This was originally posted on Jewschool.
Five years ago, I wrote a piece about the striking contrast of my childhood friend, Mordechai Levovitz, participating with JQY in the NY Celebrate Israel parade, while I was leading a JVP-sponsored BDS education event in LA. This year, like everything else political, our dispute of noble motivation seems to have been turned up.
On the Occasion of the 2017 Celebrate Israel parade, JVP organized half a dozen protest actions, but the one that has generated the most controversy was the action that targeted the LGBT cluster that Mordechai and JQY were marching with this year. This action led to a series of increasingly vociferous statements that culminated in a cacophony of progressive in-fighting. Over the past few days, I’ve been talking to a number of the players in this saga to get a clearer idea of what happened. What I’m going to do here is lay out the chronology of events and then offer some reflection and analysis.
The story begins with an open Facebook invitation:
"Come out and celebrate Israel with JQY, Eshel, and Keshet Teens at Mosaic of Westchester on June 4th!"
Five JVP members responded to this call and marched undercover with the LGBT cluster for about an hour until it reached 73rd St. At this point, the JVP members took off their cluster-provided T-shirts to reveal red protest T-shirts, disconnected the sound system, held up signs, linked arms across the street, and blocked the progression of the parade. Craig Willse, was one of the protestors: “We were a group of queer and trans activists. Because LGBT issues have been used by Israel to distract from its daily violations of the human rights of Palestinians, we felt it was essential that we voice a message of queer and trans solidarity with the struggle for justice in Palestine. Our goal was to bring the entire parade to a halt, because occupation and apartheid are nothing to celebrate.”
According to Hannah Simpson, a JQY volunteer who was marching with the cluster and in charge of the sound system, the protest started “peaceful if threatening”. When I asked her to clarify what she meant by threatening, Hannah said “If they had moved away as asked it would have been one thing…” Craig and the other protestors didn’t move and some of the LGBT cluster decided to march through them as Hannah called the police over. In Craig’s words: “When we initiated our protest, we were able to take advantage of a gap between contingents and bring the parade to a halt with a safe distance between the marchers and ourselves. Unfortunately, the contingent organizers decided to rush us and push their way through.” Craig and the other protestors sat down as NYPD officers poured into the street and arrested them. The event itself according to everyone I spoke to lasted no more than a couple of minutes.
That evening, Mordechai reached out to JVP. He sent an email to Elena Stein who was one of the local JVP organizers in charge of the protest. Here is what the email said:
Today our lgbtq Jewish Teen Drop-In program was targeted for an action. While I am a fan of non violent resistance and protest, targeting the most vulnerable group in the parade (lgbtq teens marching in a predominantly orthodox crowd) is unreasonable and cruel. It took so much courage for these kids to raise a rainbow flag and be themselves in front of their community. They were already scared, add to that the vigilance from last night’s Terror in London…and then to feel infiltrated, our speakers attacked, blocked , shocked and yelled at, in front of the very people that they were looking for acceptance from. This is a cruelty that is beyond resistance. Actions should never be targeted against vulnerable populations…it’s cowardice and wrong. Please connect me with someone from JVP. I share a lot of your political points of view, but can not understand for the life of me why you would target lgbtq people in this context. Dossapointed[sic], confused, and frankly…still a little shaken.
Mordechai Levovitz LMSW
Executive Director, JQY"
When I contacted Elena, she confirmed that she had received the email, but explained that she had been “working on jail-support Sunday overnight and saw the email Monday afternoon.”
Shortly after Mordechai sent this email, he reached out to another JVP member by the name of Seth Morrison on Facebook. Seth is a JVP board member who lives in Las Vegas. The Facebook conversation moved to a phone call the details of which are in dispute. Mordechai claims that he approached Seth with an offer to craft a joint JQY-JVP statement about the incident. When I contacted Seth he didn’t remember the conversation that way. “I don’t think he was requesting that. I did not understand that from what he asked. He was asking for an apology on behalf of JVP. I told him I would check with the leadership.” Seth called Rebecca Vilkomerson, JVP’s executive director, but according to Vilkomerson, he didn’t mention anything about Mordechai, or his organization. “I heard [from Seth] that people were expressing concerns, but nothing about anyone reaching out about an org.” Seth called Mordechai back to tell him that the answer was no. The conversation apparently got heated at this point. This is how Mordechai described it to me: “I have spoken to so many people that I have disagreed with, including members of Hamas and former violent terrorists, homophobic rabbis, and neo-Nazis. I have NEVER felt as dehumanized as I felt in that phone call. It was chilling.” I asked Seth whether he had dressed Mordechai down. “You mean did I yell at him? No. Not at all. I could tell that he was upset, but that never happened.”
On Monday, the Jewish press pounced on JVP. Two pieces came out that day. Tablet ran a piece by Rachel Delia Benaim which quoted Rebecca Vilkomerson as having said that the LGBT cluster was a “carefully chosen target.” Mordechai was quoted in the article calling the action by JVP “a hate crime”. The Vilkomerson quote was repeated in a piece by Simone Somekh that ran in the Forward. Mordechai was quoted in the latter piece as saying “This was a planned action against the LGBT participants. That’s homophobia…If any right wing organization admitted to targeting LGBTQ people, we would call them a hate group.”
Shortly after these pieces came out, Elena Stein read the email that Mordechai had written Sunday night. “I was surprised and saddened by it, and needed to think about it before immediately responding. By Tuesday morning, I was seeing his quotes about JVP in press pieces so it seemed his desire for private conversation had passed. In retrospect, I should have forwarded that email to JVP leadership right away so they could have been in touch with one another.” That, of course, never happened and the rhetoric only got hotter.
On Tuesday, the Forward ran an OpEd by Jay Michaelson in which he accused JVP of three specific harms: Delegitimizing queer people in the eyes of their religious and ethnic communities, creating an unsafe space for first-time marchers, and homophobia, because JVP is not officially a queer organization and they targeted queer people. This was quickly followed up by Mordechai’s JQY statement which claimed that the JVP action was violent, censorious, cowardly, antisemitic, and homophobic.
On Wednesday, The Forward ran an OpEd by Rabbi Alissa Wise, the deputy director of JVP. At the time she wrote this OpEd, neither Wise nor anyone at JVP other than Seth Morrison and Elena Stein were aware of Mordechai’s attempts to reach out. She called the rhetoric “hyperbolic” and focused on debunking the charge that the action intentionally targeted JQY. Shortly thereafter, Truthout ran an OpEd by Craig Willse in which he gave an elaborate defense of the action. On Thursday, IfNotNow who had engaged in their own JVP-supported direct action at a different spot in the parade released a statement which, while roundly rejecting the rhetoric employed by Michaelson and Levovitz, did include some explicit words of empathy for JQY. Finally, on Friday, the Forward published Mordechai’s own OpEd in the Forward, in which he asked for the Jewish community to protect JQY from JVP.
I think it’s clear that mistakes were made on both sides, but we need to cut through some of the rhetoric to get to the crux of what went wrong here. JVP is perhaps the most hated organization in the American Jewish community. If you watch their video of the parade disruptions (linked below), you can see this. Attendees of the parade were encouraging the police to pepper spray the protestors after the arrests and the tone both on social media and in the Jewish press positively dripped with politically-motivated animus.
Michaelson’s op-ed was a case in point. The objection that this action delegitimized gay Jews to the Jewish community and that it therefore constitutes a harm is poor ethical reasoning. If the Jewish community can’t comprehend both that some queer Jews have JVP-aligned politics and that all queer Jews need to be treated with respect, that’s a problem with the Jewish community, not vocal JVP-aligned queer Jews. As for his claim that this action was an “act of violence against the most vulnerable in our queer community” — I’ve spoken to half a dozen people who were there on both sides and I have yet to hear or see any evidence that this was anything other than a non-violent direct action. It seems to have gotten a little physical for a few seconds when the cluster participants chose to march through the protestors, but that’s it. His third claim that JVP is not a queer organization and so the action constituted an attack of a straight organization against queer people is belied by the fact that the action was both designed and carried out by queer Jews.
Mordechai’s statements were even more inaccurate and hyperbolic. In the wake of his remarkable yet failed attempts to reach out to JVP, he went nuclear. JVP’s direct action was not a hate crime and it was not homophobic, let alone antisemitic. Not by any normal definition of the words that I’m familiar with. Moreover, the idea that participating in the Celebrate Israel parade doesn’t signal support for the State of Israel is disingenuous. It is true that Mordechai is not a Zionist and that for him, JQY’s participation in the celebrate Israel parade is not about supporting the State of Israel. It is further true that participation in the celebrate Israel parade means a lot more than just support for the State of Israel, especially for JQY. But it’s equally true that the Celebrate Israel parade has an objective political meaning in the world. One that was reflected in the language of the original Facebook invitation: “Come out and celebrate Israel…” The Israel in that sentence is not the religious concept of Zion that Mordechai celebrates. It’s the State of Israel that was founded in 1948 at the expense of the Palestinian people.
But Mordechai was hurt. He felt triggered by what he interpreted as bullying tactics and a refusal to communicate. And he lashed out using rhetoric that he knew would land with the JVP people whom he thought were ignoring him. And while the insults did indeed land, they also pushed JVP, who now felt under attack, to harden their position and dismiss his criticism.
Having said all this, I still believe that this direct action, while not homophobic, antisemitic, violent, or a hate crime, was indeed unethical. JQY is a place where some of the most vulnerable people in the Jewish community come for safe harbor. These are Orthodox Jewish teens and young adults who are ostracized from their communities and families. This fact and the experiences that come with it increases the ethical burden on anyone seeking to protest something that JQY participates in. The deceptive tactics that the protestors chose were scary and had a chilling effect on the JQY volunteers. When I asked how the disruption made Hannah Simpson feel, she told me: “I had a lot of feelings all at once. But the scariest thing was that going forward, I would always be looking twice at a new face. We now have to be more cognizant of who is present and that’s terrifying.”
I further believe that JVP should have been able to see past the attacks and hyperbole to the ethical heart of the matter and spared a few words of empathy. When I asked Rebecca Vilkomerson whether there was any merit to the torrent of criticism, she said “The only merit I feel is we’ve learned about a community we didn’t know much about. I feel eager to have conversations with them going forward.”
Well, I wish you could have met under better circumstances, but Rebecca, meet my friend Mordechai. Mordechai, meet my friend Rebecca. I suspect you guys have a lot to talk about.