4 min

An unholy mess

When religion, politics and homophobia collide

Any time religion, politics and homophobia meet, what you end up with is an unholy mess. And that’s what facing Pride this year, as questions of activism, anti-Semitism and Middle Eastern politics have collided in Toronto.

Most readers probably know the story by now. The presence in last year’s parade of a group called Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) — protesting Israeli policies in Palestine — led some Jewish activists in Toronto and B’nai Brith Canada to accuse Pride of lending itself to anti-Semitism and to attack grand marshal El-Farouk Khaki for having addressed the group at one point.

A press release from B’nai Brith executive vice-president Frank Dimant claimed the queer community’s “agenda was being hijacked by anti-Israel agitators” and that Khaki was “part and parcel of the anti-Israel machinery that continues to churn out hateful and divisive propaganda.”

The assertion is that criticizing policies of the Israeli government and armed forces is both anti-Jewish and tantamount to attacking the right of Israel to exist. Now, admittedly I am neither Jewish nor Israeli, but I do not believe that to be the case. I don’t believe that either QuAIA or Khaki are attacking Judaism nor the right of Israel to exist when they protest.

B’nai Brith and its supporters argue that Israel treats queers far better than its Muslim neighbours, and that therefore for queers to criticize Israel for its policies in Palestine is hypocritical.

Now it’s true that gays and lesbians in Israel are treated better than in many Islamic countries, where they can face imprisonment, torture and even execution. This includes in Palestine, where gay men have reportedly have been murdered by their own families in honour killings.

Not that Israel is perfect. Over the years, Jerusalem’s Pride has faced cancellations and delays because of attacks from Jewish, Christian and Muslim fundamentalists and because of assaults, death threats and at least one fatal stabbing.

But the claim is also a red herring. Sure, if I were queer and in the Middle East, I would prefer to live in Israel. But I wouldn’t be living in a vacuum where what happened in the country around me was irrelevant. I’m happy that in Canada, minority groups are valued and protected by law. But it doesn’t blind me to problems with government policy or stop me from protesting Canadian policies or advocating for Canadian action internationally.

Gays and lesbians live in the world, and the wider problems of that world and the ways in which other people are oppressed are not irrelevant. And to argue that Khaki, in particular, is unaware of how queers are treated in Muslim countries is ridiculous. Not only is he a founder of Salaam, a group for gay Muslims, he’s an immigration lawyer who has represented many gay refugees fleeing Muslim countries.

That doesn’t remove his right to support protests against Israeli policies in Palestine, if he so chooses. And nor does doing so make him anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish.

On the other hand, does criticizing Pride make B’nai Brith homophobic? Not necessarily, of course. The organization regularly criticizes those individuals or groups critical of Israeli policy and has labelled many anti-Semitic. The attacks on Pride and its participants may well be nothing more than a further example of that policy.

But, whether intentionally or not, the attacks are also serving another purpose: pleasing the Christian evangelicals who are B’nai Brith’s allies and supporters.

Dimant is the chair of the Department of Modern Israel Studies at Canada Christian College, run by Charles McVety, probably the leading homophobe among Canadian evangelicals. The ties between B’nai Brith and evangelicals, especially around family values, are deep, as explored by journalist Marci McDonald in The Walrus (an article reprinted in the Xtra papers).

“Dimant and McVety’s mutual interest in Israel and family values is exactly what Stephen Harper had in mind in 2003 in his Civitas speech when he laid out his plans for a new Conservative coalition that would unite social conservatives across faith lines,” writes McDonald. “For those who can’t see the connection between so-con issues and Israeli security, McVety offers one practised sound byte. ‘Israel is the number one family-values issue,’ he says. ‘Where does marriage come from? God. Where does the Bible come from? Israel. The first family of Christianity — Jesus, Mary, and Joseph — were all Jewish. Israel is the source of everything we have.'”

As McDonald writes, when McVety was looking for somebody to head up his anti-same-sex marriage Institute for Canadian Values, his choice was Joseph Ben-Ami, formerly B’nai Brith’s chief lobbyist in Ottawa and a former employee of Stockwell Day.

B’nai Brith took no public stance on same-sex marriage. Nor did they take a position on the inclusion of homosexuality as a protected category under Canada’s hate crimes legislation.

In an article in the July 2008 issue of Canadian Jewish Outlook, Stephen Scheinberg — formerly the head of B’nai Brith Canada (BBC)’s League for Human Rights — wrote that the organization was afraid of angering evangelicals.

“One day I received a phone call from NDP MP Svend Robinson, inviting me as chair of the League for Human Rights to come to Ottawa to testify in favour of his bill to include gays and lesbians among those protected from hate speech,” wrote Scheinberg. “I readily agreed, because it had always been BBC policy to support their inclusion, but I was in for a surprise. It was clear that the main group opposed to Robinson’s bill was the Christian right, and that BBC, that is Mr Dimant, would not support the bill without protection being given to the speech of anti-gay clergy. I, though much embarrassed, had to notify Robinson that I was unable to appear at the hearings as a representative of BBC.”

So is the B’nai Brith criticism motivated by homophobia and an alliance with the Christian right, an attempt to counter attacks on Israel or both? As I said, any time religion, politics and homophobia meet, what you end up with is an unholy mess.