I am a LGBT Jew with strong ties to Israel. As a collegian, I spent a summer working on a kibbutz and have returned to Israel on a mission sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and for World Pride in Jerusalem, which occurred during the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.
Given these strong connections, I am proud that Israel will be the featured nation at Equality Forum 2012, the largest national and international lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights summit, taking place in Philadelphia this weekend.
Fifteen Israelis will be featured at our three-day conference (www.equalityforum.com) marking our 20th anniversary.
The Jewish and LGBT communities have much in common. Nazis sent Jews and gays to concentration camps. Jews wore the Star of David. Gays wore a pink triangle.
Equality Forum's annual featured nation or region provides an opportunity to examine LGBT rights and challenges. Some countries have been progressive, such as Canada and Germany. Other regions have been repressive, as is the case in most of Africa and the Muslim world.
Israel is the only country in the Middle East that protects its LGBT citizens. Israel, in fact, is more progressive than the United States, when it comes to LGBT rights.
For example, in 1993, Israel welcomed openly gay military personnel. It took the U.S. Congress until 2011 to repeal its prohibition of openly gay or lesbian soldiers. Israel allows gays and lesbians to adopt children; in the United States, some states allow gay and lesbian couples to adopt while others do not.
Israel does not sanction gay marriages but it does recognize same-sex marriages legally sanctioned in countries outside Israel. In contrast, the U.S. government does not recognize same-sex marriages, even those lawfully entered into in seven states and the District of Columbia. In addition, the so-called Defense of Marriage Act precludes U.S. same-sex married couples from accessing federal marital rights and benefits.
In addition, Tel Aviv is one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world.
Israel does have its challenges in embracing the LGBT community. Equality of LGBT Israelis is curtailed by the ultra-Orthodox community. But that theocratic influence is counterbalanced by an independent judiciary. While LGBT equality faces uphill challenges legislatively, it is Israel's Supreme Court that has protected and advanced civil rights.
Israel has been accused of "pinkwashing." Palestinian activists claim that by highlighting the progressive conditions for LGBT Christian, Arab and Jewish Israelis, Israel is pinkwashing Palestinian human rights violations.
Some of these activists unsuccessfully tried to get Equality Forum to withdraw Israel as its featured nation and Israel's ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, as the keynote speaker for our gala dinner this weekend.
We received more than 30 emails asking that we withdraw our invitation to Israel and to Ambassador Oren.
When we declined, some called for a boycott of the summit.
The Jewish and LGBT communities have histories of experiencing bigotry and oppression. How Israel treats LGBT Israelis reflects Israel's commitment to minority rights and Jewish values. Equality Forum 2012 creates understanding about Israeli LGBT achievements and challenges and will create bridges between the United States and Israel.
Malcolm Lazin is the executive director of the Equality Forum.