Tel Aviv gay parade in 2011.
Tel Aviv gay parade in 2011. Photo by Ofer Vaknin
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Lee Moser
Israel's Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren, center, with Houston's openly lesbian Mayor Annise Parker, right, at the International Equality Dinner. Photo by Lee Moser

Tel Aviv is the best gay destination in the world. That's what a worldwide survey hosted in January by GayCities.com and American Airlines showed, and Israeli diplomats in Western countries proudly put the fact on display.

Many liberal pro-Palestinian activists saw this as "pinkwashing" the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. The website pinkwatchingisrael.com called upon Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community members to boycott the 20th Annual Equality Forum in Philadelphia, which features Israel this year and has invited Israel's Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren to be a keynote speaker.

Activists wrote that "Ambassador Oren, who personally has an atrocious record of supporting Israel’s war crimes and was the object of a demonstration by students in 2010 at UC Irvine (the Irvine 11), has no business delivering the keynote speech at a conference dedicated to social justice and equality."

"This year’s Equality Forum conference, which is partnered with the Israeli Embassy in Washington and the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, is a flagrant form of Pinkwashing – appropriation of queer voices from Israel and Palestine and the gay rights struggle to distract from and normalize the numerous human rights and international law violations and the colonial and apartheid policies that the Israeli State has established on the ground," they wrote.

Some members of the community indeed decided to skip the event this year, but the Israeli delegation nevertheless made it there, and Oren spoke at the event on Saturday night.

Oren told the gathering about an Israeli diplomat appointed to a prestigious embassy in Europe, who was granted – along with his life partner – full spousal benefits, about the harsh punishment of female soldiers that harassed a lesbian soldier, and the Gay Pride Parade that was conducted in Jerusalem despite the objections of the religious communities. He told them about the transgender singer Dana International who won the Eurovision contest in 1998 and about the first-ever Israeli LGBT event in Washington, which featured Israeli singer Ivri Lider, an outspoken champion of LGBT rights.

Oren told the LGBT audience that while it is not difficult for Israel to outdo its neighbors when it comes to LGBT rights, the state also holds high standards compared to Western countries. "The same year that the U.S. instituted Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the Israel Defense Forces specifically banned all discrimination against sexual minorities," he said.

Referring to the "pinkwashing" claim, Oren said, "There is a small but voluble group claiming that the freedom and equal rights that Israel grants to the LGBT community is merely an attempt to camouflage our alleged oppression of the Palestinians. But a simple historic fact is that the LGBT rights movement in Israel predated Israel’s capture of the West Bank in 1967. And then even when Palestinian suicide bombers were blowing up our restaurants and buses, and terrorist missiles were pummeling or neighborhoods, still Israel provided shelter for LGBT Palestinians."

"There are two Palestinian organizations fighting for LGBT rights in the West Bank, but they cannot freely operate there," Oren continued. "They are both headquartered in Israel. Israel’s National LGBT Taskforce monthly receives about 3,000 distress calls from around the Middle East."

A protester interrupted Oren's speech, but the ambassador went on and finally called the participants to come to Israel on June 8th, to take part in the next Gay Pride Parade.