The Foreign Ministry is helping to promote Israel's gay community as part of its campaign to shatter the negative stereotypes many liberal Americans and Europeans have of Israel.
The initiative flies in the face of the swelling protest against Jerusalem's Gay Pride parade set for November 10. But even as that parade's organizers are receiving anonymous threats of a holy war against them, gay activist Michael Hamel is traveling in Europe and North America working on publicizing gay Israel. A portion of his work, he told The Jerusalem Post by phone from California, has Foreign Ministry support.
"We are working very closely with them," said Hamel, who heads the The Agudah, Israel's Association of Gay Men, Lesbians, Bisexuals and Transgenders.
As part of its joint work with the Foreign Ministry, said Hamel, the group was going to bring gay journalists to Israel last summer, but the event was canceled because of the war with Lebanon. It is also working on a map of gay Tel Aviv.
A Foreign Ministry official told The Jerusalem Post this week that the effort to let European and American liberals know about the Israeli gay community was an important part of its work to highlight this country's support of human rights and to underscore its diversity in a population that tends to judge Israel harshly, solely on its treatment of Palestinians. However, it's a topic that is so touchy, the official did not want his name used.
But David Saranga, who works in Israel's New York consulate, was more open about the need to promote gay Israel to show liberal America that Israel is more than the place where Jesus once walked.
The gay culture was an entry way to the liberal culture, because in New York, it was that culture that was creating "a buzz," he explained. Israel needed to show this community that it was relevant to them by promoting gay tourism, gay artists and films, he argued. Showing young liberal Americans that Israel also had a gay culture went a long way towards informing them as well that Israel was a place that respected human rights, said Saranga.
Hamel said that showing Israel as a place where normal life occurred, including gay culture, helped people relate to it as a place much like the country where they live.
Among the stops in his trip was a conference in Madrid to place Israel in the running to host the Europe Pride event in 2009, as part of Tel Aviv's centennial celebrations.
"We are also trying to promote gay tourism in Israel," said Hamel, who said that he worked to include material on Israel at gay conferences or in tourism shows. He is also working on an Internet site that will be devoted to gay tourism in Israel.
He speaks as well about Israel's efforts to help gay Palestinians persecuted in the West Bank, who in some instances had been killed and tortured. Israel was the only country that was trying to help them, said Hamel. Just knowing that gave people a different outlook, he said.
"We come and we say Israel is not exactly the monster you thought it was," said Hamel.