Gretchen Rachel Hammond, former reporter for the Windy City Times, marches resolutely to the podium and stands there observing the crowd of young, affluent, mostly single Jews who have gathered for the Algemeiner summer benefit and then begins her speech — a deeply personal narrative about discovering her voice as a transgender reporter and Zionist and the pain of being silenced by her own community. Hammond has recently risen to national prominence for breaking the story about the Jewish women ejected from the Dyke March in Chicago for carrying flags with the Star of David. Her reporting about this event sparked a controversy which resulted in her transfer to the sales desk.
As she speaks, the crowd is mesmerized, even giddy, applauding at key moments, laughing at others, feeling with it and hip. Algemeiner is a newspaper that covers Israel-based and Jewish news, rather than social justice issues, and now this fearless Brit in office casual has come to drop mad knowledge bombs about all the infighting among the people who support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and use words like “intersectional.” You know, those people? Bret Stephens, house conservative at The New York Times and NBC News, sits in the front row, his head tilted towards Hammond, his features awash with the blank sort of pseudo-empathy that cis white men who want to appear open-minded assume when looking at trans or queer women. It’s the expression I make when people tell me long stories about their cat.
Not to pinkwash, but in 2016, Hammond, who also recently converted to Judaism, has been excoriated by the LGBTQIA community for essentially consorting with the likes of fascists, AKA Zionists, donated one of her kidneys to longtime lesbian activist and total stranger Elvie “LV” Jordan. As a journalist, she secured a release for a transgender woman incarcerated in the male division of Cook County Jail.
After Hammond’s messianic oration, which ends with her booming refusal to be silenced, there is thunderous applause. People rise to their feet. If ever there was a crowd to receive a half-Indian-half-English recent convert preaching unity, this is it: a group of pro-Israel, New York Jew-y Jews, including me: a Jewish, Zionist, cis-gendered lesbian. A lump forms in my throat. I turn to the guy to my left in solidarity, but he is the senior editor of Commentary, so I look at my purse.
Later, when Hammond goes back to Chicago and we speak on the phone, she is frank and grim about her feeling of political homelessness, and I’m struck by her vulnerability and fear. I’ve been ranting for days about the silencing of pro-Israel participants at the Dyke March to anyone who will listen. But this idea of political homelessness, it exemplifies my feeling of having to hide in plain sight for having certain views in certain company — being pro-Israel and anti-BDS with the left and being pro everything else (like choice and marriage equality) with the right. I often write about youth justice. It’s very Rabbi Hillel. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me, and if I am only for myself, what am I?” The thing is, I align with a movement, get pumped about its mission, and then they attack Israel or align with a known anti-Semite. It’s exhausting.
“I don’t mind people using the word privilege as a word for education,” Hammond says. “If you’re using it to put people down or to separate people from forming a unified front from people who would deny us access to bathrooms or you’re gonna start attacking your allies, what are you accomplishing?”
According to Hammond, at 4:30 p.m. on June 24, she received a text from her publisher that there were three Jewish women being ejected from the rally. When she arrived on the scene, she spoke to Laurel Grauer, one of the ejected women, who described what happened, how she was carrying her rainbow star flag, which she had done in previous marches, the purpose of which she told the organizers was an expression of her Jewish identity — the Jewish star pre-dates the state of Israel — and then was told it made people feel “unsafe,” and that the march was “pro-Palestinian” and “anti-Zionist,” then asked to leave.
Subsequently, Hammond looked for other Dyke March organizers to confirm this. One agreed the flag was “triggering” (I find the word “trigger” triggering, but that’s another story). Since Hammond knew Alexis Martinez, a core organizer of the Dyke March, and Stephanie Skora — a Jewish woman whose Twitter is vehemently pro-Palestine — she texted both but neither of them would get in touch with her. Windy City Times ran the story.
Speaking of triggers, the Dyke March organizers released a statement which contradicted what Grauer said. They accused Grauer of rabble-rousing, which Hammond asserts Grauer claims she was not. The following Monday, they released a second statement which was a treatise on their solidarity with Palestine. In an interview with the Windy City Times, Alex Martinez equated Israel with El Salvador and Nicaragua in terms of oppressive regimes.
Now, let’s go back to the rainbow star flag which catalyzed this whole hullabaloo. Obviously, the far, far right is insane and needs to evolve and accept all the things but probably never will in this lifetime. Sarah Palin isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, but she is hot and she had a Israeli flag in her office. Who knows what she has now. Bear spray? The point is, why can’t a Jewish lesbian identify as a Jewish lesbian with a flag when Jewish star tattoos were ostensibly okay?
“For three years I’d covered the Dyke March and the SlutWalk and I never saw anti-Semitism,” Hammond says. “They were courageous and tackling the issues like rape, the treatment of people of color and transgender people by the police. Now we are tearing each other down. The Dyke March claimed a victory in an undeclared war against one transgender Jewish woman and I will hand them that victory, but I don’t think they should be celebrating. How anyone can be celebrating a transgender person losing their job is beyond me!”
Oddly enough, earlier in the week I was pitching a story about counter-cultural feminists to an old school Jewish publication whose mission is Zionism and sisterhood. The focus of the story was a new biography of Kathy Acker, written by Chris Kraus, author of “I Love Dick,” and Jill Soloway, creator of “Transparent.” I thought the fact that I had access to Soloway would really sell the story, but the editor paused to clear her throat and told me that the readers wouldn’t be comfortable with Soloway’s non-binary gender (not her words) and Kathy Acker was too out there, “Dick” was too feminist then killed the pitch. Aghast — this was Jill Soloway! Jill Soloway! — I got off the phone and FaceTimed with my wife who shrugged as she explained the total discomfiture of baby boomers when it comes to gender fluidity. I was reminded of a lyric from “Losing My Mind” by Stephen Sondheim: “Sometimes I stand in the middle of the floor/ not going left/ not going right.”
Following Hammond’s Dyke March article, there was outcry on both sides, even hideous Breitbart. Hammond met with Dyke March organizer Alexis Martinez for coffee on Tuesday, June 27. Martinez told Hammond she thought the Windy City Times was at fault. Hammond asked Martinez if she blamed her directly. Martinez replied, “Yes.” On June 26, Hammond put up a long post on Facebook regarding the hypocrisy of “inclusion.” She addressed being bullied as a child, something that never left her, and how she feels that now, even worse, members of her own community are doing the same, if not worse. As a result of this post, Hammond was told to go on a seven-day leave of absence. Later, she was moved to the sales desk.
“That’s the last story I wrote for the Windy City Times,” Hammond tells me. She just gave two weeks notice. “On Twitter they were bragging about it. What’s any reasonable person supposed to think?”
While the Chicago Dyke March stressed that they were anti-Zionist and not anti-Semitic —sue me, I see the two as inextricably linked — when Hammond was booted off the news desk, they later tweeted, “LOOK AT GOD,” with finger emojis pointing upwards toward the firmament, as though to say, look who we got on our side, followed by a tweet that read, “Zio tears replenish my electrolytes!” Real talk: “zio,” is not a nice word. It is a term popularized by David Duke that rose to prominence on KKK websites. The Dyke March organizers later took this one down, but still. “Zio tears?”
On June 28, SlutWalk Chicago announced its plan to ban “Zionist displays” from its upcoming August 12 protest as well. The Slutwalk organizers discredited any linkage of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism and again harped on the notion that, though they are the ones doing the excluding, anti-Zionism is a progressive and inclusionary belief, dontcha know?
When Hammond and I hang up, I feel unmoored. I describe the call to another friend, a gay writer of a novel whose backdrop is the dissolution of Israel, but his vantage point on the whole situation is that all this mishegas is all a foregone conclusion, but he is often grouchy, so I’m not sure. Is it? Sometimes I’d like a two-state solution too. I care about innocent children; I like peace, even love it, and yet, all of history points to peace being impossible. I read somewhere that Jews don’t need Israel because they are so successful in America. And there you have it: the Jew as Shylock. Shylocks and warmongers and baby killers! I’d kick me out of a rally too!
Weeks later, when The Sunday Times of London fires Irish journalist Kevin Myers — a known Holocaust denier — for a blatantly anti-Semitic op-ed article, I hardly blink an eye. Though my writer friend and I do wonder where were all the editors when his screed in which he essentially called two Jewish women at the BBC “money-grubbing” went through? And why are they not fired? And is this more silencing?
I think of something inspiring Hammond said during our conversation. It was vaguely reminiscent of Churchill and I wrote it on a Post-It and taped it to the wall over my laptop: “There have been great moments in history when differences have been put aside to fight a greater menace.” I try to remember this when I talk to my accountant, but it seems no one can ever summon the faintest rumblings of dialogue when it comes to Israel and Jews. Or maybe just leave us alone at parades and we can roadmap from there.
Years ago, my cousin Seth, who grew up a religious Jew in Monsey, an ultra-orthodox and Hasidic enclave in Rockland County, New York, was trying to find the exact street corner to catch the “Chus Bus”— the special van service that shuttles back and forth from New York City to Monsey. Since the riders of the Chus Bus are mostly all observant Jews, it has all the necessary appurtenances, such as a curtain running down the aisle so that men and women remain separated for the ride due to the law of t’zniut or modesty. Meantime, Seth spotted a young Hasidic man standing on the corner reading what could only be a holy text and, figuring the guy could only be waiting for the van, approached him and inquired if this is where he too could get the Chus Bus. The guy looked askance and said, “I can’t believe you people call it the Chus Bus.”
“I can’t believe you people call us you people!” Seth retorted, not without some rancor. They considered each other for a moment, both Jews and both at odds, and then the bus pulled up and they climbed onto the same side.