Some people looked at us in surprise or shock, and others, in horror. A few parents covered their children’s eyes as we went by. I tried to disregard the slurs and middle fingers, but one woman refused to be ignored. She accosted us after the parade, berating us that we do not belong and should be ashamed of our ourselves. But, I was proud to march and represent LGBTQ Jews in the largest event in the world transcending movements and politics and representing Jewish solidarity; and, by and large, it was a wonderful success. Still, after learning that our group of LGBTQ brothers and sisters would be allowed to march in the Celebrate Israel Parade for the first time since its inception in 1964, I had been conflicted.
On one hand, I was thrilled. The progress made within Jewish communities towards tolerance of LGBTQ people has been been remarkable, and our being allowed to participate in the Parade was an historic symbol of the progress. Gay Jews had been prevented from participating openly in the event previously, and the negotiation of the terms for our participation this year was wrought with difficulties. This foreshadowed some hostility I anticipated not without trepidation. But, it was not fear of homophobic responses at the parade that gave rise to my conflict. However, the intolerance I witnessed and this religious woman’s unprovoked attack and unconditional declaration that we did not belong did sharpen my dissonance.
I had been conflicted about marching in support the state of Israel. I’m happy that the state of Israel exists, and the Jewish people have a land that we can call home. Indeed, it has been my home; I had lived there as a teenager, some of my family come from Israel, and I have loved ones there. I am also extremely proud that Israel is the most gay-friendly country in the Middle East. Nonetheless, I found myself unsure about whether it was right for me to march in the parade when the innocent people in Israel find themselves without basic rights or even a homeland because of beliefs they cannot be tolerated and do not belong simply because they are African immigrants or Palestinians.
Growing up with an extremely limited “secular” education in a very right wing Orthodox section of Brooklyn, I was taught that the state of Israel was the holiest place in the world and that all the Arabs of the world wanted to kill and destroy the Jewish nation. Arabs were equated with Muslims, Muslims with Palestinians and Palestinians with anti-semitic terrorists. Fear of anti-semitism was seared into my heart and mind by my parents, teachers and community leaders, whom I looked up to while growing up in Crown Heights: “They hate us, they all do, and there will be another holocaust in America one day”. I can’t even begin to count how many times I’ve heard such declarations. When I started leaving the fold of the Orthodox community, I approached the greater world with an irrational fear that I was hated as a Jew unconditionally and that, if the evil people of the world had their way, we would be destroyed and wiped out completely as a nation. But, it was not until I realized that I am gay that I learned what discrimination and hatred really are. Even before I came out, I felt shamed and tortured by my religious counterparts when I was outed at yeshiva at the age of 16.
I had not experienced anti-semitism, but I knew homophobia.
And, I am ashamed to know that some of my own relatives had been involved in anti-Palestinian violence in the rebels’ uprising before the state of Israel was established. Some in my family take pride in this heritage — a legacy of cold blooded murder of innocent women and children in a town called Deir Yassin. For me, it’s a stain of intolerance, heartlessness, hatred and murder.
Despite what many try to deny, Palestinian people, who have lived in the region long before the nation of Israel was recreated, have suffered oppression, hatred, pain and denial of basic human rights simply because they are different and declared intolerable and not to belong. A woman recently argued to me, “There are 27 other Arab countries in the Middle East, why can’t any of them take in these Palestinians?” Essentially, her argument was that everyone living in Palestine who doesn’t belong should move to another country. Before the establishment of the state of Israel, it was felt the Jews did not belong in Europe and represented a threat, and they were forced to leave the countries they lived in or into ghettos and were eventually slaughtered. When I was younger, I attempted suicide because, in the community I was raised in, gay people did not belong. Still today, I am told on innumerable occasions that I should move somewhere, anywhere else than Crown Heights because I do not belong. And, at the largest event in the world representing Jewish solidarity, we were told that we did not belong.
Marching at the parade, the truth dawned upon me: the people who have actually oppressed me have been self-proclaimed religious Jews, who would preach love and tolerance. Jews in America today have every single right and protection afforded to other minorities. But, as a gay person, I face oppression and discrimination and cannot even marry the person that I love with the same protections and benefits as every other American. As I grew into my gay identity, I learned that being a Jew in America today is a breeze — even when I walked the the streets of Paris at 16 dressed in traditional religious garb, I never faced a single anti-semitic remark. But, today here in the country I was born in, my rights are denied because small-minded, intolerant bigots refuse to recognize the constitutional separation between church and State. And, I am told that I do not belong at secular event celebrating Jewish solidarity.
Aside from the homophobic remarks and actions of some, the reception of those watching the parade was positive. Indeed, I believe it was a monumental achievement that we marched openly as a group. I knew that my presence at the parade was important because numbers speak louder than anything. And, thankfully we did have numbers; lots of us showed up and marched proudly as LGBTQ Jews down fifth avenue. Even as some watched in shock and horror, others may have been encouraged. Younger LGBT people who saw us marching knew that they are not alone, and that we do belong despite what others may say.
The woman who declared that we should be ashamed and did not belong at the parade criticized us about our t-shirts, insisting that she doesn’t walk around parading that she’s heterosexual. I had to observe, “you’re wearing a sheitel (wig); that’s your parade.”; she declares her heterosexuality and religious affiliation every day for the whole world to see, and I have no doubt that she does so with observant pride. Many religious communities deny our very existence, people like this woman seem to prefer that we do not exist, we have been denied representation in the event for decades, and LGBTQ Jews are largely invisible. Consequently, it felt imperative on that day to declare that we do exist, that we do belong and and that you are not alone on banners and shirts. But, the rainbow Israeli flag on my chest made me feel like a walking target, proud yet conflicted.
I stand with the state of Israel. But, I also stand with the Palestinians, who are living on the marginal territory without any citizenship or civil rights. My heart bleeds for the innocent lives taken. I cry for the innocent LGBTQ young lives lost because because of hatred, intolerance and feeling they did not belong in their communities. I stand for all people living under oppression all over the world. Just as much as I hope for LGBTQ equality, I hope that the conflict between Israel and Palestine is resolved before any more innocent lives are ruined.