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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, March 23, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 12
Seattle LGBT Commission apologizes for snubbing Israeli leaders
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Seattle LGBT Commission apologizes for snubbing Israeli leaders

by Shaun Knittel - SGN Associate Editor

Last week, the City of Seattle LGBT Commission won both praise and criticism for canceling a March 16 reception for a delegation of Gay Israeli leaders, citing Israel's treatment of Palestinians. The snub caught the attention of national media resulting in a firestorm of negative press for the commission, and leaving many to wonder why the Seattle LGBT Commission took a side, either way, on the topic.

The commission's role is to effectively address and present the concerns of LGBT citizens of Seattle to the mayor, City Council, and all city departments. The commission recommends legislation, policy, programs, and budget items to the mayor.

The decision to separate themselves from the Israeli delegation was made March 15 during a impassioned commission meeting. According to Seattle LGBT Commission officials, a vocal group spoke out against the Jewish nation, accusing them of 'pinkwashing' by masking what some call its poor treatment of Palestinians by promoting Gay rights.

'We wanted to talk about LGBTQ issues,' Mac McGregor, co-chair of the commission, said to the Seattle Times. 'We weren't prepared to handle the Palestinian question.'

'We are not experts, and we don't pretend to be. None of us wants to choose sides.'

Prior to the commission's vote to uninvite the delegation, it had been agreed that they would host a reception at City Hall. The six-member Israeli delegation had scheduled the meeting as a part of a West Coast tour, which included San Francisco and Los Angeles, to exchange ideas on advancing Gay rights.

According to news reports, only in Washington state did the delegates encounter opposition from local LGBT leaders and community members. The meeting at City Hall in Seattle was canceled, another in Tacoma was called off, and one in Olympia was moved because of opposition.

The group, The Israeli Jews, is part of the Alliance of Israeli LGBT Educational Organizations, a network of groups that support LGBT youth and families. Members of the delegation said they were shocked by the cancelation.

'We expected from the Seattle LGBTQ Commission a strong declaration of its intent to support all LGBTQ activists, regardless of their color, sex, or national origin,' the group said in a statement.

'Sadly, it appears that the commission, representing a minority that continues to face discrimination, also practices that same discrimination.'

According to City of Seattle Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, she and Jean Godden, along with City Attorney Pete Holmes, arranged a last-minute lunchtime meeting with the delegates and apologized for the snub.

SU LAW PROFESSOR
Trouble had been brewing ahead of the delegation's scheduled March 16 City Hall meeting. On March 12, Seattle University law professor Dean Spade began posting on Facebook criticizing the delegation's visit by describing it as 'apartheid and occupation' wrapped in a rainbow flag.

In a letter to City of Seattle LGBT Commission members, Spade, a Transgender activist, said, 'I am concerned that you may not be aware that this event is part of a broad campaign launched in recent years by the state of Israel to respond to worldwide opposition to its outrageous harm and violence to Palestinian people.'

Spade said the campaign, Brand Israel, aimed to 'respond to the growing movement against apartheid in Israel by portraying Israel as 'relevant and modern.'

'A important part of this effort, more recently, has been to promote Israel is an LGBT-friendly country,' he continued. 'Queer and Trans activists around the world who oppose occupation and apartheid have called this strategy 'pinkwashing' because it is a direct effort to conceal the extreme violence and harm that Israel inflicts on Palestinians, including queer and trans Palestinians, by promoting Israel as 'Gay friendly.'

According to Spade, in January, he visited the Israeli-occupied West Bank as part of an LGBT delegation. He said what he saw there was 'utterly devastating' and described a number of examples to back up his claim. He strongly urged the commission to reconsider hosting the delegation because 'it is important to me to share my concerns with you and share resources that may help you to build greater awareness about pinkwashing so that the Commission is not used to forward an agenda that seeks to mislead people concerned about homophobia and Transphobia into supporting the horrifying violence of apartheid Israel.'

Days later, the Commission voted to back away from hosting the Israeli delegation.

GAY-RIGHTS ORGANIZATIONS DENOUNCE 'PINKWASHING'
Wider Bridge, a California-based Gay Jewish organization that helped to arrange the delegation's March 16 visit, denounced the concept of pinkwashing. Officials said that 'by saying that Israel has a positive record on Gay rights does not deny anyone from criticizing its civil-rights record.

'The truth is that Israel is a good place to be LGBT, and it is so because there are countless people within Israel doing amazing, courageous work every day ... saving lives, including the lives of young LGBTQ Palestinians who often have nowhere else to turn,' Wider Bridge officials said.

Some local leaders in the LGBT community were outraged. In particular, Louise Chernin, president and CEO of the Greater Seattle Business Association. In a March 19 letter to Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, the Seattle LGBT Commission, and the GSBA Board of Directors, Chernin said, 'On behalf of the Board of the Greater Seattle Business Association, the largest LGBT chamber of commerce in the United States with over 1,000 members, we write to express our utter disappointment in your decision to silence LGBT voices by canceling the City Hall event with a delegation of Israeli LGBT civil rights leaders. Succumbing to demands and lacking the courage to facilitate dialog with those who are our brethren in the LGBT equality movement will have far reaching consequences not only for the Commission but for the city of Seattle and its elected leaders.'

'As Seattleites, we are proud to be part of a City that has progressive values and is open, inclusive, engaged, and a leader in equality,' she said. 'Thursday's actions by the Commission have tarnished our image.'

Chernin says the Commission was goaded into having the City take a position that is viewed by many as anti-equality, anti-Semitic, and anti-Israel. 'It has been manipulated into placing the City squarely in the middle of an age-old political controversy between Arabs and Jews, a position which we are confident that the mayor and City Council do not share and did not intend for the city of Seattle,' wrote Chernin.

'Israel, regardless of its governmental policies, which some of us may or may not support, provides more protection for LGBT citizens than any other nation in the Middle East - and that protection is for all LGBT citizens, regardless of whether the person is Jewish, Christian, or Muslim,' she continued. 'We are living in a time in which the LGBT Community is facing life-threatening acts of violence against their existence in Iran, Iraq, and other countries in that region of the world and there is barely an outcry. However, the one Middle East country that actually has laws in place extending equal benefits and protections to its LGBT citizens has its motives questioned.'

According to Chernin, the Commission's response to withdraw its invitation to meet and talk raises serious questions not only about the motivations of those who lobbied for canceling the city's event, but also about the Commission's abilities and effectiveness as a civil rights entity.

'In our view, you have turned an opportunity to engage in open dialogue and education into the silencing of voices, violating the very tenants of our democracy - the freedom of speech and right to assemble,' she said. 'The message sent by the Commission to the world is out of step with our city values and with the Commission's mission. Further, your actions are contrary to the views held by the leading LGBT organizations in our city.'

Chernin said it is difficult to undo the damage done by the LGBT Commission. 'We believe our City leaders will take necessary corrective action. The Commission and the Office for Civil Rights must also look to make amends for its actions and restore the lost confidence of the greater LGBT community. A public apology to the Israeli delegation, LGBT community, and the citizens of Seattle, which should come from the Seattle LGBT Commission, Office for Civil Rights, City Council, and mayor, is a critical first step.

'In the next couple of weeks, the GSBA will formally request meetings with the Office for Civil Rights, City Councilmembers, and the mayor to discuss the actions of the Commission, accountability of the Office for Civil Rights and address how an advisory commission is given authority to have decision-making powers with considerable and far-reaching consequences for the city.'

SEATTLE LGBT COMMISSION RELEASES APOLOGY
On March 20, the Seattle LGBT Commission apologized for the 'pain, offense, and embarrassment' they may have caused for canceling the event with leaders from Israel's LGBTQ community. 'We apologize both to those leaders who were invited as our guests and to the many members of the Israeli, Palestinian, and LGBTQ communities in Seattle and worldwide who were affected by our decision,' said officials in a public statement.

The Commission said they heard from many individuals who shared their thoughts, concerns, and outrage in emails, social media, and phone calls.

In an attempt to explain how they came to their March 15 vote, commission officials said, 'We listened to extended public comment from members of the public, both in favor of and against the event. This was a difficult decision. Our intent to vote to cancel the meeting was not to make a stand for either side, but to recognize that we could not facilitate a neutral space for dialog and learning and keep the conversation focused on LGBTQ issues versus the larger issues of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship.'

'We also have heard from many who celebrate the cancellation of this event,' said officials. 'We flatly reject the suggestion that there could be any joy or celebration in this outcome.'

The Seattle LGBT commission has extended an open invitation for community members to attend their next meeting, April 19 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. in the City Hall Boards and Commissions Room (5th Ave. and Cherry St., Room L280).

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