By Matt Simonette
More than 200 protesters shut down a presentation organized by A Wider Bridge (AWB), an organization that fosters relationships between Israel and the LGBT community, on Jan. 22 during the National LGBTQ Task Force's Creating Change conference in Chicago.
The protest came two days into the Creating Change conference which was being held through Jan. 24 at the Hilton Chicago.
The reception, which was to feature speakers from the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance (JOH) in Israel, had already been the focus of controversy when Creating Change organizers initially cancelled the reception in response to online and local protests. But the presentation was reinstated after more protests from members of the Jewish community and other supporters.
AWB is often accused of being emblematic of "pinkwashing" marketing strategies that highlight LGBT rights in order to distract from Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.
The crowd gathered outside the reception as guests tried to make their way in. A few protesters entered the room just as introductions were being made. The guests from Jerusalem Open House did not make their presentation, but AWB organizers said the protesters who entered did not make them fear for their safety. Creating Change rules dictate that anyone with a conference lanyard can be admitted to any session. The protesters stayed in the gathering space for the entire time, according to AWB Executive Director Arthur Slepian.
"We got our guests from Jerusalem out of there very quickly, to ensure their safety," he said, adding, "We came here with a message we wanted to bring, and I think there are lessons to be learned here. What happened tonight was contrary to all the important liberal values our society holds dear. I also felt there was a strong undercurrent of anti-Semitism."
Protesters held up signs and used chants that called Israel an apartheid state and decried Zionism. They chanted, "From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will Be Free," a chant that has been subject to a wide range of interpretations, some of them anti-Jewish.
There were some reports of altercations between the protestors and guests trying to enter the reception. Protesters chided one man for grabbing and balling up a Palestinian flag, but a video by Lynnell Stephanie Long, shooting for Windy City Times and posted at bit.ly/1nIlm52, showed that a protester had tried to drape the flag over the man's face. A female protester also alleged that she was assaulted by a reception guest, and Slepian said one of the protesters in the reception got into an argument with one of the guests there when they entered. At one point a few Jewish men prayed loudly amongst the protesters before heading into the reception.
Gary Liss, a member of Congregation Or Chadash, which was among the co-sponsors, was at the reception. "You had all the noise coming from the hallway," he said. "With everything that is going on in the world right now, you couldn't help but wonder what was going to happen next."
But activist James Bennett said that he did not feel especially threatened or unsafe being in the reception. The protesters went on stage and began yelling slogans, so the music was turned up to drown them out. Many guests left (most by a side exit) while others stayed behind.
"They were yelling what seemed to be random things," Bennett said.
Read more of this article at Windy City Times.