It was a monumental failure of the leadership and staff and the leadership of the commission itself.” – Seattle City Councilmemember Tom Rasmussen

Succumbing to pressure from organizers affiliated with  the Boycott Israel (BDS) movement, the Seattle City Council’s LGBT commission canceled a reception scheduled for March 16th with a delegation of Gay civil rights activists from Israel.

The City Council, The Civil Rights Committee and the LGBT commission were subsequently inundated with complaints from community members and organizations upset by the sudden cancellation of the reception for the Israeli delegation.

On Wednesday, March 21st  a regularly scheduled and reliably dull meeting of the Seattle City Council’s Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology Committee was instead transformed into an emotional and very public dressing down of Seattle’s Civil rights committee, the LGBT Commission  and the BDS activists whose threats to disrupt the event resulted in the cancellation of the reception for the Israeli delegation.

The meeting, moderated by Councilmember and committee chair  Bruce Harrell was attended by Councilmembers Mike O’Brien, Nick Licata, Jean Godden and Tom Rasmussen.  Also present was the entire  membership of the LGBT commission. The audience was made up of  both supporters and opponents of the LGBT commission’s decision to cancel the reception.

The meeting opened with citizen testimony regarding the controversial move by the LGBT commission. First up was Louise Chernin who related the “sadness, disbelief, anger and hurt” caused Seattle’s gay community by the LGBT commission adding that “by their vote the commission took what was to have been a non  political event and politicized what was a cultural and civil rights exchange.”

Ms. Chernin went on to chastise the commission for  “creating tension and hurt in the very community they are charged with supporting and promoting”. Incredulous at how the commission “allowed themselves to be bullied” she went on to question  how the Civil Rights Committee, which oversees the LGBT commission, allowed “the serious error in judgment that allowed the error to be made in the first place.”

creating tension and hurt in the very community they are charged with supporting and promoting

Most supporters of  the Israeli delegation spoke on behalf of established civic groups and organizations.

ImageThis included Mona Smith a representative from the Greater Seattle Business Association who accused the  Civil Rights Committee of violating “their own tenets and purpose by silencing the voices of other civil rights leaders.”

Linda Clifton, of  the Anti Defamation League  discussed her organization’s expertise in cultural sensitivity training and offered the services of the ADL in helping the LGBT commission to start “the work of deep cultural understanding” and of developing the sensitivity needed to better”understanding difference.”

Cantor David Serkin Poole of Temple B’nei Torah spoke of the commission’s need to perform teshuva, the Hebrew word for repentance and “return to our better selves”.

Zach Carstensen, representing the Seattle Jewish Federation expressed the sense of betrayal felt by the Jewish community. “We feel this very personally” he said “because the Jewish community has stood side by side with the LGB T community for so long.” Mr  Carstensen’s comments echoed the theme of those who spoke in support of  the Israeli LGBT delegation, expressing his hope for a “spirit of  reconciliation” and “productive dialogue”.

Statements by BDS activists and those hostile to the Jewish state were not as conciliatory. Leila Sudan declared her support for canceling the meeting with the Israeli group asserting that Israel had committed “ethnic cleansing.”  Claiming she  feared retaliation for her views, Ms. Sudan asked the committee not to provide her name or contact information  to the Israeli government.

Wendy Elisheva Somerson described the visit of the gay delegation as a cynical “Pinkwashing” campaign sponsored by the Israeli government  and StandWithUs an organization she described as “a militant Israeli advocacy group with ties to the  homophobic Pastor John Hagee”  Ms. Somerson explained her motivation to resist public dialogue with the  LGBT delegation from Israel by asserting that the visit was part of “a propaganda campaign that tries to use gay folks to promote an agenda that silences and invisible-izes queer Palestinian voices.”


Eitan Isaacson, who claimed to be an Israeli citizen, described the Jewish state as “a government that systematically discriminates, dispossesses and exercises violence against it’s non Jewish citizens and subjects.”

“Dean Spade, a professor at Seattle University and proponent of the political dismantling of the Jewish state, testified to the council and committee members that “It is out of my love of the Jewish people and all of the people who have faced and continue to face state violence, apartheid , land theft and racism that I stand up to Israeli government action.”

ImageIn a departure from the polite tone and restrained language usually associated with Seattle’s City Hall, Councilmember Tom Rasmussen was first to respond to those who had advocated against meeting with the Israeli group.  A clearly perturbed Rasmussen declared “What I think is really ironic is that some who have spoken in support of that decision have said that they would now like to have their stories heard but at the same time last week they were advocating for a position that would have denied the Israeli delegation their ability and their right to be heard by the LGBT commission. Rasmussen further lectured the BDS advocates in attendance saying “Those who supported this decision really have it wrong”.

Turning his attention to the city’s Human Rights department which oversees the LGBT  commission Rasmussen declared “I don’t support the actions of the commission and decry the actions of the human rights department. It was a monumental failure of the leadership and staff and the leadership of the commission itself. I do not support the decision of the commission and they do not speak for the city of Seattle either, they are speaking for themselves and they have to explain themselves.”

It was a monumental failure of the leadership and staff

Commissioner Harrell, and  Councilmembers Jean Godden and Mike O’Brien  peppered Julie Nelson, the director of the Civil Rights office and the members of the LGBT commision with questions regarding their thinking surrounding the cancellation.


David W. Howenstine , the LGBT commission co chair acknowledged that intimidation and fear of disruptions at the reception for the Israeli guests was a primary motivator for the cancellation of the event.  “We were hearing from a lot of people who were upset by us hosting the event and wanted to come to that event  to interject other broader issues beyond the scope of LGBTQ civil rights issues”.

Echoing that sentiment, Julie Nelson, Director of the Seattle Office for Civil Rights explained that the reception was canceled out of concern that  anti-Israel activists at the reception would impede the ability “to have all the voices heard in a respectful way”. Nelson indicated that with the expected disruptions by BDS activists “we couldn’t have an environment where we could be open and hear each other and learn.” Ms. Nelson added her fear “that [the reception for the Israeli delegation] would be used by people in the community to further their agendas that may be different than the [Israeli] delegations.”


Councilmember Jean Godden was incredulous that by canceling the event the commission somehow hoped to avoid controversy. “I am astonished that you say that you wanted to step back from controversy, you did cause us pain and it was quite embarrassing.”

Councilmember Nick Licata chastised the LGBT commission saying that the shutting down of dialogue  “was a mistake, and I’m glad you recognize that. You had time to prepare, you should have known there would be controversy, even I know that anything is controversial when you are talking about the Mideast.”  Looking at the commission’s members Licata lectured “Cutting off  dialogue doesn’t help anyone” and warned “I hope it’s not repeated.”

Even I know that anything is controversial when you are talking about the Mideast.

Known for his generally reserved tone, a clearly annoyed Councilmember Bruce Harrel scolded Julie Nelson, the chair of the committee that oversees the LGBT commission, “People turn to you, council members and the public, to be the expert in race and social justice and to be able to give people the tools to deal with this stuff. When you were confirmed we told you to let us know when you need help, You could have got some sage advice from at least councilmember Licata.”  In a tone mixing annoyance with pain Harrell added “nothing should defeat the desire for an open dialogue, nothing.” Harrel closed by observing “We screwed up on this one, we screwed up”.