Israel is a haven of tolerance for minorities in the Middle East, providing economic opportunities, financial aid, and protection in a thriving democracy, according to panelists at a March 1 program held at Rutgers University in New Brunswick.
The Israeli panelists — gay and straight, Arab and Jew — were on a North American tour through a pilot program organized through Israel’s Ministry of Public Diplomacy, according to Shai Attias, a ministry representative traveling with them.
Nadav Perets, a 27-year-old native of Tiberias, said he runs an organization for gay, lesbian, and transgender youth sponsored by the Israeli government. The organization, among other things, helps gay and transgender Palestinian teens fleeing to Israel by providing shelter, education, and guidance on gaining asylum.
Perets, who is gay, contrasted Israel’s attitudes to gays with those in the Arab world, where homosexuality is often denied or criminalized. Perets said tolerance extends even to the military. “My [IDF] commander knew, and there was no discrimination. They even met my boyfriend,” he said.
Irit Magal, a lesbian, has worked as a journalist for IDF Radio and Channel 2 in Israel. Although the IDF station is operated by the military, she said, it is free to criticize the IDF and the government.
Magal recalled being sent by IDF Radio to cover the first gay pride parade in Jerusalem and witnessing thousands, including “police in uniform, gay people, transgender people, Arab people, religious people, non-religious people — that was so beautiful to me because everyone was together celebrating democracy.”
“It was the defining moment of my life,” she added. “That is why I say to be pro-Israel is to be pro-human rights because that is what Israel is.”
Raneen Khoury, who grew up in Nazareth, moved to Tel Aviv after high school to study and work. She eventually earned a college degree and cofounded an organization providing opportunities for Arabs to perform national service for Israel in lieu of the military.
“We want to feel like we belong to this country,” said Khoury. She said many Arab citizens have welcomed the initiative, which is supported by the Israeli government. Its 400 members are granted the same benefits and rights given to soldiers or others performing alternative service. There are 13 male Arab Knesset members, but, she said, her group’s “dream” is to get an Arab woman elected.
Khoury told the gathering she is a corporate services manager with hundreds of clients, including Palestinians; she travels back and forth to see them and family members, she said, and things are not as portrayed in the media.
“In real life I see good things,” she said, and advised those portraying Israel as oppressive to “go to Israel and see the proof that we are happy to be there.
“They will see the real story of Israel.”
“If they tell me Israel is apartheid, I would tell them they are not right and I am the one who lives there,” said Khoury. “I have come here as a human being to tell my real story. I would say prove this to me, convince me how you can get to this. Give me your facts. How is it that bombers go to Israel on suicide attacks and this is ignored?”
Hadas Yossef, a 30-year-old architect who came to Israel from Ethiopia with her family as a young child, spoke of the assistance they were given with language, housing, and education after arriving. She has also started a nonprofit for young Ethiopian teens to help them become successful Israeli citizens.
Yossef has also volunteered as a tutor in an Arab-Jewish school in a mixed neighborhood of Jerusalem where “Arab and Jewish people live door-to-door next to each other but overall in a very peaceful way.”