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Students protest Hillel event; deem actions as pinkwashing

By Madeline St. John

On Thursday evening, November 5, Hillel sponsored a screening of Assi Azar’s film entitled “Mom and Dad: I Have Something to Tell You” in Kelley Lecture Hall. The film focuses on what it is like for Israeli parents of LGBTQ+ people when their children “come out.” Azar, the film’s creator and a “prominent Israeli entertainment personality,” was present at the event to discuss his film and answer questions. A group of approximately 23 students protested the event that same night, labeling the event as “pinkwashing.”

In “Israel and Pinkwashing,” The New York Times contributor Sarah Shullman defined “pinkwashing” as “a deliberate strategy to conceal the continuing violations of Palestinians’ human rights behind an image of modernity signified by Israeli gay life.” Goucher students who led the protest define it as “the narrative of tolerance, and the cooption of queerness, that washes over the oppression of our queer brothers and sisters, that exploits queerness and queer people in Palestine, in Israel, or on Goucher’s campus.”

Before the screening began, a group of students stood outside holding pink posters. As 7:30 drew near, the students approached the lecture hall with pink duct tape over their mouths. A Hillel staff member and a Public Safety officer attempted to prevent the students from entering the building. The students eventually were allowed to enter. The first three rows of the auditorium were reserved for Hillel; the rest was open seating. The students with duct tape over their mouths mostly sat in the back.

Prior to the event, the Hillel board emailed the leaders of TALQ BIG, the LGBTQ+ organization on campus, asking if they would like to collaborate for this event. Initially, TALQ BIG agreed to the partnership. However, Jordan Johnson ‘18, a TALQ BIG leader who was not present at the meeting when other leaders made this decision, perceived the event as pinkwashing. Johnson informed other TALQ BIG students that the event was problematic.

TALQ BIG then sent emails to Hillel stating that they would like the event to be canceled. They also sent the same email to students who had formerly been involved with similar issues who might be interested in “doing advocacy” regarding this issue. TALQ BIG received a response by email stating that their email was “aggressive” and “militaristic.” Leaders within TALQ BIG—Johnson, Anthony Perdue ‘18, and Eliezer (EC) Cartegena ‘18—perceived these labels as “racially-coded.” They saw their email as “intellectual” and “academic,” and felt that the use of words like “militaristic” and “aggressive” were negative biases against students of color.

Hillel and campus administration informed TALQ BIG that the event would still happen. TALQ BIG requested an opportunity to speak at the event, which was denied. Johnson, Perdue and Cartegena drafted a petition to shut down the event and wrote several posts on Facebook about the issue. The petition, however, did not reach its goal of 100 signatures. Those who felt strongly about this issue decided to organize a protest.

Before the event, Luz Burgos-Lopez, Assistant Dean of the Center for Race, Equity and Identity, met with students from both Gopher Israel/Hillel and TALQ BIG. This was a closed meeting among student leaders, during which Burgos-Lopez, according to a statement made by Hillel following the event, “encouraged student leaders to speak directly to one another and for themselves.”

The week before the event, a group of about 20 students met to create a protest plan. Johnson and Perdue spoke with Vice President and Dean of Students Bryan Coker during a series of meetings to discuss what the protest would entail, as well as their policy and potential consequences of their actions. The day before the screening, Coker sent out an email with an excerpt from a pertinent section of the Code of Conduct. He stated that, while protests are allowed, the protest may not obstruct entrances and exits to the event and that “disruption or obstruction of authorized activities” would be considered a violation of college policy, as set forth in the Code of Conduct.

At the event, Rabbi Josh Snyder and Mitchell Moran-Kaplan ‘19 introduced Azar. In his introduction, Rabbi Josh stated that Azar “looked at how Israel might even be more progressive than the United States” in terms of LGBTQ+ rights. Azar opened the event with comments specifically addressed to the protestors.

“I’m a person of peace,” he said. “It is my dream to live in a land of peace…I have Arab and Palestinian friends. Let’s try here not to be Palestinians against Israelis…Before you chose a side, there are sides to everything. Before you judge us based on things you read on the Internet, let me tell you, it is not black and white…I think a lot of these people [the protesters] don’t really understand the issues. They’re just going with the media’s portrayal of Palestinians as victims.”

Azar then suggested having a conversation in lieu of showing the film. In response, Johnson removed the tape from her mouth and said, “We will have a discussion when this event is not funded by Gopher Israel.”

“Mom and Dad: I Have Something to Tell You,” which Hillel decided to screen anyway, was inspired by the shooting of 15 gay Israeli teens in Tel Aviv. After the shooting, some parents, who did not realize that their children were gay, refused to visit their children. The film follows Azar as he interviews parents whose children came out as gay.

After the film ended, about 15 protesting students stood up and did a mic check. One of these students made a statement, which other students repeated in unison. These students also stated their definition of pinkwashing and their solidarity with Palestinians and Jews alike. They demanded that future events “involving queerness” planned by Hillel and Gopher Israel be supported by TALQ BIG and the Center for Race, Equity, and Identity.

When the mic check ended, Azar said, lightheartedly, “I hope that means you enjoyed the movie.” He went on to say, “I have to agree with everything you said. I agree that this is pinkwashing and I hope that it will start a dialogue.”

The Q&A began with a Goucher student who did not participate in the protest. She asked why Azar thought his film depicted Israel as “progressive.” She stated that she was Jewish and that when she came out to her American parents, they had been very accepting. Azar pointed out that it was not his intention to say that Israel was “progressive,” but that it was his understanding that LGBTQ+ rights were good in Israel, and that a lot of Israeli celebrities were “out of the closet.”

When the student addressed her confusion as to what the purpose of the film was, which Azar himself claimed was “pinkwashing,” he said that the film was about “honest people being honest” and “parents going through a process.” Azar added that he created his film because “gay people coming out to their parents think there are only two options: one, get out of the house, or I fully accept you,” and that “the point of the movie” was to show that there are more than two possible outcomes.

Later during the Q&A, Azar interrupted a student who was critiquing his film. Azar stated that he could not believe that Jewish students were attacking him and Israel. To be against Israel, he said, was to be against their own people—in other words, to be self-hating.

At one point during the discussion, two students with posters stood in the front of the room, off to the side of the presenter. Their posters had statements such as, “How do you check your privilege?” and “LGBTQ+ rights for who?” Students and members of the Goucher community then expressed a range of opinions and called each other out on “checking privilege.”

Johnson, who was standing at the front of the room holding a poster, asked Azar if he considered his film to be “pinkwashing.” He said, “I think what I’m doing here can be considered pinkwashing.” She then asked if he considered himself an ally to Queer Palestinians, to which he said “yes.”

Johnson further inquired about how this was the case. Azar responded, “You’re seeing pinkwashing as something bad…I am tired of seeing Israel in only one color…If I wasn’t an Israeli and I was an American, I would think that the Palestinians are right, because when you’re outside of the picture you have to choose a side, black or white.”

Azar questioned Johnson about her connection to Israel and Palestine. Johnson brought up “apartheid” and “colonialism,” adding that “as a black person in the U.S., I identify with their [Palestinians’] experience, living under colonialism, living under oppression.”

Azar then said, “What if you’re wrong, though?”

“I’m not wrong,” Johnson remarked. Both Johnson and Azar interrupted each other in attempting a discussion.

At around 9 p.m., Coker came to the front of the room and stated that it was time for the event to end and asked that protestors leave before everyone else. Azar asked to say something and said that he did not think it was necessary for the protestors to leave before everyone else.

After the majority of people departed the event, including Azar, about 20 students, many of whom are involved in Hillel, gathered at the front of the auditorium, along with Hillel staff. A number of students were crying. They huddled together and gave each other hugs. Hillel leaders called Azar back to talk with these students. This smaller group remained at Kelley Lecture Hall, talking until nearly 11 p.m.

Azar told Hillel students that they needed to create a plan.“This is a game,” he said. “A little war, but a civilized war.” He told Hillel students to not be threatening, but to work together, be prepared, and create a dialogue. “I’m tired of hearing only bad things about Israel,” he said, comparing the media’s idea of Israel to “The Wire” as the only portrayal of Baltimore. In reference to the protest—and, perhaps, in an attempt to cheer upset students—he stated, “It was one of the best events I’ve ever had, because finally, after three years, something actually happened.”

The following day, however, Azar posted on Facebook that “last night” was “one of the most horrifying experiences I have ever faced.” He framed his post with examples of anti-Semitism he encountered during his tour around the United States. He went on to describe the protest at Goucher, stating that the protesters’ chants were “combative” and “filled with distortions of facts; mostly anti-Semitic.” He also said that the “20-year-old students” were “brainwashed against Israel” and “were targeting pure hatred against us.”

According to a statement written by the directors of Hillel following the event, “many students and supporters have expressed upset and hurt that the event was disrupted and that they have felt targeted…We feel that the mic check and poster display violated Hillel students’ and Mr. Azar’s right to free speech, and such interruptions should not be tolerated.” Judicial Board is currently investigating the protestors’ actions.

The Baltimore Jewish Times ran an article about the event on November 12, heavily quoting Azar’s Facebook post, as well as a post by a student contradicting what Azar had said. The Times of Israel also published an article, quoting Azar’s Facebook post as well as the campus-wide email sent by Goucher administration debriefing the event. Neither news organization spoke to students who were present at the screening.

The day after the event, Hillel sponsored LGBT Shabbat, which was attended by several students who had protested the film screening. Hillel leaders and leaders of the protest are currently working together to build community and to collaborate on future events to foster productive dialogue around these issues.

For more information, an article concerning follow-up action and student responses can be found on The Quindecim website. This article will also be published in the next issue of The Quindecim.

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