LGBT activists and homophobes against free speech

What is happening now in the struggle between the LGBT activists against homophobic elements is a test of endurance of freedom of expression.

Gay parade in Jerusalem (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Gay parade in Jerusalem
This week, a group of LGBT activists infiltrated a campaign event of the Bayit Yehudi Party in Haifa, and after receiving several blows were removed by participants – in a headlock. The activists stood with a rainbow flag in front of elected officials and their supporters and were violently attacked. Apparently a rainbow flag is too much of a provocation for Bayit Yehudi voters to bear, nearly as bad as a Hezbollah flag. The enemy flag was successfully removed and the activists battered.
The annual Jerusalem Conference, which is produced by the Besheva newspaper, is running today and tomorrow. One of the panels in the two-day event will focus on the topic of Conversion Therapy, treatments that claim they “fix” one’s sexual orientation, or “straighten” it out. The organizers passionately proclaim that their intentions are pure: to encourage discussion within the national Orthodox community on a taboo subject. The LGBT community is debating how it can most appropriately respond to such an event. While the Jerusalem Open House, the organization I head, intends on joining the discussion and respecting the rules of discourse, another group is planning to crash the panel.
In recent years I have regretfully watched how the LGBT community has become one of the most violent and repressive sectors of the Israeli public. The community which I grew up and have been active in for the past 15 years has shed the gloves of liberalism and humanism and instead has adopted brass knuckles, and is eager to fight. From the threats to Ayelet Shaked and the statements about her kids, we have progressed on to the threats against Emily Amrousi and her children. From this point, the sky has ceased to be the limit.
Don’t get me wrong, I think we must protest homophobia, but we must also be conscious of the subtle differences between legitimate and illegitimate means of protesting within Israeli public discourse. These nuances may have been all but lost in Israel after the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, and not just by the LGBT community.
The booing of the former health minister Yael German as she spoke during the Jerusalem Pride March may not have been nice or polite, but it was certainly within the limits of acceptable political discourse. Entering campaign events of homophobic political parties, demonstrating outside them, wearing T-shirts and raising rainbow flags are all acceptable acts of protest. However, what cannot be legitimized are the silencing of homophobic speakers, calling for the dismissal of homophobic persons from their jobs or even demanding to cancel a conference.
The calls to terminate the employment of both Menahem Ben and Emily Amrousi, the attempt to threaten Ayelet Shaked, and tying ourselves to the gates of the Crowne Plaza Hotel tomorrow in front of the Jerusalem Conference are dangerously repressive. Such tactics are a double-edged sword that can turn in a moment on the person who wields them. The LGBT community must be very, very careful with it.
The other side of the fence also needs to lower their levels of panic and remember what we’re talking about. There is no doubt that it is annoying when a group of activists infiltrate your peaceful conferences and demonstratively stand in front of the stage with rainbow flags. Fair enough. Even I would be annoyed. Despite this, let’s not go too far, and we should remember that standing quietly with a T-shirt saying “I have two mothers and I do not apologize,” is not the same as grabbing the microphone and is in no way the same as “crashing” a conference. One is a legitimate protest (and annoying, OK), and the other seeks to limit your freedom of speech.
As the organizers of the Jerusalem Conference learned about the intention of the Jerusalem Open House to attend their conference, their automatic reaction was to immediately close the registration and stop selling tickets – to anyone. This fearful response was an absolute overreaction with no justification in reality. The Open House was open about its intention to attend the conference, announced that we were not going to blow up the discussion and that we had asked our activists to respect proper rules of discussion. Why then was it necessary to block the arrival of LGBT activists to the conference? In the eyes of the Besheva manager, is a rainbow flag the equivalent of an Islamic State flag?
Last Thursday I called Dudu Sa’ada, CEO of Besheva. I know the importance of creating direct channels of communications and of avoiding back-channel messages, so I called him and gave him my word that we have no intention to disrupt the conference, to grab microphones or to silence any of the speakers. In turn, Sa’ada claimed that he never had the intention to organize a biased panel. His intention was to encourage bold discussion on a topic considered taboo in the religious community.
I don’t know Sa’ada personally but I intend to give him the benefit of the doubt and the opportunity to prove his intentions. If all he really wanted was to encourage discussion, my duty is to stand behind him and back his efforts. I told him we would be happy to attend the panel and support the community representative who is supposed to speak, and that we would do this with decorum. However, I made it clear that our intention is to stand with rainbow flags in front of the speakers and to demonstrate against homophobia and the delegitimization of the entire LGBT community by prescribing conversion therapy for them.
Eventually, Sa’ada did change his mind and invited the Jerusalem Open House to join the panel audience. Even more, Sa’ada took the very unpopular step of agreeing to add Prof. Nurit Yirmiya, the Chief Scientist of Israel, to the panel in an attempt to balance the discussion.
What is happening now in the struggle between the LGBT activists against homophobic elements is a test of endurance of freedom of expression. The LGBT community, which carried the banner of freedom of speech in the past, is now being tested for its endurance capacity: Will they allow homophobes to have their defamatory say, or will they silence them. On the other side, will the National Religious community, who have proclaimed their good intentions, be willing to hear criticism of homophobia or continue to silence it? Neither side has excelled so far: LGBT activists have failed to have Menahem Ben fired, just as supporters of Bayit Yehudi failed to suffocate LGBT protesters at their conferences. The climax of the test will take place today at 5 p.m. in Jerusalem: will LGBT activists be able to enter the Jerusalem Conference, or break through by force and get pushed back by security guards? Will we legitimately protest while maintaining respect for the event and speakers, or blow it all up and hijack the microphones?
The writer is the executive director of the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, the main LGBT organization in Jerusalem.