Lesbian, Jewish, diasporic and anti-Zionist: Breaking all kinds of taboos at the Leeds Queer Film Festival

aviva stahl piece

Being a Londoner (who lived in Leeds ever so briefly), sometimes even I find myself committing that greatest of sins: assuming that everything great happens in London.  It’s a sin that seems especially easy to commit if you’re queer.  Like many other gays and lesbians, I’ve often presumed that queer life is better in our bigger urban centres.   But the weekend before last I was lucky enough to be proven wrong (again), when I participated in the Leeds Queer Film Festival. The selection of films was stellar, and the crowd was friendly and politically engaged. I returned to London glowing, remembering how meaningful it can be to attend queer events that are spot-on politically but still organized from the grassroots.

I was also fortunate enough to be given a slot by festival organizers to show films about a topic that’s close to my heart: queer Jewish diasporic identity and its relationship to Zionism.  I screened two semi-autobiographical films – both made by Jewish lesbians – so it’s probably unsurprising that the session resonated powerfully with my own experiences of encountering the world as a Jewish dyke.  The first film, Treyf, follows two Jewish lesbians as they fall in love at a Passover seder and explore their Jewish upbringing and its impact on their lives.  We travel with Cynthia and Alisa as they fly to Israel, discuss their evolving views on the occupation, host a gathering for Jewish American lesbians of all stripes and sizes, and walk around New York, reminiscing about the vibrant, political Jewish life that thrived there only decades ago.

The second film, Camp, is a three-part, experimental video essay that interrogates the filmmaker’s personal relationship to Jewish history and culture.  In the final section of the film, Mitchell gives us intimate access to a difficult conversation with her grandfather.  As he cuts her hair, she tries to engage him on the issue of Israel/Palestine.  We see how he reacts – he tells her that her political beliefs on the question of Israel disturb him  – and we feel the weight of tension between them (“we’ve been an oppressed nation since the beginning of time, nobody ever wanted us… we have a homeland, it’s a very important thing…”).  As the film closes Mitchell tells us, “I began to feel extremely uncomfortable, afraid of the things we still couldn’t say to each other.”  [I have so been there.]

Screened alongside each other, the films touched upon the complex tensions many of us face as queer progressive Jews:  the ostracism we encounter in our families and synagogues for not being straight and (often, even worse) for not being Zionists; what it means travel inside our parents’ and grandparents’ worlds, in which their lived experiences of anti-Semitism translate seamlessly into their emotive justifications for the state of Israel; how we feel silenced by their narratives of suffering, but also understand them; the difficulties of engaging in Palestine activism, when there seems to be no space for nuance (or even understanding of the weight of intergenerational trauma) in the sometimes strident denunciations of Zionism; our simultaneous, fervent commitment to ending our communities’ complicity in the occupation; and finally, the yearning many of us feel for Jewish queer communities that celebrate our rich cultural heritages – communities that are critical of the violence of Zionism but not merely reactionary to the question of Israel/Palestine.

After the films, I spoke about a new project I’m involved in, which I’m very excited to announce is launching this week. Renounce Birthright is a web-based resource run by and for young Jews, in which we encourage our peers to reject their “gift” of a Taglit-Birthright trip.  Birthright offers a free, all-expenses paid ten-day tour of Israel for all young Jews living in the diaspora – but we know its both produced by, and serves to reinforce the Apartheid practices of the State of Israel against Palestinians.   Moreover, Birthright- Taglit dangerously conflates Judaism (a religion and/or cultural identity) and Zionism (a political ideology which advocates an exclusive Jewish nation-state).

Renounce Birthright aims to contribute the broader struggles for justice in Palestine, and join in solidarity with Palestinians who demand that Israel ends the occupation, recognizes and respects the right of return of Palestinian refugees, and grants equal rights to all its citizens, regardless of faith or ethnic origin. We aspire to build alternatives to Birthright, to Zionism, and to a monolithic European-centred notion of Jewish identity.  Finally, we understand that confronting Apartheid in Palestine is inextricably linked to the complicity of Jewish communities worldwide, and we hope to challenge our friends and families in this respect.

I am proud to belong to a long tradition of radical, secular Jewish diasporic practice – from organizations like the Bund to contemporary Jewish groups resisting Zionism and Islamophobia.  I draw inspiration from women like Emma Goldman and Laura Whitehorn in crafting my own Jewish feminist, queer, anti-racist identity. We don’t have to remake the wheel!  There are cultural resources out there that reflect the complexities of our lived identities, and there are so many of us thirsty to grapple with these issues, it’s just a matter of finding each other. I was utterly elated after my screenings at the Leeds Queer Film Festival – feeling for the first time that my queer realities were represented on screen and that other LGBT folks were invested in understanding my experiences.  Meeting other queer diasporic Jews at the festival, and hearing them articulate the same exact ambivalences I faced in the past, gave me a renewed belief in the importance of creating projects together and reenergized me to continue my work on Renounce Birthright. I encourage everyone to keep their eyes peeled for next year’s film fest.  Queer events that are warm and welcoming, financially accessibly, and position anti-racism at the centre of their politic are pretty rare these days (yes, even in London!) – so this one’s not to be missed.

Aviva Stahl is a queer Jew living in London who by day engages in research and campaigning for the due process rights of detainees of the War on Terror.  She recently co-founded Renounce Birthright, a web-based resource which aims to mobilize Jews in the diaspora to call for an end to the Taglit-Birthright program. For more details you can contact her at renouncebirthright@gmail.com