It’s that time of the year again in Tel Aviv. The city draped in rainbow flags, the beaches are filled with men in tiny bathing suits with impressive physiques and deep tans. Excitement has been in the air as Gay Pride Week began, bigger and more international than ever.
Festivities started early this year with the high-profile first Israeli transgender beauty pageant that made headlines across the world when an Arab Christian dancer from Nazareth took the crown. This year’s celebrity LGBT guests, Alan Cumming and Lea Delaria, stars of The Good Wife and Orange is the New Black, have been Instagramming their travels around the country, delighting the Tourism Ministry who brought them over to kick off the big parade.
Israel being Israel, there has been controversy mixed with the fun. In the lead-up to Pride Week, local LGBT organizations threatened to disrupt the event to protest the hypocrisy of a government spending $3 million to promote Israel as a gay tourism destination while giving a small fraction of that sum to support organizations that sustain the LGBT community. Those waters were calmed after the finance minister pledged to increase funding - the party was back on.
Worries over security have also cast a shadow - police are jumpy after the tragic murder of Shira Banki at the Jerusalem parade last August. The memory of the traumatic and still unsolved shooting at an LGBT youth center in 2009 hasn’t faded either.
Still, there is much to celebrate. Ironically, the two tragedies in which young people lost their lives because of intolerance for alternative lifestyles galvanized outrage and sympathy for the community and has been translated into greater support among the Israeli public for the LGBT cause. Despite the fact that the current government coalition has stymied all efforts to promote increased civil equality for the community, on the ground, the evolution of popular attitudes on LGBT issues is impressive. The latest survey showed 76 percent of Israelis supporting some form of recognized same-sex marriage in Israel, up from 64 percent a year ago.
Even transgender acceptance is surprisingly high in Israel’s relatively traditional culture. I found evidence of this anecdotally in, of all places, a bathroom. At the U.S. ambassador’s residence this week, I shared a sink with publicly transgender Orthodox American-Israeli educator Yiscah Smith. She told me that she has never been harassed or confronted negatively on the streets of Jerusalem, where she lives, even though her story and transgender identity is widely known.
Our mutual bathroom break took place during an event at the ambassador’s residence where visiting members of a Jewish Federations of North America delegation mingled over cocktails with representatives of the Israeli LGBT community at an event intended to build bridges between the two communities.
After speaking to some of the leaders of the LGBT American Jewish advocacy organizations - and there are several - I gathered that they can use all the support they can get. Engaging with Israel is a tricky business for them, as it often challenges their alliances with other LGBT groups, most of which are firmly in the far-left progressive edge of U.S. politics, which has rapidly grown increasingly hostile towards Israel.
They stressed that the pushback they received these days does not just come in response to heavy-handed advocacy or “rah-rah” blue and white flag-waving. Almost any form of identification or engagement with Israel that does not involve protest is taboo in such circles and meets with charges of “normalization” and “pinkwashing” - the popular term for deliberately hiding the oppression of Palestinians behind the facade of enlightenment represented by LGBT tolerance in Israel. Some of those on the mission faced angry opposition from pro-BDS allies and from within their own group for merely agreeing to travel to Israel on the Federation trip. Their descriptions evoked images of the shouting protesters disrupting the Shabbat service hosted by the U.S.-Israel LGBT outreach group Wider Bridge in Chicago in January at a gay activism conference.
“It’s a toxic atmosphere,” the leader of one Jewish LGBT organization said soberly.
To be sure, pinkwashing charges are not baseless. Israel’s defenders do often exploit the country’s tolerance for LGBT life as a way to paint it as a civilized humane island in a sea of intolerant barbarity. At the event at the ambassador’s residence, one of the speakers, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen did so, albeit in a subtle way. After moving words about her transgender son and praise for the tolerant atmosphere in Israel, she felt the need to point out “the dreadful situation in Israel’s neighbors the countries that surround Israel that have laws that pose a direct threat to the life and liberty of LGBT individuals.”
It isn’t only “Israel’s neighbors” who are intolerant: there are more than 75 countries around the world where homosexuality is illegal, including countries where it is punishable by death. The point of Tel Aviv Pride Week is to celebrate what is here, not bash what is there.
Fighting against the horrific treatment of homosexuals in many countries is important - but should be kept separate from praising Israel. The LGBT community in Israel deserves better than to be used as a club in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
By the same token - it is equally inappropriate for American LGBT organizations who advocate for Palestinian rights to bully LGBT Jews in the U.S. away from connecting with their counterparts in Israel, and to deny that there is anything positive or uplifting about what is happening in the Jewish state. Pinkwashing didn’t create Ta’alin Abu Hanna or the other contestants in the Miss Trans Israel contest who came from a diverse range of backgrounds - Christian, Muslim and Jewish. Oppression of Palestinians shouldn’t be ignored or glossed over - but neither should the growing ability of members of the LGBT community in Israel to live in relative freedom and safety. Both should be seen and acknowledged.
Perhaps this is asking too much - for us to be permitted to simultaneously hold the ideas in our head that gay pride in Tel Aviv should be celebrated and the occupation and oppression of Palestinians should be struggled against. Doing so is a challenge these days. We may live in an age where our political discourse is polarized and binary - heroes and villains, black and white. But that doesn’t mean we should forget that in the real world, there is a spectrum of rainbow colors in between.
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