A few weeks ago, I removed from this blog all of the posts that I had written about my experiences at the interfaith program I was a part of in England. I had written about text study, a weekend trip, and a guest speaker. I have since restored all four posts, but they’ve been edited, mostly to remove references to specific people and to the program and the university that runs it. I’ve never done anything like this before — and in theory it offends the honesty and integrity that I (at least try to) bring to this space — but I think it was the right decision at the time, when I deleted the posts, and I think it’s the right decision now to re-post edited versions.
The mass deleting happened a few days after I posted an excoriation of a guest speaker — who made outrageously homophobic and sexist remarks — and of the program’s reaction to him and to my fellow participants’ objections to him. When I first published the post, I got two types of reactions. From my friends in the program and at home, I was thanked and cheered on for standing up to the speaker. From the program leadership and some other participants, I was pressured to take down the post. One of the program staff expressed concern that someone googling the program would see the post — and that it might deter future applicants and funders. (When I told my husband this, he trenchantly noted, “DUH!”) Two of my fellow participants felt that the comparison I made between the speaker and Hugo Schwyzer was unfair.
Another of the program staff — one brought on to do pastoral work for its duration — was concerned about what she thought was an impulsive decision to post a criticism of the speaker and the program. You have to think about whether you’re creating light or heat, she said.
I really think that the latter was coming from a good place — I came to trust her very much over the next two weeks — and I do think that there was something for me to learn from the experience and from my reaction to it. As she pointed out, how would I feel as a rabbi to have someone do to me what I did to the speaker? Indeed, if I had it to do over again, I think I would have waited for the program’s reaction — and let myself process more — before posting a reflection. To be sure, the program’s reaction, both immediately and throughout the rest of the program, only evidenced its unpreparedness to deal with these situations, but I think I can more clearly articulate my concerns now, since the program has ended.
In regard to creating light or creating heat, I understand the point that was being made, but I think the post was light for some people. Not for the program, and not for the speaker, but for the people whom the speaker so callously dismissed. I want my rabbinate to be about speaking truth to power: One of the reasons I went to rabbinical school was to be able to be an ally to marginalized folks from a position of religious authority — exactly the opposite of what the speaker did.
Four days after I wrote about the guest speaker, I was formally asked by the program to take down the blog post. The speaker had read it and was, to put it mildly, quite displeased. I was told that he threatened to sue the program as well as me personally, and the program staff felt that threat was sufficiently powerful to render the program vulnerable, to the point where it might not exist if the speaker carried out his threat.
The threat really, really scared me, too. I had heard that libel laws are almost the exact opposite in England as they are in the U.S. (which fact someone confirmed for me last week), and I had visions of being dragged into court, needing to get a lawyer, not being able to leave the country, etc. In short, his threat worked, and I removed the post from my website. I didn’t want to be sued, and I didn’t — and still don’t — want the program to go under. (I deleted the other posts about the program out of anger; I figured if the staff didn’t want bad press then they didn’t deserve good press.)
Obviously, the speaker’s move was a cowardly one. Though in the post I originally compared the speaker to Hugo Schwyzer, I’ve come to believe that drawing that parallel was tenuous and distracting, and I’ve deleted it. (Of course, the speaker didn’t help himself by using back channels to threaten and to silence me, as Schwyzer is known to have done.) I really don’t understand how you get to be “Britain’s most influential Muslim” and not be able to countenance criticism.
I wish the program could have stood up to the speaker. Essentially, I felt that the program was condoning what he did. The situation was especially painful for me as it brought back memories of one of the hardest times in my life, when my boss sexually assaulted one of my coworkers — and the organization’s board stood by him. It was like it was happening all over again: The behavior of a powerful white man was excused and covered up by an institution that should, in theory, work against it.
I wish the program had done other things, too. The staff failed to realize how damaging the speaker’s comments were until one of the interns told them. The speaker’s comments were talked about in generalities instead of specifics and were characterized as “controversial” instead of condemned. The program staff initially declined to do any group work around the issue because they didn’t feel they would be able to facilitate that discussion well, so they didn’t want to do it all; it was only on the second-to-last day of the program that an outside speaker — not even a member of the program staff — held a (non-mandatory) group discussion. I didn’t go.
Ultimately, the program proved itself sorely ill-equipped to deal with this crisis. As my therapist pointed out, this issue could have become the conference and could have led to something really great. But it was swept under the rug, I think in part out of fear of the reaction of the large group from a culturally conservative Persian Gulf country. I think it’s true that these men and women don’t even have the vocabulary to talk about queer issues (the excuse offered for dodging the problem), and I think that truth ignores more important ones. Namely, the issues the speaker raised were less about homophobia or sexism (or general dismissiveness of progressive religious traditions, another of the speaker’s sins) than about how to be compassionate and respectful in the face of disagreement. Which was purportedly the entire point of our text studies, the cornerstone of the program.
I also think that the program has a responsibility to ensure pre-conference education for the participants from this conservative country. If they are going to a Western country, to participate in a program with more progressive liberal strains, then they need to know that there is the possibility of encountering queer folks. I think it could be even something as basic as the fact that a man might be in a relationship with another man, instead of a woman. And since this leaves out many, many queer folks, I would definitely recommend that my gender-queer and transgender friends not participate in this program as is. And in my opinion, even cis-gendered gay folks would do well to consider what limitations their participation would engender (excuse the pun).
When I was asked to take down the post, I felt frightened and humiliated and all alone. I was far away from my husband and friends and supportive community. It was the Friday afternoon before a free weekend, so almost everyone in the program had left the castle grounds. I wanted to leave to go home early. I wondered if I had made a huge mistake in publishing the original post and if I had made a huge mistake in taking it down. I wondered if I were fit to be in rabbinical school.
I decided to stick it out (last-minute one-way tickets from London to Boston are expensive!), and I think I’m glad I did. I didn’t tell any of my fellow participants what happened, which felt weird, and I mostly kept my head down and my mouth shut the final week, which also felt weird. It was a survival technique. And I lived to tell the strange tale.