Politics, Religion

The Achilles heel of the religious left

Emily Strauss is a community organizer, and a frequent contributor to New Voices, Jewish Currents, The Forward, and Lilith magazine.

Despite the increasing focus on intersectionality within progressive spaces, religion is often a blind spot, causing even interfaith work to leave behind communities that are not Christian. Over the course of the past year, national progressive organizations worked hard to formulate an intersectional approach, with varying degrees of success. Christian hegemony was a common hurdle for them. The March for Racial Justice scheduled events on major Jewish holidays, and the Women’s March struggled to disavow associations with Louis Farrakhan, a leader that is known to be anti-Semitic. A Democratic Washington, D.C. council member made comments that were steeped in anti-Semitic dog whistles. Situations like these occur when communities fail to be in genuine relationship each other. They expose existing gaps in trust and accountability, and reveal a flawed understanding of each other’s needs. Time and time again, the National LGBTQ Task Force shows a similarly myopic perspective.

The LGBTQ Task Force rejects workshops related to Israel/Palestine, and cancels workshops led by Muslim and Jewish organizers in an effort to avoid discussion of Israel/Palestine. The policing of Jewish and Muslim led programming at Creating Change, the National Conference on LGBTQ Equality, reflects a larger absence of meaningful investment in Muslim and Jewish work by the Task Force, and a willful ignorance of our needs. It creates a palpable atmosphere of Christian hegemony.

In 2016 in Chicago, the Task Force first cancelled and then reinstated a reception being held by A Wider Bridge. The decisions were reactionary and swift. The swiftness of this decision making by nature precludes intentional learning, analysis, or relationship building. As a consequence, it relies on assumptions, tokenizing, microaggressions, and stereotypes. These policies smack of Christians making decisions about the needs of groups to which they do not belong. Following the 2016 Creating Change conference, the Task Force hired an independent contracting agency to review their existing standards and make recommendations for updated policies. This is counterintuitive, as the Task Force could have just listened to the voices of their stakeholders who were directly affected.

Muslim and Jewish leaders run a Muslim-Jewish dialogue every year at Creating Change, and this year re-worked it to focus on the intersections of anti-semitism and islamophobia. However, only hours before it was scheduled to occur, the Task Force intervened and cancelled it, most likely out of fear Israel/Palestine would become a topic of discussion. The Task Force did not notify conference participants of the change. In its place, Naomi Leapheart, the director of faith work at the Task Force, facilitated a conversation about the events in Charlottesville, Virginia. Although the violence in Charlottesville centered anti-semitism and islamophobia, the workshop did not mention either. The Task Force did not permit Muslim and Jewish organizers to lead. Many Muslim and Palestinian organizers walked out of the room in protest.

The Task Force’s process of choosing Muslim and Jewish conference leaders to hear from is disturbingly tokenizing. The LGBTQ Task Force does not even have an email listserve for faith leadership. The Task Force staff just chooses one or two Jews and Muslims at random to speak with, and concludes that they have done their due diligence in reaching out to faith leaders. With so many tools at their disposal, it is shocking that the Task Force makes basic communication seem like such an unreasonable expectation.

This has tangible consequences. There is no protocol for registering for Creating Change as a member of a faith working group, leading to confusion about the faith gatherings at the conference such as the Practice Spirit, Do Justice faith dinner, or the National Religious Leadership Roundtable breakfast this year. Some who emailed Naomi Leapheart received responses saying that the dinner was for working group leaders only, as if the Task Force was in charge of distinguishing who the leaders of the working groups are. However, this is unmistakably information far beyond their depth of knowledge, as Naomi asked for the names of our leadership as participants were leaving the dinner, and Task Force staff did not even provide Kosher and Halal meals at either event. At the National Religious Leadership Roundtable breakfast, conference staff served bacon and sausage to every participant, regardless of their religion.

The opening plenary speech of the conference, “Activism in the Time of Tyranny,” featured the cisgender, heterosexual executive director of Muslim Advocates, an organization that systematically erases the existence of LGBTQ Muslims. The Task Force did not consult the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity (MASGD) prior to choosing this speaker, and when Muslim leadership raised concerns about their choice of speaker, the Task Force dismissed them. In fact, MASGD recommended one of its own members, Urooj Arshad, for the panel, but Creating Change administrators ignored the suggestion. The Task Force also failed to consult Muslim leadership about the organizing of Friday prayer. MASGD released a statement in 2016 opposing pinkwashing at the conference, but the Task Force never reached out to make amends or consult MASGD about their needs. MASGD began officially boycotting the conference following the unrest in 2016, yet the Task Force continues to list them as contributors in the program booklet. It is as if the Task Force does not notice whether we are even present.

Similarly, the conference scheduled all of the Jewish programming during Shabbat this year, rendering it inaccessible to Orthodox and Shabbat observant Jews. Some of the workshops were even scheduled at the same time, forcing the organizers of the workshops to combine the sessions so they could lead both. Meanwhile, funding for the Jewish and Muslim working groups is inconsistent at best. Some years, the Task Force provides funding, and some years they provide none. No one has ever spelled out how to access this funding. We need consistent, transparent, long term, meaningful investment in our communities. To police our workshops and our leadership without investing in it is disingenuous allyship.

There is quick staff turnover within the faith organizing component of the Task Force. Former faith work director Carol Lautier put intention into working with MASGD in 2016 to gain a thorough understanding of what occurred in Chicago. Naomi Leapheart replaced her this year. This leads to little institutional memory and few long term goals. It jeopardizes the creation of sustainable infrastructure and relationships, and actively impedes organizing. It is possible that the high staff turnover rate is due to a lack of long term vision and institutional support for the faith organizing program. In addition, Naomi Leapheart is Christian, as is Assistant Faith Work Director, Barbara Satin. The paucity of diversity of religious backgrounds between them no doubt contributes to a lack of familiarity with organizing non Christian communities, and could be the result of a work environment that is less than supportive of other faiths.

Members of the Jewish Working Group are considering joining MASGD in their boycott of the conference, as we are losing confidence in the Task Force having any intention for their faith organizing program. If they continue to shut down our workshops, we truly do not know what they expect to accomplish here. If they do not trust us to be the experts on our experiences, these are no longer organizing spaces. Unless we put effort into deconstructing Christian centric attitudes in our collaborative work, it will be the Achilles heel of the religious left. The Muslim and Jewish Working Groups require more representation within the Faith Work staff, respect for our autonomy, transparent communication with the Task Force, and consistent, meaningful investment in our communities.


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