Waving Israel’s Rainbow Flag Abroad

Flaunting Their Strengths: Israel feels its GLBT movement is something worth celebrating.
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Flaunting Their Strengths: Israel feels its GLBT movement is something worth celebrating.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published June 17, 2009, issue of June 26, 2009.
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In stark contrast to the U.S. Army’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on homosexuality, the latest edition of the official Israel Defense Force’s magazine B’Machane has a center spread on gay and lesbian officers. A picture shows a new officer getting his stripes, his commander’s hand on one shoulder and his life partner’s hand on the other.

This liberal side of Israeli society is starting to arouse the interest of the hasbarah — Hebrew for public relations — lobby. For what is believed to be the first time, an Israel advocacy group has run a major campaign showcasing the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community to non-Jewish opinion-shapers worldwide in a bid to improve Israel’s image and distract from more contentious geopolitical issues.

In mid-June, the StandWithUs organization, with the support of the foreign ministry, brought 30 GLBT leaders, activists and journalists to Israel from across the world to find out about the country, and specifically its GLBT community.

“GLBT rights are part of human rights, and when you see Israel, you see a country that has come so far in this area,” program organizer Noa Meir said. “When people see that Israel is so progressive on this issue, they realize that it can’t just be on this issue, and realize this must apply to Israel as a whole.”

StandWithUs, an international not-for-profit organization headquartered in the United States, offers scholarships to students to run Israel advocacy schemes. Earlier this year, a group of 20 Tel Aviv University students and scholarship recipients — all of them straight — decided that GLBT rights were the perfect wedge issue to promote Israel to a generally anti-Zionist constituency.

“The idea was partly inspired by reactions to Operation Cast Lead,” group leader Meir recalled — specifically, an incident in San Francisco that saw a gay organization of 20-somethings “identifying with the Palestinian cause and publicly calling to ‘free the gays in Israel.’”

“This was a bit ironic, because you can’t really be gay [without persecution] in the Palestinian territories,” Meir said.

In fact, openly gay Knesset Member Nitzan Horowitz of the dovish Meretz Party has called on the Palestinian Authority to halt the persecution of homosexuals within its territory. He says Israel should provide gay Palestinian refugees with a sanctuary — a demand that the Israeli Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Association has been making for a decade, with success in a handful of cases.

The Tel Aviv students set about organizing iPride, a group to promote their message, and recruited participants from Jordan, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States to come and visit. The trip was timed to coincide with the annual Tel Aviv Gay Pride march June 12, which drew 20,000 people. In addition to attending the march, the visitors toured the country, experienced the GLBT social scene and nightlife, and met Israeli GLBT leaders and public figures.

These encounters focused on the state of the GLBT community in Israel, including discussions on the difficulties, such as raucous Orthodox-led protests against the Jerusalem Gay Pride march and attempts to ban it.

Every year, the Jerusalem parade triggers a rare show of unity among religious Jews, Muslims and Christians who try to stop it through protests and appeals to the high court. In 2005, the parade was even banned by the municipality, though the court overturned this. During the parade, an ultra-Orthodox Jew stabbed and wounded three participants and was later jailed for 12 years.

In 2006, organizers downsized the planned parade to a rally in a park after police said that the manpower needed to protect a parade from expected clashes would leave the city wide open to terrorists. In 2007, police arrested stone-throwers and one man with explosives, who was believed to be planning to bomb the parade.

But most of the discussions during the iPride trip focused on the positive.

Italian gay activist Sergio Rovasio said that Israel trumps his country. “Gay rights are more advanced than in Italy,” he told the Forward. “We don’t have a high court that is so open-minded.”

Rovasio, who heads the Certi Diritti gay rights organization, was referring to the fact that in 2006, the high court issued a precedent-setting ruling that the civil marriages of five gay couples wed overseas could be registered as married couples in Israel.

Further legal entitlements that impressed participants included the right for gay and lesbian couples to have the same adoption rights as heterosexual couples. Israel’s recognition in April 2008 — just 20 years after homosexuality was decriminalized — of the overseas adoption of a child by a gay couple and its subsequent granting of citizenship rights to the child was also the source of much discussion. Tour participants also heard about Israel’s strict anti-discrimination laws for the workplace and the army and its granting of pension rights to same-sex partners.

Mike Hamel, chairman of the Israeli GLBT Association, told the Forward that this trip comes on the back of increasing interest in the GLBT scene among visitors to Israel. He said he receives many speaking invitations from a range of visiting groups, from Taglit-Birthright Israel to, recently, a group of visiting American Christian clergy. Discussion of the GLBT community is a chance “to show that unlike [the way] Israel is being portrayed, as a war-torn desert country, it has an active and diverse cultural life of which the GLBT community is part,” Hamel said.

Still, the idea of Israel advocacy organizations highlighting the GLBT issue has its critics.

Horowitz said he had no desire to “join the propaganda campaign of the government.”

And not surprisingly, Orthodox leaders are unimpressed by the idea. It “suggests a certain sense of desperation,” according to Jonathan Rosenblum, who heads the Haredi advocacy organization Jewish Media Resources. He said: “It is true that Israel, unlike Arab countries nearby, is a secular democratic state, and fair to point out the differences. But to sell Israel on this issue takes away from its greatest ‘market value’ to both Jews and non-Jews — that it is the holy land, the land of the Bible.”

Equally critical are some liberal figures that campaign on both gay rights and Palestinian rights. Peter Tatchell, Britain’s best-known gay rights activist, and a proponent since the 1970s of boycotting Israel, told the Forward that he turned down an invitation for the trip “in view of Israel’s abuse of the Palestinian people.”

He said that while he considers Israel’s record on GLBT issues to be “laudable,” the trip “smacks of a fraudulent attempt to talk up Israel’s human rights record by extolling its achievements in the field of gay rights while ignoring Palestinian rights.” He added, “Gay equality does not trump denial of rights to the Palestinians.”

Etai Pinkas, a former Tel Aviv city council member who now heads the GLBT Pride Center, agrees that placing too much emphasis on the GLBT issue would be “like using Advil for a major pathological problem.”

But he said it “would be wise” for Israel advocacy to showcase his community. Citing the 2001 Durban World Conference Against Racism, which featured vitriolic anti-Israel and anti-Zionist rhetoric, he recalled, “The only segment where Israel had any success was in relation to the GLBT world, especially as GLBT rights in the Arab world are violated.”

Contact Nathan Jeffay atjeffay@forward.com

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