I had a wonderful time at my very first Brooklyn Pride this past weekend, handing out flyers for the Queer Liberation March and hanging out with my fellow queers. It was truly special to see the wide diversity LGBT+ folks on full display, living their best lives. I came to better understand why Pride is such a special time for our community, why it’s essential to protect it from cooption by cops and corporations.
I have a lot of stories to tell, but one experience in specific lodged itself in my brain and won’t shake loose. Early in the day, an older man in a kippah approached me, the tassels of a tallit dangling out from under a pin-speckled vest. “Are you interested in hearing more about the Queer Liberation March?” I asked him.
“I don’t agree with the goals of Reclaim Pride,” he responded curtly. I asked why. I don’t know if he assumed that I was Jewish or not – Jews can usually tell – but what he went on to say was deeply offensive and unsettling to me. He said to me that it was “insensitive” (yes, he used this word) to young Jews to exclude corporations from Pride, since apparently young Jewish people rely on corporate sponsorships to build a connection with the Jewish gay community.
I honestly kind of tuned him out after this point, but he went on for another five or six minutes. I nodded and smiled. “Thank you for sharing your perspective. I don’t agree with it, but thank you for sharing.”
“You asked,” he responded, and then skulked off. There was something strangely defensive about this posture – I wasn’t accusing him of anything, and yet he sought to blame me for something? It was like he knew he had a Bad Opinion, and sharing it was assumed to be some crime for which he couldn’t possibly be guilty.
After he left, a couple of the punks and queerdos manning the nearby tables huddled around me. “Was he talking to you about Israel?” one asked. Apparently one of the pins on his jacket belonged to an organization known for pinkwashing the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
I can’t say I’m surprised by the presence of white, cis gay men who want to “depoliticize” Pride by embracing the normalizing influence of cops and corporate sponsorships. It fits with my general understanding of that point of view. Another white cis dude I talked to put it much more straightforwardly: “I like capitalism. It’s been pretty good to me.”
I don’t need to convince anyone to fight for what I’m fighting for. If capitalism hasn’t been so good to them, or to anyone they love, for any number of the common reasons, then they will already know. And most of the people I handed out flyers to, yelling “no cops and no corporate floats!,” knew intuitively what I was talking about and responded positively.
But that older Jewish man’s position still bothers me. Perhaps because it feeds into many of the worst anti-Semitic stereotypes, which see Jews as conniving masterminds pulling the strings behind the world’s mega-corporations. But I think more-so what bothers me is that this man’s values are at odds with my Jewish values, and our disagreement reveals a schism at the heart of Jewish life in the 21st century.
I recently read a short booklet written by English songwriter Leon Rosselson, called “That Precious Strand of Judaism that Challenges Authority.” It resonated deeply with me. This idea of challenging authority, fighting against injustice and supporting those less fortunate than ourselves is at the core of my Jewishness. As a child I learned that the Jews were slaves in Egypt, and rose up in revolt against the injustice of Pharaoh. I learned that the Jews were being slaughtered in Europe, and rose up in partisan rebellion against the insanity of Nazism. These were my heroes: the freedom fighters, the rebels, the Maccabes and Moseses and Mordechais.
There’s another strand in Judaism: that of tribalism. It says that the Jews are the chosen people, and that all kinds of injustice are justified in the name of the preservation of our people, culture, and institutions. And being the descendant of people who witnessed firsthand the near-annihilation of European Jewry, I can sympathize with this fearful worldview. In summary: if we don’t protect ourselves, no one else will.
So when this man said to be that my position was “insensitive” to young Jews, he was really saying: the principles you’re advocating for hurt the goals of MY Judaism, whatever those may be. What’s infuriating to me is that he used “young Jews” as a puppet for his ideology. Almost all of the young, queer Jews I know have no problem excluding corporations from Pride.
By embracing tribalism, we align ourselves with the nastiest, scariest trends in politics today: unrestricted capitalism, state-sponsored apartheid, and white supremacy (the subject of white supremacy in the Jewish community is evidenced by the surprising number of Jews who support Donald Trump, but that’s a subject for another post or discussion).
People like this are, in my estimation, a shame to all Jews, and bring disgrace to our community. In our conversation, this man encouraged me not to “sow division” with my inflammatory messaging. This kind of discourse cleverly erases the fact that division already exists, between the tribalists and freedom fighters among us.
The truth is that, as a people, capitalism has worked out pretty well for us. American Jews tend toward higher-than-average socioeconomic status. The standard of living in Israel (especially for Jews) is much higher than that in surrounding countries. Under neoliberal capitalism, the Jewish people as a whole are doing just fine.
But this system hasn’t necessarily worked out so well for everyone else, or for every individual Jew among us. We can’t focus narrowly on the lives of Jews, especially not at Pride, which is supposed to be a bastion for LGBT+ folks of all stripes. When people tell us that they’re being oppressed, it’s ridiculous to criticize them for “sowing division.” Instead, we ought to listen to them and then join them with the rallying cry: “Down with Pharaoh!”