Israel’s gay-friendly message not welcome in Santa Cruz

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On Jan. 27, I went to the campus of U.C. Santa Cruz to give a talk about LGBT life in Israel as part of our program “A Wider Bridge on Campus.” A group of anti-Israel protesters, both students and faculty, attempted to use intimidation to cancel the event and later threatened to disrupt the program to drown out my voice.

Ultimately, their efforts failed, but this is a cautionary story.

I was invited to U.C. Santa Cruz by the staff of Hillel. The program was to be held at the Cantú, the LGBT center on campus. My objective was to engage LGBT students with Israel through the experiences of Israeli LGBT people — their challenges and victories, their fight for equality, their desire to live and to love. A Wider Bridge has spent the past five years building a deep network of relationships with Israel’s LGBT community, whose stories deserve to be heard.

On the day of the program, Israel’s detractors at Santa Cruz began contacting the LGBT center to demand that the program be canceled, and then threatened to block students’ entry to the event. The environment in and around the LGBT center, intended to be a safe place for students, became so hostile and threatening that the program was relocated. With the leadership of Cantú director Deb Abbott, Hillel director Jim Atkins and U.C. Santa Cruz provost Elizabeth Abrams, the program moved forward successfully at the campus’ Merrill College.

Upon gaining entry to the presentation, the student protesters read the following:

“We, as a coalition of queer and Jewish anti-Zionist U.C. Santa Cruz students, in solidarity with Palestinian struggles for liberation and decolonization, denounce this co-optation of queer struggles to support the Israeli apartheid state and the genocide of the Palestinian people … We know that the superficial human rights extended to gay identities by Israel are only meant to cover for its extensive ongoing human rights violations perpetrated by violent Zionist policies of ethnic cleansing. The organization A Wider Bridge is one element of a concerted effort by the state of Israel to erase its ongoing genocide of the Palestinian people by portraying itself as a tolerant, modern haven for queer people and a prime site for LGBT tourism, including study abroad programs. Participating in a study abroad program in Israel means participating in the ongoing apartheid and genocide of the Palestinian people.”

What was it about what I had to say that so angered or threatened the protesters? Rather than simply not attend, why did they seem determined to deny interested students the opportunity to learn, engage and come to their own conclusions?

Our nuanced message about Israel and its LGBT community — thriving, yet still yearning for equality — doesn’t fit well into their black-and-white world, in which Israel is nothing more than a pariah state.

Those who attended the program that evening learned that the Israel Defense Forces has allowed gays and lesbians to serve openly since 1993, the same year President Bill Clinton signed “don’t ask, don’t tell” into law. They discovered that LGBT Israelis have been protected from workplace discrimination since 1992, while Congress in 2015 has still failed to pass ENDA, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

At the same time, I didn’t shy away from sharing that same-sex marriages are not yet legally performed anywhere in Israel, and that beyond the gay “mecca” of Tel Aviv, homophobia is still widespread. Why? Because these realities aren’t about promoting or rejecting Israeli governmental policies; they’re about relating shared experiences to build understanding and connection.

We seek to move past the divisiveness of the conflict by engaging students with the people of Israel and their stories. Reducing Israel to a political conflict dehumanizes the lives of Israelis and Palestinians alike. A Wider Bridge encourages personal engagement as an effective form of advocacy on campus and beyond.

Here in the Bay Area, we are proud of efforts such as the JCRC’s Year of Civil Discourse that encourage meaningful dialogue about Israel. Contrast that with the inciting statement issued by those who protested my program that included: “We are not interested in a dialogue with organizations such as A Wider Bridge … Long live the Intifada!”

We believe effective dialogue includes building personal connections between the people of Israel and North America, and we firmly oppose those, including U.C. Santa Cruz’s Students for Justice in Palestine, who seek to intimidate students with simplified political statements on cardboard signs.

Tyler Gregory is the director of programs and development for A Wider Bridge, a San Fransisco-based organization building LGBT connections with Israel.