The controversy over the DC Dyke March, Jewish stars and Israel, explained

(JTA) — Why did a leftist LGBTQ pride parade temporarily block Jewish Pride flags from entering, then let them in?

Here’s what happened:

The D.C. Dyke March, a social justice-focused parade on June 7 for, in its words, “queer liberation,” announced that it would not welcome any “nationalist symbols.” That included Israeli flags and American flags, the only two mentioned specifically in their ban. More controversially, rainbow flags with Jewish stars in the center were banned because, according to organizers, they look too much like Israeli flags and are thus a symbol of “violent nationalism.”

Palestinian flags were allowed.

Critics of the policy called it not just anti-Israel, but anti-Semitic. Some activists brought the flags anyway, and were let in after being temporarily blocked.

So why did the policy exist? Was it anti-Semitic? What ended up happening?

Here’s what you need to know.

What is the DC Dyke March?

The DC Dyke March is an alternative parade to the main LGBTQ parade that took place this past weekend in Washington, D.C. Its politics have traditionally been to the left of more mainstream pride marches. It’s one of a movement of Dyke Marches that have taken place nationwide.

The Dyke March’s description on its fundraising page says it focused this year on combating gentrification and displacement.

“Our goal is to encourage activism within our community and center transwomxn, queer womxn, nonbinary, lesbian, and other dyke identities who are oft-marginalized by the mainstream LGBTQ movement,” the webpage says, using an alternative spelling for “woman.” “We believe Dyke is not a sexuality, but a political identity centered on solidarity in each other’s struggles and a belief that none of us are free until we all are.”

If it was focused on gentrification, why is everyone talking about Israel and Jewish stars?

One of the march’s policies was to discourage “nationalist symbols.” According to organizers of the march, that included Israeli flags and American flags, which were the only ones they mentioned specifically.

But the organizers took that policy one step further, and asked marchers not to bring a longtime symbol of LGBTQ rights, rainbow flags, with Jewish stars superimposed on the center. March organizers said those flags are reminiscent of the Israeli flag, which they said could feel threatening to Palestinian marchers. “We choose to prioritize Palestinian lives and justice in Palestine over lazy symbols,” organizers wr0te.

The policy is the latest instance of a progressive group saying that showing support for Israel in any form is incompatible with their politics. While a majority of American Jews lean left politically and support the state of Israel, the hard left increasingly embraces a boycott of Israel and views it as a violator of human rights, if not illegitimate.

So the march banned Jewish stars?

No, though they were restricted from that flag design. Jill Raney, a Dyke March organizer who’s also a member of IfNotNow, a Jewish leftist group critical of Israel, said before the march that other Jewish symbols were welcome, as were Jewish stars in any other context. Raney said that a rainbow flag with a Jewish star in the corner would also have been fine.

The march’s Jewish organizers, Raney said, are the ones who formulated the policy.

“I am so sympathetic to the frustration and the anger and the hurt that a lot of Jewish dykes are feeling about why can’t we have our symbols exactly how we want to,” Raney said. “Some folks have legitimate fear and frustration around the reality that the Israeli government took these Jewish symbols and tied it so profoundly to a lot of violence.”

Many LGBTQ Jews and their allies say the effect of the policy is anti-Semitic. Writes Peter Fox in the Forward: “What the march has done is ban all queer Jews who feel any connection to Israel — which is itself anti-Semitic given that Jews are not collectively responsible for the actions of other Jews or for the Israeli government, any more than Muslims, blacks, Asians or any other group of people are.”

Did the march restrict any other religious symbols, or ban any other flags?

Raney was focused on crafting policy around Jewish symbols, and was unaware of any policy about, for example, a Christian cross or Muslim crescent, although those appear on dozens of countries’ flags. And the march did not maintain a list of accepted and rejected national flags, though American flags would also be restricted because, Raney said, the United States commits human rights abuses.

But one flag that was allowed, Raney said, is the Palestinian flag.

“Palestinian flags are allowed because we believe they represent the hope for freedom for the Palestinian people,” Raney said. “The symbols of liberation are the whole point of Dyke March. Symbols of governments that cause human rights abuses are not welcome.” They didn’t explain how the Palestinian flag is not nationalist.

Rae Gaines, Sarah Beth Alcabes, Jill Raney and  Hannah Perry, participants in the DC Dyke March (right to left) are members of IfNotNow, a leftist Jewish group critical of Israel. (Courtesy of IfNotNow DC)

How is the Jewish LGBTQ community responding?

Many groups are aghast. While the Jewish star is a central symbol of Israel, it’s also a longtime symbol of Judaism that long predates Zionism or a modern Jewish state. And LGBTQ leaders say placing the central symbol of one’s community at the center of a rainbow flag is standard practice in the queer community.

“The star of David, while it has been used in a political context, is a cultural, religious and spiritual symbol,” said Patti Nelson, secretary of the board of Bet Mishpachah, a D.C. LGBTQ synagogue. “It is a symbol that has been used for centuries to unite us. It’s also a symbol that’s been turned against us and that we’ve re-embraced to represent our Jewish community, which is vast and diverse.”

Local and national Jewish organizations also released statements criticizing the flag restriction. And the National LGBTQ Task Force withdrew as a partner organization from the march due to the policy.

“The Jewish Pride Flag is a symbol that represents the greater LGBTQ Jewish community – around the world and of many perspectives,” the Task Force said in a statement. “Additionally, we are disappointed that this action distracts from the appropriate and needed focus on DC residents and housing policies that favor gentrification.”

Hasn’t this happened before?

Yes. The Chicago Dyke March asked marchers to leave in 2017 because they carried rainbow flags with Jewish stars, sparking a similar debate. The following year, marchers at the Chicago Dyke March carried Palestinian flags.

So what happened at the march?

Some would-be marchers carrying the Jewish Pride flag were blocked by Jewish marshals at an entrance point to the march. In video taken of the event, Raney said they could enter if they removed the Star of David from the flag.

“In order to have the Jewish Pride flag not be about Zionism, all you have to do is move the star,” Raney told a group of Jewish marchers holding the flags. “With respect, we are all Jewish dykes here and we just want to march in solidarity with Palestinian dykes, and if y’all want to march also, great.”

The group holding the flags included representatives of Zioness, a women’s group that demonstrates openly as pro-Israel activists in progressive spaces, A Wider Bridge, a pro-Israel LGBTQ group, and the local Jewish Community Relations Council.

“You are creating a binary in which the only way to be a dyke is to explicitly denounce the existence of the Jewish state, which is an important thing for most Jews, the vast majority of Jews in the world” said Amanda Berman, the founder of Zioness. “We support liberation for all dykes. You support the Palestinian flag. You support Palestinian nationalism.”

The marchers were eventually allowed to enter the march.

A.J. Campbell, one of the first marchers to inquire about the policy, said she felt the policy made her choose between her Jewish and queer identities.

“The march belongs to all of us,” she said. “I’m hoping for something like a reconciliation here. I actually hope that we can, after the march, talk about this and see if there’s some ground we can cover together.”