As a former historian, I’m fond of vignettes, so let me start with three of them.
An Israeli diplomat is appointed to a prestigious embassy abroad and, quite naturally, the ambassador applies for full benefits for a life partner. But in this case, both the diplomat and the partner are men.
As many of you know, women as well as men serve in our army. The second vignette is of a young woman soldier who is bullied because of her sexual orientation. Two other women soldiers taunt her and tear up her bunk.
Lastly, Israel is situated in the Holy Land, which can be an epicenter of religious tensions. That is why it’s exceedingly rare that rabbis, imams, and priests get together and agree on anything, but they did when the Gay Pride Parade was scheduled to be held in the city holy to all three faiths, Jerusalem. Suddenly, there was interfaith unity in denouncing the parade and demanding its cancellation.
Each of these vignettes reveals something essential about the relationship between Israel and its proud LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community. The diplomat and his life partner were naturally and without a second thought granted full spousal benefits, even benefits for children. Today, the couple is representing the State of Israel in a crucial European capital. The two women soldiers who taunted their lesbian sister-in-arms were hauled before their commanding officer and summarily court-martialed and imprisoned. The pressures to cancel the Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem were immense, but the authorities held firm. Protected by police and security guards, the parade was held and was hugely successful. Indeed, each year both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv continue to hold Gay Pride parades — last year’s in Tel Aviv had more than 100,000 participants, making it the largest gay parade on the continent of Asia.
Of course, none of these portraits of LGBT rights in Israel would have been possible without the energy and courage of generations of activists. Those activists are striving to achieve greater rights for same-sex partnerships under Israeli law. They are laboring to expand existing legislation barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the workplace. They are guaranteeing that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will never be instituted in the Israel Defense Forces. Indeed, the same year that the U.S. enacted “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the Israel Defense Forces specifically banned all discrimination against sexual minorities.
Our activists faced many challenges, but they were able to build upon a solid foundation of freedom. Israel’s Declaration of Independence enacted on May 14, 1948, pledges to “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all of its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex.”
Today, Israel’s LGBT community is part of the fabric of Israel’s diverse and vibrant society. Together we are soldiers, professors, legislators, jurists, factory workers, health-care providers, and educators. Together, we are not gay or straight or bi or transgender, but merely, proudly, Israelis. And together we want peace.
We want a two-state solution with Israel, the nation state of the Jewish people, living side-by-side with the nation state of the Palestinian people, in mutual recognition, security, and peace. We want all Palestinians to enjoy the rights which we in Israel cherish.
Still, I know, there is a small but voluble group claiming that the freedom and equal rights Israel grants to the LGBT community is merely an attempt to camouflage our alleged oppression of the Palestinians. But the fact is that even when Palestinian suicide bombers were blowing up our restaurants and buses, and terrorist missiles were pummeling our neighborhoods, Israel still provided shelter for LGBT Palestinians. Indeed, there are two Palestinian organizations fighting for LGBT rights in the West Bank, but they cannot operate freely there. They are both headquartered in Israel. Meanwhile, Israel’s National LGBT Taskforce monthly receives about 3,000 distress calls from around the Middle East.
When we achieve peace with the Palestinians — may it be soon — we will continue to champion LGBT rights in Israel. We will continue to provide that shelter to our LGBT neighbors who need us. For we live in a very tough neighborhood — a potentially deadly neighborhood if you’re gay. You can be flogged or even executed in Gaza and Saudi Arabia. You can be imprisoned in Lebanon, Syria, and Tunisia, and oppressed in the West Bank. Remember Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad telling Columbia University students that there were no gay people in Iran? He was right: LGBT Iranians are either in hiding, in prison, or dead.
Yet, being more liberal than our neighbors on LGBT rights is a very low bar. We must be progressive not only in regional terms but in global terms. We must never cease striving to overcome the remaining obstacles to total equality in Israel. We must see to it that those rights are enshrined in law. We must guarantee that bullying in schools, intolerance in some religious circles, and prejudice in the public domain are unacceptable. Period. And we must safeguard an environment in which LGBT activists can continue their crucial, courageous work.
That is one of the reasons why I, as ambassador, held the first-ever Israel LGBT event in the nation’s capital. We hosted Ivri Lider, Israel’s singer of the year and outspoken champion of LGBT rights. Lider performed at a synagogue in the heart of Washington, DC, and the crowd was electrified. I’ll never forget one of the fans coming up to me after the show, his eyes brimming with tears, and saying how much it meant to him, as a gay American Jew, that Israel would stand up so intrepidly and publicly for LGBT rights.
Yes, there will still be challenges. Prejudice will resurface. As in any open society, the fight against discrimination never really ends. But we will wage it. We are a work in progress, but we are also a work of progress.
We are proud that a transgender singer, Dana International, represented our country in the prestigious Eurovision song contest. And she won! We are proud that this year Tel Aviv was named the world’s most gay-friendly city. We are proud that each year delegations from San Francisco, London, Montreal, and Berlin travel to Israel to celebrate their pride with us.
In Israel, LGBT rights is not an issue that divides us. It is a vision that unites us. So come and join us in Israel on June 8, just over one month from now, and take part in the next Gay Pride Parade. In our homeland, you may never feel more at home.