How Israel can teach us all something about Pride.
Next week my Scottish friend will leave his home in Paris to travel to Tel Aviv to celebrate Pride.
My friend isn’t Jewish but he is making this journey to Israel, the only country in the Middle East where LGBT rights are guaranteed, to celebrate his LGBT identity.
Many of my heterosexual readers won’t realise this, but LGBT people (as I am sure other oppressed people do) always have to consider their safety when they travel. We ask ourselves, ‘Will people be suspicious if my boyfriend and I ask for a double bed?’; ‘Will we be attacked?’; ‘Can we hold hands in the street?’; ‘Will people know we’re in a same sex relationship?’.
I have asked myself these questions when I have travelled in Scotland, Portugal and many other countries. The fact that I don’t ask these questions when I go to Israel is incredibly meaningful to me. I know that in Tel Aviv specifically (where I predominantly visit and where my family lives) I can hold hands with my partner and people don’t seem to bat an eyelid. This makes me feel ‘normal’. For one second I can forget that I am a member of a deeply persecuted minority and just relax.
Israel is an oasis for LGBT rights in a desert of homophobic, biphobic and transphobic hate and oppression. An estimated 250,000 people from around the world attended Pride in Tel Aviv last year. As a gay Jew it is something I am incredibly proud of. That LGBT people from around the world want to travel to the Jewish state to celebrate their LGBT identity is incredibly moving. The fact that famous drag queens, such as Roxxxy Andrews, from the hit TV Show RuPaul’s Drag Race, seem more likely to go to Israel to see their gay Israeli fans than international pop stars is quite notable.
You may have heard of accusations that Israel engages in “Pinkwashing”. Pinkwashing is the claim that Israel deflects attention from its conflict with Palestine by exaggerating its strong LGBT rights record. I want to state categorically that the idea of pinkwashing is simply an attack on nuance. The idea that both Israel’s positive treatment of LGBT people and the terrible conflict it is in with Palestine can’t exist simultaneously shows an enormous lack of understanding of the complex nature of statehood.
Admittedly, Israel is not perfect on LGBT rights. For example, Israel doesn’t permit same sex marriage, but then again only 27 countries in the world do. The reality though, is neither is any country including those in the West (e.g., there are 26 states in the US where you can still be fired for being gay).
But in context with other countries in the Middle East, there simply is no comparison to Israel’s LGBT record . And this is something Jewish, Israeli and all LGBT people have a right to be proud of.
While 250,000 people celebrate being LGBT in Tel Aviv, Istanbul Pride is banned, although incredibly brave LGBT activists still attempt to march under a cloud of rubber bullets and tear gas. Worst still, Homosexuality is punishable by death in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Yemen and there is no legal protection for LGBT people in any Middle Eastern country apart from Israel. The situation for LGBT people in Palestine is representative of their persecution across the entire Arab world. Homosexuality is illegal under Hamas in Gaza, and according to a Khaled Abu Toameh, gay Palestinians have fled to Israel out of fear. The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank also fail to protect the rights of gay Palestinians.
The reality is accusations of pinkwashing are made in the vein of attempting to demonise rather than criticise Israel. Those who argue this point, are really saying that Israel is a morally corrupt and inherently manipulative country – and nothing Israel does right can ever make it acceptable. To those on the Left, Israel is and must remain a pariah State, regardless of how progressive and democratic it may be in certain areas.
I am gay and I am Jewish and I have never felt more comfortable in either of my identities as I do holding hands with my partner on the streets of Tel Aviv. Denying my reality to further a political cause is unacceptable. Israel may not be perfect – no State is – but denying how much it means to LGBT people like myself, how it offers us a glimmer of hope in a region where we can be and are murdered for being ourselves is cruel, hateful, manipulative. And I won’t stand for it.
Tel Aviv Pride takes place from the 9 – 14 June. Five days when LGBT people travelling to the Middle East can celebrate our unique and beautiful identity in the only country in the region that accepts us. Tel Aviv Pride is an act of resistance. We are saying to the rest of that region that we exist and we deserve the same rights as everyone else. Khaled Abu Toameh Said:
‘It is hardly a secret that Palestinian society has gay members, but their lives are rather different than those of their peers just a few miles away in Israel.’
The real tragedy about Tel Aviv Pride is the thought that all the beautiful LGBT people across the Middle East living in fear, oppression and under threat are still forbidden from expressing themselves as openly and with as much Pride as those attending can.
To them I say: I see you, I celebrate you, I am proud of you and I will not stop fighting until you have the same rights as us. I promise you this.