The famous 1970s joke about “the elephant and the Jewish question” is drawn to mind by the latest round of incessant debate over the linkage (or lack thereof) between the state of LGBT rights in Israel and the plight of Palestinians living in the occupied territories.
Prominent Israeli spokespersons (Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, being the latest, albeit unimpressive and historically inaccurate, example) have taken to flaunting the significant advancements made with regard to LGBT rights in Israel as proof of Israel’s general commitment to upholding human rights.
Opponents hold Israel to blame for doing precisely that – having cleverly coined the catchy term “pink-washing”, critics blame Israel for attempting to duck criticism over its recurring offenses against the human rights of Palestinians, by taking the debate to a relative comfort zone. Both sides of this argument seem so deeply embroiled in the meta-debate about “pink-washing”, that they are missing the real point.
Advancements in LGBT rights in Israel have almost always been achieved through Israel’s courts rather than through legislation or government policy. Israeli governments (and certainly the present administration) have done very little to proactively advance LGBT rights (in fact, more often than not, they have persistently objected to such advancements until a court ruling forced a reactive change of policy). Ergo, it stands to reason that Israel’s sudden trumpeting of LGBT rights in international fora is more an attempt to spruce up its reputation on the human rights front than a genuine show of support for the politically sensitive LGBT cause.
However, by focusing on PR tactics rather than engaging Israel on the substantive issue, critics are missing an opportunity. By so vehemently criticizing Israel for “pink-washing”, its opponents are inadvertently lending more credence to Israel’s statements on this issue than they may deserve. Furthermore, an all-or-nothing approach that fails to acknowledge positive points on Israel’s human rights scorecard, could act as a disincentive to the administration from making other important improvements. Rather than criticizing the motivation behind Israel’s sudden outspoken support of LGBT rights, proponents of human rights should make the most of Israel’s desire to capitalize on the LGBT issue, by pressuring the Israeli administration to put its proverbial money where its mouth is.
Whenever official Israeli spokespersons enthusiastically brag about the state of LGBT rights in Israel, supporters of human rights should harness their apparent enthusiasm and support for the cause towards further advances – both on LGBT rights issues, and on the broader concerns of human rights – or call their bluff.
The integrity of Israeli spokespersons who take pride (no pun intended) in the IDF’s acceptance of gay servicemen and women, in the partial extension of spousal rights to same-sex couples, and in Israel’s popularity as an LGBT tourist destination, should be tested by their willingness to vocally and publicly support same sex marriage and parental rights for LGBT couples, and to unequivocally reject any form of violence or discrimination against LGBT persons.
The value in such a response is twofold – firstly, Israel’s desire for political capital could be translated into actual positive achievements for the LGBT community. All cynicism aside, it was a similar desire for political support (and for a $15 million influx in campaign contributions over night), that resulted in President Obama's recent announcement in favor of equal marriage, the most meaningful statement of support for the LGBT community that any U.S. administration has ever made. There is no reason why Israel’s desire to improve its human rights reputation on the international arena not similarly be bartered in return for public governmental support for concrete advancements to the rights of the LGBT community.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly – as proponents of LGBT rights have always claimed, gay rights are human rights. Like it or not, advancements to the rights of the LGBT community will inevitably have a corollary effect on the rights of other minorities and disenfranchised groups.
Same sex marriage may not bring an end to the construction of illegal settlements, but it could advance the ailing cause of religious freedom in Israel; allowing gay men access to surrogacy may not alleviate the suffering of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, but it will certainly promote equal treatment under the law; finally, the rejection of any form of violence, harassment or discrimination of LGBT persons will probably not spare Palestinians the indignity of IDF checkpoints, but it will eventually contribute to the commitment of Israeli society and leadership to tolerance, human dignity and the defense of minorities. Thus, the advancement of LGBT rights is likely to have a positive knock-on effect for other human rights issues in dire need of improvement.
Rather than being outraged over Israel’s desire to shape the debate, human rights supporters should welcome the opportunity to engage Israel on the issue of LGBT rights, as a prelude to a broader debate on human rights. Maybe we should actually talk about the pink elephant for a change.
Yehoshua Gurtler is an Israeli attorney, an LGBT rights activist and volunteer, and an amateur scuba diver.
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