A group of prominent gay opinion-shapers from around the world are to visit Israel to grapple with the country's sexuality issues on a five-day seminar centering around Tel Aviv's gay pride parade, scheduled for Friday.
iPride, a project created by international Israel advocacy organization Stand With Us, will begin on Wednesday and focus on showing participants a side to Israel that does not revolve around "conflict" in the traditional military sense.
Instead, the group will hear from speakers discussing the issue of sexuality within Israeli institutions such as government, the IDF and Israeli film, and discover more about Israel's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
The event will bring together around 15 magazine editors, reporters, academics and activists from Harvard, Berlin, the UK, Spain and Italy, including Queer Eye for the Straight Guy
presenter Brian Kelly. Speakers at the seminar will include influential figures from Israel's LGBT community, such as Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz and movie producer and Kochav Nolad
("A Star is Born") TV judge Gal Uchovsky.
The idea is to improve Israel's image across the globe, according to Noa Meir, coordinator of iPride. Meir is participating in the Stand With Us fellowship program, which recruits 20 people on the Tel Aviv University campus and 150 students from around Israel in an effort to groom the country's future leaders.
"We decided to improve Israel's image through the gay community in Israel; we found that the issue is not familiar around the world," said Meir, whose team members are all heterosexual.
Although the event deliberately avoids the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the idea for the project was partly inspired by reactions to Operation Cast Lead - specifically one incident in San Francisco which saw a gay group identifying with the Palestinian cause and publicly calling to "free the gays in Israel."
"We know that gays around the world are liberal usually and they tend to identify with the Palestinians," explained Meir, "and we find it a bit ironic because you can't really be gay in the Palestinian territories."
However, Meir stressed that iPride reaches beyond the conflict and instead looks at being gay in Israel, "for better or for worse."
The group is being taken to Jerusalem next Sunday, for example, to examine the controversy that sexuality issues arouse in the capital.
A panel discussion will be held there that will debate whether an annual gay pride parade should take place in the holy city.
"Our mission is education and we want to work with different communities and populations in order to talk about issues that matter to them, and relate them to the Israel that we know and love," said Michael Dickson, director of the international Stand With Us office in Israel.
"We're glad to have the opportunity to do what hasn't been done enough, which is to reach out to the gay community and have them see, hear and experience Israel for themselves."
iPride has received some opposition however, though not from the Tel Aviv Municipality, the Foreign Ministry, the Tel Aviv University Student Union or the National Union of Israeli Students, which all support the seminar through cooperation or sponsorship, but from some of the Tel Aviv transgender community.
Meir and her fellowship team invited some transgender figures to sit on a panel, but the offer was not just refused, but condemned, though Meir is uncertain why. More recently, however, one transgender individual has agreed to represent that community in the Jerusalem debate.
During the seminar, the group will also attend Israel's 11th Gay Pride Parade, tour Tel Aviv's gay nightlife spots and Jerusalem's Old City. The tours and discussions are all due to be featured in a documentary about iPride, hosted by Brian Kelly for Channel 4 in the UK.
"We're hoping to show that Israel is a liberal country, a multicultural, pluralistic country," emphasized Meir. "That is a side of Israel we are very proud of and that we think should be shown around the world.
"Unfortunately it's a side that doesn't get enough attentionâ€¦ As far as a lot of people are concerned, Israel is Gaza and the West Bank and tanks, and they don't see the beautiful culture and the liberal side."
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