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Israel's Gay Outlook Gets a Hearing

May 10, 2012 By:
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Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren Photo by Patrick Hagerty

Israel has "never had 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' and we never will," Michael Oren, the country's ambassador to the United States, told a sold-out crowd of 500 people at an Equality Forum dinner at the National Museum of American Jewish History on Saturday.

He went on to describe how the state intervened to make sure a gay pride parade would go on despite a sudden "interfaith agreement" to shut it down; granted full spousal rights to a diplomat's partner and took two soldiers to military court for beating up a lesbian colleague.

"The impression of Israel is this embattled country," Oren said, yet it is also home to some of the most progressive LGBT policies in the world.

Along with Oren, about a dozen Israeli entertainers and activists flew to Philadelphia last weekend to represent Israel as the "featured nation" at the 20th annual Equality Forum promoting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights.

So how exactly does a state steeped in religious history and law manage to simultaneously garner a reputation for gay rights?

If you ask pro-Palestinian groups, the answer is calculated publicity purposefully amplified to divert attention from the country's alleged human rights violations.

If you ask the visiting delegates, the answer is persistence from an array of Israeli supporters and advocates.

"Everything in Israel is under negotiation," said Irit Rosenblum, director of New Family, an organization she founded in 1998 to lobby for equal family rights. "So we negotiated about the possibility of changing the family law."

When Israel's Supreme Court didn't respond to proposals for recognition of same-sex couples, Rosenblum said her agency flooded the family courts with cases. Once one judge ruled to recognize a same-sex marriage performed outside the country, they went on to fight for same-sex parental rights and create a common law marriage identification card that anyone can get by declaring their relationship in front of a lawyer.

Many government and private institutions, including social security, hospitals, banks, insurance companies, colleges and health clubs, recognize the cards even though they don't officially change the holders' marital status, Rosenblum said.

"It's like we're foxes," she said. "We're going behind, bypassing the system."

Despite advances over the past 15 years, the state of gay rights in Israel still remains tenuous, said Shai Doitsh, chairman of the Agudah, a national LGBT task force. Because the country doesn't have a constitution guaranteeing equal rights, LGBT advocates must be on guard in case the Knesset decides to overturn the privileges they've fought for.

For example, he said, they're currently arguing against a proposal that would restrict the current inheritance law to only allow heterosexual couples to inherit their partners' assets.

Recently, gay rights advocates also have been forced to defend their motives as pro-Palestinian groups accuse Israel of "pinkwashing," or highlighting progressive LGBT policies to distract from "human rights and international law violations," according to a definition on pinkwatchingisrael.com.

A blog on the site called for a boycott of the Equality Forum because it was featuring Israel.

Forum organizers said attendance didn't seem to be affected, though a handful of protesters showed up to chant their displeasure outside at least three events. Midway during a May 3 session focusing on the featured nation, a trio wearing gold plastic masks burst into the room shouting, "No pinkwashing, Israeli apartheid!"

The interruption riled Chip Ellis, 50, an accountant from Center City.

"I know how the Palestinians treat gays and lesbians -- their families shun them," Ellis said.

The idea that "we hate gay people but we're going to pretend we don't to cover up other crimes, it's absurd," said Shep Wahnon, 60, a forum attendee from Manhattan.

And misleading, added Scott Gansl, 49, an event planner who lives in Center City and Trenton, N.J. Israel might need to work on its relations with Arabs, he said, but "you know, Israel really is great on gay issues." That could be, in part, because everyone is too focused on security to pick a fight over it, Gansl speculated.

"The most important thing is life and death, and you can die at any time," Gansl said, recounting an unforgettable suicide bombing he witnessed during a June 2003 visit to Jerusalem. "So what's the thing about a couple of homosexuals, a couple thousand homosexuals?"

The notion "that even when Jews do something good, they're doing something bad, is a well-known and disturbing trope," Oren said during an interview before Saturday's event. "At a time when Palestinian terrorists were blowing up our towns, our buses, we were still providing shelter for Palestinian gays."

A few hours later, a self-proclaimed Palestinian-Israeli stood up as Oren delivered his speech. "Israel is a country that only offers equality to chosen people," the man asserted before security guards escorted him out.

"We want all the Palestinians in Israel to enjoy the rights that all of us enjoy in Israel," Oren resumed. "When we receive peace, we will continue to provide that shelter to our LGBT neighbors who need us. The fight against discrimination never ends but we will wage it."

Said Fay Jacobs, a 63-year-old Jewish humorist from Rehoboth Beach, Del.: "The best thing we can do is show people -- just like the Jews did -- that we're just like everybody else."

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