Pro-Israel LGBTQ Rights Organization Responds to Shout Down at LGBTQ Conference Last Week

Chicago’s annual Creating Change Conference for LGBTQ activism turned sour last week after pro-Palestinian protesters shot down pro-Israel LGBTQ rights groups, A Wider Bridge and Jerusalem Open House, before and during the event.

Event host National LGBTQ Task Force initially asked the pro-Israel organizations to stay clear of the event, but backpedaled on the decision after receiving negative feedback.

Instead, pro-Palestinian supporters stormed the conference, chanting phrases like “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” and “2-4-6-8, Israel is the apartheid state.” The groups were boo-ed off the stage. Wider Bridge posted a bystander’s video.

This Saturday, Feb. 6, Temple of Aaron will host Laurie Grauer, A Wider Bridge’s Midwest Manager of Programs and Operations. She will speak during services and stay for Kiddush lunch questions and discussion.

We talk with Laurie Grauer about her reactions to last week’s protest and how staying engaged in current events can help the Jewish and Zionist people foster a strong community.

How long have you been involved with work in the LGBTQ Jewish community?

Recognizing not all LGBTQ Jews wanted to find their community in a synagogue, I co-founded and became the Executive Director of Gesher Chicago. For five years we hosted potlucks, social outings and partnered with other Jewish organizations as a way to further LGBTQ inclusion in local, communal life. In doing this work, I first partnered with A Wider Bridge at the beginning of 2015. Upon learning more about their mission to offer opportunities for people to experience Israel first hand, I joined their 2015 Mission Trip to Israel and 40 years of Pride Celebration and Leadership conference in Tel Aviv. They brought me on as their Midwest Manager and integrated the work of Gesher into A Wider Bridge Chicago.

What was your initial reaction to hearing about the events in Chicago?

As A Wider Bridge’s local staffer and a volunteer on the Host Committee of the Conference, I was responsible for organizing both the LGBT Israel reception and the Shabbat service that preceded it. Though we had heard from various sources that there was to be a protest, we had no idea what it would look like. We clearly communicated to our attendees and volunteers not to engage with protestors, and to move from the service, located in the lobby, to the reception hall located on the third floor as quickly and peacefully as possible.

Never had I experienced such unfiltered hatred for Israel and the Jewish people in all my life.

When the service ended, I began to usher people towards the elevators. Our group was immediately cut off by people carrying signs and drumming, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

Then, I received the following text from one of my volunteers: “There is violence at the reception.” My heart began to pound.

Not only was I concerned for the safety of my community, my volunteer, and our speakers, but I had stationed my partner at the reception door. I immediately left my post in the lobby and ran to the nearest elevator heading to the third floor.

When I arrived, it was absolute madness. So many people filled the narrow hall that I could not see the reception door, let alone my partner. I began moving through the crowd. A man I recognized from my congregation held a Palestinian flag and refused to give it back to the protestors who were taunting him. We later learned from video footage protesters deliberately placed this flag over his nose and mouth moments before, setting him in a state of panic.

When we reached the door to the reception, I found my partner and other supporters of A Wider Bridge locked out of the room due to the protest. Some of us, including my cantor who had just led the Shabbat service, formed a tight circle as we held each other, and sang “Od Yavo Shalom/Salam” and shouted “Shalom Achshav.” Protestors still surrounded us, pushed at us and yelled over us. I remember someone screamed into a megaphone “Zionist Racist m*****-f******.” At that point, I buried my tear-stained face into the shoulder of a friend. Never had I experienced such unfiltered hatred for Israel and the Jewish people in all my life. The jeers and taunts we heard that night would still ring in my ears days later, but what brought me to tears that night, was that despite all of my efforts, I could not keep my community safe from the hate that filled the hall that night.

The reception and service were open to the public, therefore, from my understanding, the protestors, even if they were not conference attendees, could be there legally. It was the police, who came at the request of the Hilton, who dispersed the crowd.

How did the Jewish community in Chicago initially react?

In the immediate aftermath, I called people who had attended the service and reception. Their emotions ranged from angry to confused to depressed and traumatized. This prompted a local rabbi and counselors to host a private healing circle for reception attendees the following week. Nearly thirty people showed.

We had no problem with activists protesting Israel – but to use an anti-Israel platform to shut down and try to silence our voices is unacceptable and illiberal. By refusing a dialogue, these protesters denied themselves the nuanced reality of our organization.

While our community is still healing. In the week that followed, LGBT and allied supporters of Israel, in Chicago and across the country, wrote articles and editorials in LGBT and Jewish newspapers, blogs and social media. Most prominently, LGBT rights attorney Roberta Kaplan spearheaded a letter to the Task Force calling for change through an independent commission to review the Task Force’s decision making. The leaders of Jerusalem Open House continued their tour with A Wider Bridge to LA, Palm Springs, San Francisco, and Miami, where they received the warm embrace of the local community they expected to receive at Creating Change in Chicago.

What does it mean for the Jewish and Zionist communities to have been emotionally attacked?

In many respects, Creating Change was a watershed moment for Chicago’s LGBT, Jewish, and pro-Israel communities, where BDS and anti-Israel activism has been relegated to the campus space at universities like DePaul. From the outpouring of support from our local community, there is a much stronger understanding about the challenges in the LGBT community around Israel – and the need for A Wider Bridge’s work.

I don’t think the protest negatively affected the rights of LGBT Jews. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. One person who tried to attend our reception shared his experiences in Haaretz. Once the article was published, he shared it with his parents and came out to them. Standing up for what he believed in, as a Jew and as Zionist, gave him the courage to be his authentic self with his parents.

What are you planning on speaking about at Temple of Aaron this Saturday?

First and foremost, I will be introducing the LGBT and Jewish communities of the Twin Cities to A Wider Bridge and our mission connecting the LGBTQ communities in North America and Israel. I will spend some time describing my experience at Creating Change, but the reality is this protest did not accumulate overnight. These challenges have been present under the radar for years, and underscore the need for A Wider Bridge to expand our work to new communities in the Twin Cities.

What’s your most important advice to the Jewish community now, recovering from the events that occurred in Chicago?

Stayed engaged. If these issues are new to you, we have a wide network of LGBT leaders and allies with a demonstrated commitment to supporting Israel and its LGBT community that is ready to help. We also offer annual trips to Israel so LGBTQ leaders can experience the beauty and complexity of both Israel and Palestine first hand. We can provide the tools to have balanced discussions on Israel, but we cannot be the only ones engaged in the conversations.   Our website,, and our social media sites are updated daily with news coming out of Israel’s LGBTQ community so we can all stay connected.

I would also encourage people to emulate the A Wider Bridge model of shared experience. We brought Jerusalem Open House to Creating Change so others hear their story of struggle, and from that struggle, find a common connection as LGBT people that opens up a space to comprehensively talk about Israel. It’s a slow process, but ultimately, it’s the most impactful.

Do you think there’s a way to work with pro-Palestinian protesters peacefully?

We had no problem with activists protesting Israel – but to use an anti-Israel platform to shut down and try to silence our voices is unacceptable and illiberal. By refusing a dialogue, these protesters denied themselves the nuanced reality of our organization.

A Wider Bridge welcomes a diverse spectrum of voices from Israel, right center and left, including those in Arab, Druze, Ethiopian Israeli, and many other communities. The lives and stories of Palestinian LGBT people are often heartbreaking. Each year we bring our mission participants to the West Bank to better understand both the Palestinian experience at large, and the LGBT Palestinian experience specifically. We never ask any of our mission participants or local community event participants to take a specific political position. After six years of work, we know that LGBT people always find something to fall in love with.

Laurie Grauer will speak at Temple of Aaron in St. Paul at Shabbat services Friday morning. Services start at 9:00 am. Laurie Grauer will speak at 10:30 a.m.