Celebrating differences, finding common ground

There is a lot of conversation and concern in Toronto’s Queer community surrounding the news that Pride Toronto is drafting a “freedom of expression policy” that will govern what signs will be allowed in this year’s parade. Pride’s Executive Director Tracey Sandilands has said only language that incites “violence or hatred” will be disallowed, but concerns remain that those words are not defined and could be broadly interpreted. It’s hard to not see this unprecedented development as a direct response to last year’s parade participation of a group called Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) which caused controversy.

The situation is a challenge for those like myself who would represent the Church/Wellesley Village at city hall. While the conflict in the Middle East is obviously not and should not be a civic issue, nor is the definition or prohibition of hate speech, the councillor of Ward 27 must be a clear and unapologetic advocate for the LGBT community. They must also represent those members of our community who find some of the language that was used by participants in last year’s Pride highly objectionable. How does one person walk that line?

Marching in a Toronto Pride parade, and at a Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee event recently in Ward 27.

I think we begin by working to find common ground. Something straight people like myself need to understand about the Queer community in general—and the history of Pride in specific—is that censorship, perceived or real, is anathema. The Pride celebrations we know today owe their very existence to the rejection of pressures that would try to control, silence or sideline unpopular or disruptive voices. Many in the queer community I’ve talked to in the past few days view any attempt to filter or sanitize the Pride parade in anyway not only as a huge step backwards, but a dangerous one that summons memories of the days not long ago where so many people were not able to openly acknowledge their own sexual or gender identity. (Not that that stigma has been completely defeated, but we’ve come a long way and we don’t want to go back.)

Similarly, something non-Jewish people—again, like myself—need to understand about the Jewish community is that they have an extremely high sensitivity towards any language that even flirts with the thin edge of the slippery slope towards anti-Jewish or anti-Israel (in the “Israel should not exist” sense) sentiment, and for good reason. Like with the Queer community, this sensitivity comes from a memory of a time not so long ago when mere words helped to set off one of the most horrific series of actions in the history of humankind. Today, we hopefully don’t need to be reminded, antisemitism is still a present and persistent threat that must be vigilantly identified and condemned.

There, simultaneously, is the source of tension and also the opportunity for common ground. Members of these two groups find themselves in conflict over where to draw the line when it comes to freedom of expression. Not only that, but their definitions of what kind of uncomfortable speech should be tolerated are, in some ways, at the core of their communal histories. And yet, they are united by an oppressive past and an understanding of prejudice and hatred that all too often persists. They share a desire to fight ignorance, to defend their rights and to proudly celebrate their identities.

The question therefore becomes, what is the best way to accomplish those shared objectives? In the struggle between defending freedom of expression and preventing groups from being targeted, what wins out?

In this specific case, sunlight is the best disinfectant. Instead of allowing intolerance to breed in dark corners, let’s bring it out in the open so we can name it and repudiate it in public. Or, as Xtra’s Marcus McCann put it, Pride Toronto should go so far as to “[endorse] free expression for those who are anti-gay; it is better that they are laughed out of the commons than their opinions be allowed to fester in private.”

Using the words “apartheid state” to describe Israel, as one group did in last year’s Pride parade, is hurtful, dangerous, and displays a titanic misunderstanding of the complexity of the situation. But it’s not the job of Pride organizers to serve as arbiters of what amounts to allowable protest. If it comes down to it we already have laws against inciting violence or hatred. Keep Pride free, as it should be, and let individuals be judged for how they choose to use that freedom.

13 thoughts on “Celebrating differences, finding common ground

  1. Something people who aren’t familiar with Israel/Palestine or South African apartheid should understand: don’t preach about subjects you know little about.

    I realize you are a politician and are just trying to agree with everyone on all sides of the debate, but your ignorance of the issue shines through in this post.

    Michael Ignatieff, Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter, Noam Chomsky, Ilan Pappe, Naomi Klein, and the former president of the UN General Assembly have all compared Israel/Palestine to apartheid. If you disagree, that’s your prerogative, but I don’t think you’re in a position to lecture these people about how they misunderstand the situation.

  2. Would you care to read the following posts and defend your ignorant statement that an apartheid analysis of Israel is “a titanic misunderstanding of the complexity of the situation”?

    http://www.rabble.ca/blogs/bloggers/judes/2010/03/israel-apartheid-state-and-why-they-are-losing-legitimacy

    http://queersagainstapartheid.org/apartheid/

    http://www.hsrc.ac.za/Media_Release-378.phtml

    Hendrik Verwoerd, the white South African prime minister who created South African apartheid, said in 1961 that “Israel is an apartheid state.” Eminent black South Africans like Desmond Tutu and Willie Madisha also recognize apartheid in Israel. I daresay you would agree that they know a lot more about apartheid than you do.

    The crime of apartheid is clearly defined in international law. If the offense fits, you must convict.

  3. Chris, I respect you as someone who genuinely wants to bring different people together regardless of ideology or political differences.

    But this blog post made me lose some of that respect, because it demonstrates a misunderstanding of the issues involved.

    I hope I don’t need to point out that criticizing a government does not mean you are criticizing the people who live there, and it has nothing to do with race or ethnicity. To say otherwise is as silly as arguing that those of us who criticized George Bush are “anti-American”.

    I think we also need to be more comfortable with the idea of criticism and the freedom to be critical. In 1981, lesbians and gays poured into the streets with chants of “No more shit!” and “F— you, 52!” (52 Division of the Toronto Police) – much harsher language than anything contained in last year’s Queers Against Israeli Apartheid contingent. Sometimes being political, critical, and even angry, is warranted. We don’t all need to agree and we don’t all need to get along. “Objectionable” messages – even on “sensitive” subjects, are part of the tradition of Pride.

    This is not an issue of the Jewish community versus the queer community. If you have been following Xtra, you know that many of the people involved in Queers Against Israeli Apartheid are Jewish themselves.

    You are entitled to your opinion on both Israel and freedom of expression, but I recommend that you talk to the people involved to more fully understand their point of view before you wade into the issue.

  4. @Alex…

    “I hope I don’t need to point out that criticizing a government does not mean you are criticizing the people who live there, and it has nothing to do with race or ethnicity.”

    I agree, and have said so on this blog before. This is an important distinction that needs to be emphasized.

    ““Objectionable” messages – even on “sensitive” subjects, are part of the tradition of Pride.”

    Absolutely, and that should continue, as I said above. That is the main point of my post.

    “This is not an issue of the Jewish community versus the queer community. If you have been following Xtra, you know that many of the people involved in Queers Against Israeli Apartheid are Jewish themselves.”

    I am following Xtra’s coverage closely. Neither community is homogeneous, but we can’t pretend there isn’t a conflict between some members of each community, who seem to be at an impasse. By pointing out common objectives, we can begin to dislodge that impasse.

    “I recommend that you talk to the people involved to more fully understand their point of view before you wade into the issue.”

    I’ve talked to many who feel passionately about this issue one way or the other, including before publishing this post. I received strong messages of support from members of both the Queer and Jewish communities, but again, there will always be different opinions within any community. The comments being left by you and others on this blog continue to help illuminate different perspectives and contribute to ongoing better understanding.

  5. Chris, I think you need to educate yourself on the issue of Israeli apartheid. You need more information and to consider a different perspective. I recommend the following two sources, for starters.

    “The Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa (HSRC) has released a study indicating that Israel is practicing both colonialism and apartheid in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). The study is being posted for public debate on this website.”:
    http://www.hsrc.ac.za/Media_Release-378.phtml

    “Coming out against Israeli apartheid: The case for solidarity”:
    http://www.rabble.ca/news/2010/03/coming-out-against-israeli-apartheid-case-solidarity

  6. Every Toronto gay pride year, there’s one lone man walking in the pride parade march with a sign protesting the gay rights movements. I don’t agree with his anti gay opinions, however I have found myself applauding for him as he marches by me out of respect for him standing up to what he believes is wrong.

    Often, I find other pride parade viewers around me feeling the same way as I, and applauding for the lone guy as he marches for his right for freedom of expression.

    As a openly gay male, without freedom of expression existing in Canada, I would not have the luxury of being open about my sexuality to begin with!

    Chris, thank you for bringing this issue to light! We all need to express our thoughts towards this to the Gay Pride executive board.

  7. I’d like to thank Chris for being so open minded on an issue as important as this.

    For all of the posts above, I urge you all to do your homework. As someone who has traveled to Israel and the West Bank, I can assure you that there is no “apartheid” in Israel.

    The most important thing is that one needs to differentiate between the 1.4 million Arab Israelis, and the Palestinian population governed by the PA.

    Arab Israelis have fulls rights. They can vote, run for office (and have three parties currently in the Knesset), work for equal pay, have served in cabinet, on the Supreme Court and in diplomatic initiatives, etc. Yes, there are inequalities. There are inequalities in every democracy. And we’re working on bettering them here in Canada too.

    But democracy is the best thing we’ve got. Don’t forget that Arabs in Israel enjoy more rights than Arabs in any Arab state.

    As for Palestinians, 97% of them are under PA sovereignty rule. Israel can’t enforce “apartheid” against them, as they aren’t in Israel proper. Plain and simple. Read the Oslo Accords.

    Instead of pointing the finger and calling names (such as “apartheid”, “genocide”, “occupation”, and “Nazi state”, let’s talk to each other. Let’s sit down and see where each of us is coming from.

    It’s time to move forward. I hope you’ll all join me in my quest for peace. Shalom-Salaam.

  8. “the councillor of Ward 27 must be a clear and unapologetic advocate for the LGBT community.”

    Huh?

    Chris, a councillor must first be a clear and unapologetic advocate for the interests of all their constituents and not just one part of their constituency.

    Will you be an unapologetic advocate for a position taken by any group that you deem important to your electoral success that also happens to be a bad position for your Ward or Toronto?

    How will you be an unapologetic advocate for one group’s position if it clashes with your own views or those of another group within your ward?

    The LGBT community has no exclusivity on political virtue. They, like any other group, have the capacity to be wrong.

    A wanna be leader is a tad more nuanced, because otherwise one day he might find himself way out on a limb looking back at someone with a saw.

  9. In my years of covering and creating documentaries about middle east issues and particularly the painful realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
    What I have come to believe is that their is no black and white just the highly complex web of both dysfunctional and functional relationships. Both sides hold truths and lies in equal measures. Inflamatory language and polarizing positions ignore the yearning for dignity and peace that the overwhelming majority of both populations want.

  10. @RO I’m referring to the need for our councillor to defend the rights and history of the LGBT community, particularly as it relates to Canada’s historic gay main street, Church. Of course I agree that our councillor must represent the whole ward, and that’s something that’s particularly important to me (having lived in three different parts of the Ward myself). I do not anticipate that defending Queer rights and the history of Pride will conflict with the needs of the rest of the Ward; to the contrary, that’s in all of our interests.

    With reference to one of your specific concerns, I can assure you that I have not and will not take any positions that I deem important to my electoral success but bad for the Ward or the city. That is an admittedly tempting idea for some politicians, but it’s always a losing game in the long run. As voters we want genuine priorities and commitments, not pandering transactional politics.

  11. A commendable attempt, Chris. But why so openly broach a touchy subject that so many with minimal information deign to prate on about? A hard way to generate publicity. And for a Ward campaign?

    Ralph, nice try, too, but no need to quantify: why not drop the “equal”? It can detract from grasping that that majoritarian yearning is weighted more for peace on one side, dignity on the other. That is not necessarily to grade either neither.

    And all you apartheid-callers, take a better look at your ongoing own Canada for a real font of apartheid, eg via the Indian Act. A quote from Roger Spielmann’s Anishbnaabe World (’09; not a great book, but he creditably points you to where to learn more in depth): “With the recent move in South Africa towards the dismantling of the system of Apartheid, Canada is the only country left in the western world where such a system still exists. With its legislated system of separation by race as embodied in The Indian Act, Canada continues to promote a racist (…”legislated system of separation by race.” Am I lying?) and paternalistic relationship with First Nations.” And elsewhere in the book, “In both countries [not Israel, right?] “reserves” were established where indigenous (or homeland) people were strenuously encouraged and even forced to live. I mean, how else could one get the homeland people out of the way of “civilization” (read: land + resources = lots of money)? While reserves no longer exist in South Africa, they still exist in Canada […]”

    Now that seems like quite the digression here, doesn’t it. Not unlike an anti-Israel banner in the parade, wouldn’t you say?

    But do note one thing, anyone who would deign to speak loudly from afar little respecting the intense locality of the conflict: the same manipulative forces — “lots of money” — that shunted First Nations around here, and other peoples in S. Africa, effect the very same damage in and around Israel. Look a little deeper and see from a bit higher, with humility of distance.

    Honour the localism of the people on the ground. Like parading people, feet on the ground.

  12. I am not surprised by the attitude of people who quote Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky to justify their position on Israel. People who buy in to conspiracy theorists’ beliefs are typically fanatical and single-minded.

    There are a great deal of complexities to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict and they can not be properly understood outside the Arab-Muslim/Israeli conflict as a whole. Obviously there has been wrongdoing on both sides and confidence-building on both sides is needed.

    Apartheid is a system of racial segregation and disenfranchisement that anyone with any comprehension of the situation in Israel understands simply does not exist there in a way that is comparable to South African Apartheid. Israel is also involved in an armed conflict and the simplistic and uninsightful assessments by “Queers Against Israeli Apartheid” fail to place israel’s actions in that context and relect an ideological bias without basis in fact.

    While wrongdoing has occurred on both sides of this matter, the anti-Israel hate groups’ pathological determination to place sole blame on Israel suggests that they have no real interest in a just peace and have other motivation as their primary interest.

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