The past month has been a tough one for Israel’s “pinkwashing” critics, who accuse it of exaggerating the country’s degree of LGBT tolerance to supposedly deflect attention away from its policies toward the Palestinians.
In May the first ever “Miss Trans Israel” contest was won by an Israeli Arab who declared, “If I had been in Palestine or any other Arab country, I might have been in prison or murdered.’’ On June 3 Tel Aviv hosted its biggest ever gay pride parade, attracting over 200,000 participants and spectators, initiating a weeklong celebration of LGBT events.
The guests of honor were two top LGBT foreign celebrities, actors Alan Cumming and Lea DeLaria, who defied attacks by boycott activists to attend.
All these doings predictably generated no shortage of media and online chatter over the pinkwashing debate, even though there is little actual connection between them and whatever decisions Israel has made when it comes to dealing with the Palestinian issue.
But much less has been written when it comes to explaining just exactly why this country has emerged as a relatively progressive haven for LGBT acceptance – and this is an especially relevant point when it comes to examining Israel in a larger geopolitical context.
It’s not enough to simply credit the fact of Israel being a democracy in a sea of Arab autocracies, as many of its defenders do when making a case against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions critics. LGBT acceptance varies greatly among different democratic societies, in both laws and mores, and on the face of it one might expect Israel to lean toward the less tolerant model.
Close to 40 percent of the country’s population, if one combines the Arab and Orthodox Jewish sectors, belong to communities that don’t accept the legitimacy of same-sex relationships. And a good part of the non-Orthodox Jewish minority, while not observant in practice, still consider themselves “traditional” in a manner that one would think makes them not especially amenable to LGBT rights.
The Orthodox monopoly on Jewish marital practices only adds to a potentially intolerant atmosphere, as does a strain of Mediterranean machismo culture still not uncommon among many Israel men. The horrific murder at the 2015 Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade, and the 2009 shooting attack in Tel Aviv’s LGBT center, testify to an even more dangerous strain of localized homophobic intolerance.
In fact, on a personal, one-to-one basis, I would dispute the notion that Israelis are any more LGBT-tolerant than the citizens of most other democratic societies.
Yet, there’s no denying that Israel has advanced beyond countries with similar societal profiles when it comes to gay rights, especially in some areas where one would least expect it – such as the military, which now boasts openly gay officers, or a right-wing party such as the Likud, which last year welcomed its first out Knesset member, Amir Ohana.
I’ve heard people argue that perhaps because both groups were specifically targeted by the Nazis during the Holocaust, there is a particular sentiment among Jews against LGBT discrimination. It’s the notion put forth in the essay “Pink Triangle and Yellow Star’’ by the late writer Gore Vidal – no lover of Israel, to be sure – that “like it or not, Jews and homosexualists [sic] are in the same fragile boat, and one would have to be pretty obtuse not see the common danger.”
That’s a nice idea, and while probably true in much of the Diaspora, it is not really applicable to Israel. Jews are not a minority here, and those Israelis now accepting their LGBT brethren are probably not doing so out of any shared victimization mentality.
So I’d like to put forth a different theory – that in this case, necessity is the mother of tolerance.
Simply put, Israel – or at least its slim Jewish-Zionist majority – cannot afford to have its substantial LGBT population regulated to living closeted lives of quiet desperation, or voting with their feet by leaving the country.
It can’t have the gay community that has helped make Tel Aviv one of the globe’s great creative urban centers decamping for San Francisco or Amsterdam, or have the IDF lose out on outstanding soldiers only because of their sexual orientation.
As is often said, Israel’s only natural resource (except for now a little natural gas) is its people, and the LGBT sector is one resource this country can no longer afford to not be permitted the right to develop to its full potential.
Israel needs a proud, out, engaged and productive gay community – not because Israelis are so tolerant, but to help in defending against the intolerance toward the Jewish state from our regional neighbors and their supporters elsewhere in the world.
In this sense perhaps, the pro-Palestinian activists waving the pinkwashing banner are right – Israel is exploiting its LGBT population, albeit in the best sense of that world. My advice to those critics though is that rather than rail against Israel, they should offer some toughlove advice to the Palestinians they profess to support, cautioning them that in this day and age a society that does not allow its LGBT members to live in equal dignity discredits its claims for justice in the international arena, and undermines its potential to create a democratic state worthy to take a place among the family of nations.
So foreign celebrities aside, for me the real star of this year’s Tel Aviv pride parade was proudly gay Artillery Corps reservist Lt.-Col. Omer Nachmani, who convinced several of the reservists under his command to march with him in solidarity. Among other achievements, Nachmani is helping lead the fight to have LGBT Israelis who lose their partners on military duty given the same recognition as heterosexuals in similar situations.
“I believe that as a battalion commander, I have the ability to influence combat soldiers not only on the battlefield, but also when it comes to social values,’’ Nachmani told Ynet.
At the end of the day, Nachmani and his LGBT brethren will need to win their fight for full acceptance in this society, if all of us here hope to win Israel’s battle to survive and thrive in this troubled corner of the world.The author is the political/diplomatic correspondent for IBA English TV News