Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A Political Parade

I last blogged about the controversy surrounding Pride Toronto’s decision to ban the group “Queers Against Israeli Apartheid” from marching in this year’s pride parade. Since then, the controversy has done anything but slow down. After the decision, QuAIA accused the city of censoring their freedom of speech and organized resistance in an attempt to overthrow the decision. Their efforts prompted widespread condemnation from within the LGBT community. (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community) On June 23rd, under pressure from the LGBT community, Pride Toronto decided to remove the ban against QuAIA. The group celebrated success for overthrowing the ban on their free speech, and promised to be the “loudest and largest part of Pride this year”.

In my last blog I confided in my joy that QuAIA was banned from the parade. I believed that QuAIA was spreading hate and ignorance towards Israel and I worried about the bystanders who would be unfairly swayed. My statements were criticized: my fear, that allowed me to support censorship, was accused of being unfounded because the media and public are not as “susceptible and defenseless” as I believed they were. Instead I should trust that the media and my fellow citizens have the ability to think critically. Sure enough, my worries were unfounded. What followed from QuAIA’s ban, and then removal of that ban was an attack from the media against QuAIA, rather than support towards them. Mainstream media (Toronto’s most popular newspapers, The Toronto Star and the National Post) did not sympathize with QuAIA, but attempted to expose their hypocrisy. Journalists questioned the morality of QuAIA singling out Israel in their campaign for human rights. They pointed out the horrible conditions homosexuals have in all the middle eastern countries surrounding Israel, and also the supposed apartheid in Lebanon. The conclusion became that because QuAIA singles out Israel, “an oasis for homosexuality”, they clearly have some anti-Jewish state issues, rather than regular, healthy criticism of Israel’s government and politics. It is this perceived negative attitude that had everyone worried. Justine Apple who is the executive director of Kulanu Toronto, a Jewish LGBT social and educational group, said that QuAIA’s participation in the parade will create a “toxic and fearful environment”.

Within the Jewish community, the attitude towards QuAIA is negative: many are up in arms and on the defensive. Their strategy has been to flatter Israel by promoting it’s democracy and support for homosexuality. QuAIA is portrayed as an antisemitic group out to unfairly demonize Israel.

With this thick air of controversy surrounding the parade, I decided to go and check it out for myself. Notwithstanding QuAIA, I was very excited for the parade, this is after all a celebration of Toronto’s LGBT community! When I arrived at the parade, I wanted to talk to members of both QuAIA and Kulanu. Upon finding Kulanu, I was immediately taken aback.

Their group looked more like a rally in support of Israel than a Jewish LGBT group. Speaking with Len Rudner of Kulanu, he expressed to me that despite what it looked like, Kulanu was marching in support and in celebration of Toronto’s Jewish LGBT community. When questioned about the staggering amount of Israel flags and signs promoting Israel’s support for it’s LGBT community, he said that the group is also speaking up for Israel’s LGBT community. They are walking with a positive voice of inclusiveness. However, I think that Kulanu’s mission was hijacked by Jews acting in defense of Israel reacting to QuAIA’s participation in the parade. The presence of the controversial group, Jewish Defense League, who marched with the group, gave me this hunch.

Elle Flanders of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, points to this action by Kulanu (allowing the JDL to march with them) as an action of divisiveness. She claims that Kulanu is not provoking conversation but rather, defending Israel at all costs. She believes they are simply calling wolf on antisemitism, instead of creating debate and conversation on the issues. To Flanders, it is so important for QuAIA to march in the parade because to her, to be queer is to be a human rights activist. She argues that the struggle against oppression is a political struggle that the Pride Parade has been dealing with ever since it began, 30 years ago. Just because the LGBT community in Toronto has been afforded rights, doesn’t mean they are going to stop fighting for basic human rights for people, everywhere in the world, wherever that may be. Yael, a Jewish Israeli now living in Toronto, who marched with QuAIA, insists that there is no democracy in occupation and therefore no democracy for the Palestinians. This issue is therefore correlated to gay issues because as the LGBT community had to fight for their democratic rights in the past, now privileged with these rights, they must fight for those without them. Just as the Jews fought in the civil rights movements in America, one formerly oppressed group has a sort of obligation to fight for all those oppressed.

Is QuAIA a hate group? Are they discriminatory, as they have been again and again accused? Flanders argues vehemently against this statement. QuAIA are standing in solidarity with Palestinians, fighting for their rights as humans. She claims the group does not hate Jews (many members are Jews and Israelis). Yet, for me there is still something incredibly uncomfortable in their name; when I asked Flanders why the negative name, she responded that sometimes you can’t just be in solidarity with something, you have to take a stand, make a statement, stir controversy. Sex sells- right?!

However, to me the name doesn’t stand for a criticism of Israel’s government and politics, it criticizes Israel right down to it’s core- right to it’s legitimacy. An Apartheid state suggests illegitimacy and therefore to be anti-Israeli apartheid suggests an attack against the state itself; not Israeli policies. While I’m the first to say that criticism against Israel’s government is not only warranted but essential for it’s own survival and upkeep of it’s democratic values, I think that QuAIA takes it one step too far by fumbling over the line of criticism into the realm of state permissibility. An apartheid state needs to be dismantled but Israel needs to end it’s occupation of the West Bank.

As the march began, the crowd was impressed by QuAIA, with it’s cute and catchy slogans like, “hey hey! ho ho! Israeli apartheid’s got to go!” and how it walked beside the reactionary group “free speech”. (Free speech was a group created in May as a reaction against Pride’s original ban against QuAIA: the group does not necessarily politically agree or disagree with QuAIA but supports their right to free speech) While Kulanu got the occasional cheer, the Israeli music that was played did not connect to most of the non-Jewish, non-Israeli crowd. Their group looked more like a poster for Israel than an expression of pride for Toronto’s Jewish LGBT community.

At the end of the day, the controversy that had been following the parade for months now did not signify the end of the world. The crowd did not turn into bloodthirsty antisemitic Israel hating people poisoned with QuAIA rhetoric. So by the time both groups had proudly marched by me, I just began to feel fed up. QuAIA does have some legitimate points, but they take it too far for me… yet at the same time so did Kulanu. The issue may have been pushed to the front pages of Toronto’s newspapers, but all that was said was a bunch of nothing. No intellectual conversation was forged, no debates began and no understandings were made, and the issue of the parade, gay pride.. was pushed to the side.

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