As a queer Israeli Jew and the son of an Iraqi mother and North African father, I have consistently struggled with my intersecting identities. My Iraqi family tried to understand when I came out but urged me not to be outspoken in case others weren’t accepting. Meanwhile, the Tunisian side of my family made it clear that I shouldn’t bring up the subject ever again. Yet I remain proud of both my Tunisian-Berber Jewish heritage as well as my Iraqi Jewish heritage, and I will not be compelled to favor only one identity. Just as I did not choose to be gay, I did not choose my ethnicity.
But now, the organizers of a queer march held in Washington on Friday are telling me that I should be ashamed of where I was born, my nationality and that I am Jewish. In solidarity with the Palestinians and to create a safe space for them, the D.C. Dyke March banned “nationalist symbols” from countries with “oppressive tendencies,” in particular Israeli flags. This included the Star of David superimposed on a rainbow pride flag, which the organizers considered evocative of the Israeli flag, though Palestinian flags were allowed.
We can’t allow such exclusion from pride celebrations if we are sincere about creating more open and loving societies.
Banning expressions of Israeli identity along with the central emblem of Judaism dating from at least the third century is a painful sentiment, and isn’t lessened by the organizers’ statement that displaying Jewish stars in other ways that they find acceptable would be allowed. Their decision is not only personally alienating, but undermining of the very spirit of what LGBTQ+ parades should be about — the inclusivity and acceptance of all identities. We can’t allow such exclusion from pride celebrations if we are sincere about creating more open and loving societies.
I am a Mizrahi Jew (person of Middle Eastern or North African descent, which make up the majority of Israeli Jews) who grew up in an Arabic-speaking home. When I was growing up in the 1990s, it was a constant challenge using the same language as those in a number of countries that have sought to destroy Israel while having skin a shade browner than most Ashkenazim, or Israelis of European descent.
I wanted to be socially accepted, but I was also proud of my Arabic and North African culture. I often endured taunts and scorn from peers, though I always knew that to combat prejudice meant I couldn’t hide from who I am. Racist comments about my Mizrahi background served more as a reminder of the work to be done than something to fear. And I’m happy to know that the situation in Israel today, while far from perfect, is much better for my community and for other minorities than it was.
At the same time, another truth heaved in my heart. As a teenager growing up in a small working-class city with limited internet access, my view of sexuality was formed primarily by my immediate surroundings. My friends mocked LGBTQ+ people while my father reminded me that homosexuality is a biblical sin and that LGBTQ+ people are not to be celebrated, so I kept secret about my orientation. I remember, though, watching the American Pride parade on the news in Israel when I was only 12 years old and convincing myself that I was not alone.
By the time I turned 19, I couldn't take it anymore. While serving as a humanitarian officer during my mandatory service in the Israeli Defense Forces, I finally came out of the closet. In the U.S. Army the policy was still “don’t ask, don’t tell”; luckily, there was no such prohibition in Israel. My army commander was the first person I told about my queer identity. His response: “It’s OK to be who you are.”
Though I am out now, even at 29 my internal struggles have not subsided. My Mizrahi heritage coupled with my family’s unwillingness to fully accept my sexual orientation means I have to work to convince myself every day that the pain of rejection is worth living my truth. Witnessing pride parades around the world become bigger and more inclusive has been a light at the end of a dark tunnel. That is, until now.
“All people should have a space to celebrate themselves,” said D.C. Dyke March organizer Laila Makled last week. Since I was a teenager dealing with rejection at every turn, I longed to hear these words. Lead D.C. Dyke March organizer Mary Quintero-Wright followed up: “Displacement is a queer issue. Everything is intersectional.” As the grandson of refugees, her statement also spoke to me. My grandparents were forced out of Iraq and Tunisia because of anti-Jewish fervor, two of the 850,000 Jews from the Middle East and North Africa who found a safe haven in Israel.
However, when these same Dyke March organizers decided to ban the image of Jewish stars on any flag, including rainbow and trans flags, the pain of rejection came flooding back. The same lack of acceptance I have encountered from bigots, racists and homophobes for decades was now coming from within the one community — the one place — where I had always felt safe.
In a post on the march’s Facebook page, insincerely titled “We love Jewish Dykes,” an illustration depicts a person with tefillin (symbols of Jewish prayer) standing by anti-Israeli and anti-Zionist signs. To me — and so many other queer Jews of color — this means that the Dyke March, which purports to be inclusive of all identities, only welcomes Jews who are anti-Zionist, who make up only 3 percent of the entire American Jewish community, according to recent polls.
And to ban the Jewish star on flags, even in the name of anti-Zionism, is an erasure of millions of Israelis. How can anyone justify the symbolic exclusion of millions of people from a march for equality, based on their government’s policies? Why is it OK to make Jews feel unsafe in the name of creating a “safe space,” and how can it be called a safe space when it’s safe only for certain people?
Like most Israelis, I am openly critical of my government, including many of its actions toward the Palestinians. As a queer Mizrahi Israeli, I must be. I fully understand where criticism of my government comes from, and I sympathize with those who wish to challenge it. But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has nothing to do with our struggle as LGBTQ+ people, and to politicize our safe spaces and to alienate minorities is dangerous.
I would implore those who favor banning flags displaying the Star of David to understand that it is also the symbol that has meant freedom and safety for me.
The struggle of the LGBTQ+ community is rooted in the story of a marginalized and ostracized group persevering in the face of discrimination, violence and hate. It is the struggle that I looked to for hope when dealing with the tremendous pressure that came with growing up closeted in a family that I knew would not accept that part of me. This movement was designed to unite people of different backgrounds and identities, but it is now being hijacked to discriminate against others in an eerily similar fashion.
Those who claim that a Jewish symbol is solely representative of everything that is wrong with Israel is the hardest point for me to fathom. Israel is not, and should not be, immune from criticism. However, I would implore those who favor banning flags displaying the Star of David to understand that it is also the symbol that has meant freedom and safety for me since my days in the army, and the symbol of safe haven for my Tunisian and Iraqi refugee grandparents — the exact freedom and safety that is now at stake, not only for LGBTQ+ American Jews, but for the young LGBTQ+ Jews in Israel and around the world who are told that acceptance is conditional.