Gay Pride 2015.
(photo credit: GUY YEHIELI)
How do you measure freedom? If you ask 10 people, you’re likely to get 10 different answers.
Freedom is a pretty ineffable concept. Fair elections and the prevalence of other political rights are one component. The extent of civil liberties, such as freedom of association and freedom of the press, is also central to determining a society’s measure of freedom.
But lots of organizations that claim to measure freedom would also include other parameters. The conservative think-tank Heritage Foundation, in partnership with The Wall Street Journal, has put together an Index of Economic Freedom that culls data from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. They look at factors like tariff rates, business regulations, how easy it is for employers to hire and fire, and whether the government respects private property.
To what extent is Israel a free country? If one’s criterion is, for instance, the Index of Economic Freedom, the Jewish state is not exceedingly free. In 2016, Israel managed to receive a “mostly free” rating, but was surpassed by Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. It was ranked 35 out of 178 countries.
If one’s focus is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and if one’s tendency is to place the majority of the blame for the conflict on Israel, Israel will once again not be considered particularly free, at least not from the point of the view of the Palestinians.
There is, however, one measure of freedom in which Israel excels: the freedom of sexual expression. When speaking of Israel’s outstanding record on gay rights, one risks being accused of pinkwashing. But this week – Gay Pride Week – we have decided to take that chance.
For while Israel is not perfect, it is nevertheless indisputable that the Jewish state offers an exceptionally welcoming environment for LGBT individuals – not just in comparison to neighboring Muslim countries, but relative to Western nations as well.
The beach by the Tel Aviv Hilton Hotel, for instance, was ranked recently by U City Guides as one of the 10 best beaches for gay men, together with beaches in Sydney, Lisbon and Miami.
Tel Aviv was named the Best Gay City of 2011 in an international American Airlines competition selecting the most popular destinations among LGBT tourists.
Israel’s openness was on display last Friday in Tel Aviv when the nation’s first Miss Trans Israel Pageant was held in a packed auditorium at Habimah National Theater.
The winner of the event was Ta’alin Abu Hanna, a Catholic Arab dancer from Nazareth who will represent Israel at the Miss TransStar International Pageant in Barcelona in September.
A ballet dancer, abu Hanna told reporters after the win that she is “proud to be an Israeli Arab.” She noted, “if I had not been in Israel and had been elsewhere – in Palestine or in any other Arab country – I might have been oppressed or I might have been in prison or murdered.”
This is not to say that Israel is fully accepting of LGBT individuals. People like Bayit Yehudi Knesset member Bezelel Smotrich, who represents a large swath of the religious Zionist community, have referred to the Gay Pride Parade as a blasphemy that defiles the holy city.
Over the past decade Smotrich and others – both religious Zionists and haredim – have staged a “parade of animals” near the Knesset in Jerusalem which compares homosexuality to bestiality.
Horrific acts of violence have been perpetrated against the LGBT community and its supporters. One of the recent casualties was Shira Banki, who was stabbed to death by religious fanatic Yishai Schlissel during last year’s Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem.
Her murder was a tragedy for those who envision a more liberal Israel that protects the freedoms of all, regardless of their race, religion or sexual orientation.
More needs to be done. On February 23, Israel’s first designated LGBT Rights Day, MK Amir Ohana, the Likud’s first openly gay lawmaker, noted that discrimination still exists with regard to surrogacy laws and inheritance laws.
But in many fields LGBT citizens are treated with equality and fairness. On Gay Pride Week we should celebrate the gains made by Israel in championing the rights of the LGBT community, while remaining vigilant against attempts to disparage or discriminate against individuals for their sexual orientation.