(photo credit: Melanie Lidman)
Have you heard? November is Out in Israel month in Boston.The program was an
initiative of Israel’s consul-general to New England, Shai Bazak, and will
feature performances by gay heartthrob Assi Azar. Azar, a popular TV host in
Israel, will screen his made-for-television coming-out film Mom, Dad, I have
something to tell you to audiences around the Boston area, followed by panel
discussions about life as an openly gay man in Tel Aviv.
The event makes
Israel the only country in the world to run a campaign promoting its LGBT
(Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) population. By any standard, that is a
milestone. How did we get to the point where New England hosts an openly gay
icon, with the full sponsorship of the Israeli government? A couple of years
ago, right-wing foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman’s troops decided to use the
boistrous, proud Israeli LGBT community as a vehicle to show the world that
Israel is an advanced liberal democracy.
Gays, in their minds, are the
clearest proof possible that Israel is the only modern, open oasis in an
ever-more extreme Muslim desert.
Suddenly, the conservative Right was not
only okay with LGBT, it was promoting it.
Israel’s minister of tourism,
Moscow-born Stas Meseznikov (Israel Beiteinu), has been working closely for over
a year with gay Tel Aviv municipality official Yaniv Weizman on a grand
promotional campaign to attract European gays to visit Tel Aviv. The campaign
succeeded in bringing almost 100,000 gay men and women to the country in
Earlier this year, the foreign ministry organized an exhibition of
gay art in London and Manchester with works from some great Israeli talents. The
Assi Azar US tour is the first US leg of this grand scheme.
But there are
no free lunches. A month before the London exhibition, I got a call from the
Foreign Ministry. The ministry asked if I could be its guest at the London art
opening and talk about the gay community in Israel and how prosperous it
“Anything special you want me to emphasize?” I asked.
said the voice on the other side enthusiastically. “I’ll send you our
These people don’t know that Israel is the only country in the
Middle East that respects gay rights. The only country in the region where gay
people can live openly and safe. They should know that.”
or maybe fortunately, I had to decline the invitation due to other
STILL, THERE is a real dilemma here. Left-wing organizations
in Israel call this whole thing “Pink Wash.” These groups oppose any cooperation
with the government, especially the Foreign Ministry, which they accuse of using
the LGBT community as a cover-up for Israel’s less attractive actions in the
It’s very tempting to just say “no” and resist any ties with
Lieberman, whose MKs are responsible for proposing a bunch of ugly new bills all
meant to restrict freedom of expression.
But there’s more to it than
that. I’m as Israeli as the next guy. I am a proud, left-wing patriot. As a gay
activist, my first mission is to promote and normalize LGBT life in
The Russian immigrants who form the base of Lieberman’s
constituency are in general the most homophobic part of Israeli society, even
more than Shas’s ultra-Orthodox Jews.
So having Lieberman’s followers
embrace the gay community is a very positive development, even if their
motivations aren’t pure.
The fact is, there’s no way back for
After Lieberman embraces the gay community, he will never be able
to speak or vote against gay laws in the Knesset. Next year, when we try again
to get equal rights in adoption and surrogacy, his party will have to support
Being a proud Israeli does not mean I am proud of
everything my country does, to the contrary. But it’s still my right and my
obligation to represent Israel loud and clear the way I understand
It’s a strange dance. Assi Azar being embraced by right-wing Israeli
officials might seem a little odd to a Harvard/MIT audience, but those who come
to meet Azar in person will be surprised about how open he is about his
Israel has really become a place with no glass
ceiling for gays, and Azar is a great example of someone whose gayness has
become an advantage. Lieberman and co. know he is left-wing, and that
when asked, he will explain that “the occupation” and “gay rights” are not an
either/or. They really believe that selling “gay Israel” is a great PR move
anyway – and they will not be disappointed.
Gay Israel can just sit back
and enjoy the ride.The writer is a journalist, TV host, filmmaker and
gay activist. He was recently named the most influential LGBT person in Israel.