we are invited for: A messy, complicated, sacred and respectful life – together.
SARAH STRNAD, Operations Manager
I am a Queer Jewish woman. Those parts of me are inextricably bound up in one another and cannot be separated. Nor would I ever want to split myself into constituent pieces. Both my Jewishness and my Queerness led me to study Politics, Jewish Studies, and Gender Studies as an undergrad, be an activist and organizer for racial and economic justice, and to get an MA in International Human Rights.
I’ve had a few of reactions to what happened at the Chicago Dyke March this past weekend. Symbols have power and meaning. What happened at the Chicago Dyke March was a reaction to symbols.
The Star of David is a centuries-old symbol of the Jewish people. It has been used by us and against us, in pride and in persecution. It is critical to remember all the ways this symbol has been used prior to being incorporated into the flag of the State of Israel.
Israel’s flag intentionally draws on the history of the Star of David. It is one of two symbolic attributes of the flag that are explicitly Jewish (the other is that the blue and white horizontal stripes are supposed to be reminiscent of a tallit, prayer shawl). That a modern state choose symbolism of a particular religion and what that means for the politics of that state is an entire conversation of its own.
The rainbow flag, or pride flag, is a symbol of LGBTQ pride and LGBTQ movements for equality and justice. It is both a symbol of protest and celebration.
For all of my knowledge of Judaism and Jewish symbols, and my ability to separate Jews, Judaism, and pride in being Jewish from Israel, Israeli policies, and my particular positions on Israeli policies – it is sometimes hard for me to look at a pride flag with a Star of David on it and not think of Israel’s flag. Horizontal stripes, a stripe of blue on the bottom third, a Star of David in the middle; my subconscious brain sees similar patterns and conflates them before my conscious mind separates them again. It happens in an instant.
But I do separate them.
The Star of David and the Israeli Flag are not the same thing. And pride in being Jewish is not any indication of one’s political option of Israeli politics. Asking someone to leave because they want to display a Jewish symbol as part of their intersectional celebration of Pride is anti-semitism.
If you are straight, and you have never paid attention to the LGBTQ community, posted lovely pride messages, or ever heard of Dyke March before this weekend, then shut up and butt out.
Dyke March is a Queer space for Queer community. If you are not part of the community or an ally, and the only reason you are even aware of Dyke March is because you feel the need to police any anti-semitism any where, then you need to remove yourself from this conversation.
Please trust that there are plenty of Queer Jews who know more about our community than you do and that we will call out, call in, and take the appropriate steps to fight anti-semitism and all forms of discrimination within our community.
MARIJKE SILBERMAN, CLIP Intern
On the phone with my mother for the fifth time this week, I announce to her that I will be attending another training for another organization doing social justice work related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I hear a sharp intake of breath, “why do you care so much about this issue when there is so much other shit here at home?” she asks. I fumble around for words. I mutter something about my own time in Israel…something about how the act of being Jewish is political… something about my bat mitzvah…and so on and so forth…But her question nags at me.
A year ago I would never have thought to engage in work related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and certainly would never have thought I would find myself typing a reflection on the Chicago Dyke March for my internship at Lab/Shul. I spent my freshman year at NYU positive that the Jewish community had nothing for me, why would I need spirituality in my life? I was seventeen, bought my coffee from street carts and I knew everything. Everything about myself. Everything about the N/Q/R line. Everything about life. That is, until I found myself, on a whim, in Israel with my campus Birthright trip. As someone raised by a family that put the “ish” in “Jewish,” spending ten days in Israel with a rabbi threw everything I knew about my Jewish identity into flux.
I returned to campus, and slowly became aware of the deafening chorus of voices engaged in debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that I had unknowingly tuned out before. In a general meeting during orientation week at school I sat in a room with fellow Jewish students to gauge interest in using a unified Jewish voice to bolster existing advocacy groups on campus. Two minutes into the meeting someone said “zionist.” The room exploded as “zionist” was immediately conflated with “pro-occupation” which was put at odds with “pro-Israel” which became “apartheid-supporter” which ended in pointed fingers and the phrase “anti-semites.” By the end of the meeting, no one even remembered that one of the causes the group expressed the most initial interest in was bringing cleaner energy to campus. I don’t know if it ever was, but the conversation on the conflict is no longer contained in the rooms of political science majors and Jews.
I could not ignore the conflict, and follow my mother’s wishes to focus on domestic issues. The act of going on Birthright was political. The act of observing Shabbat was political. The act of working at the Jewish center for student life was political. My understanding of my Jewish identity arrived hand in hand with the understanding of my queer identity, fingers interlocked. And I realized the act of introducing myself had become political. The voice I carried to a room was one of passionate queer pride and one of firm belief in the need for a Jewish national state.
Sunday, I marched at NYC Pride in the Resistance with several other Jewish organizations. I danced, threw glitter, waved a sign about coming out of the closet and howled at the top of my lungs for the joy of bringing my entire self to street. My queerness and my Jewish identity sashayed down Christopher Street, neither able to articulate itself without the support of the other. How beautiful it felt to celebrate queerness with my Jewish community. How willing I was to wave my sign and bask in my politics.
But after the events at the Chicago Dyke I’m realizing that the conflation of “zionism” with a larger practice of oppression exists off-campus as well. My identity as what many would call a queer zionist is political in a whole new way. And “queer zionist” is coming to contain some sort of irreconcilable conflict in implied meaning.
My understanding of the political landscape I will trek is changing. I will stand up and fight for the LGBTQ+ agenda, I knew from the moment I realized I was queer that conflict was inevitable. I will stand up and sing my support for a Jewish state; my understanding of what a Jewish state looks like may be changing daily, but the fundamentals are unwavering. I did not realize a new battle ground was opening up between these two fronts. I did not realize I would need to start monitoring the words “queer” and “zionist” in relationship to one another rather than just in proximity to the world outside my communities.
I’m going to call my mom again. I’m going to stumble for words again, but maybe the phrases will be slightly more cohesive this time. Mom, I have to pay attention, I have to care about a conflict 5,713 miles away because it has permeated my home, and is now dictating which pieces of myself I can bring through the doors in my life and which will live as whispers in my throat. I have to care because selfishly I have cleared all the pieces of myself out of the closet, and I don’t want to put them back in.