Left and gay in Israel

Having Lieberman’s followers embrace the gay community is a very positive development, even if their motivations aren’t pure.

gay pride (photo credit: Melanie Lidman)
gay pride
(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 2011.
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 is.
“Anything special you want me to emphasize?” I asked.
“Yes,” said the voice on the other side enthusiastically. “I’ll send you our brief.
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.”
Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, I had to decline the invitation due to other obligations.
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 territories.
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 Israel.
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 them.
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 those measures.
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.
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 political opinions.
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.