Ambassador Oren’s keynote at the Equality Forum, an annual gathering of LGBT activists last weekend in Philadelphia, made me proud. It’s wonderful to hear a top Israeli officer speaking clearly and intelligently for LGBT inclusion. The only trouble was that it was in English.
Official statements, like Oren’s or Israeli Ambassador to France Daniel Shek’s, who spoke at the Paris city hall in 2007 on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of Beit Haverim, Paris's Jewish LGBT community, are powerful and important. But when they’re speaking Hebrew, Israeli officials don’t talk like Oren.
To be sure, Prime Minister Netanyahu repeats his mantra: “In a region where women are stoned, gays are hanged, Christians are persecuted, Israel stands out.” But as Oren himself qualified, “being more liberal than our neighbors on LGBT rights is a very low bar.”
When it comes to actual LGBT people in Israel, Netanyahu, who’s only too happy to evoke Iranian gays in English, tries constantly to evade going on the record in Hebrew.
The 2009 homophobic murder in Tel Aviv at the Aguda, Israel’s LGBT Association, is a case in point. Netanyahu’s government did not change a single policy in the aftermath of the event. In fact, Netanyahu’s government has never made any policy choices about LGBT rights. I've found no pro-gay poliy choices by Netanyahu’s government. But the government did reject—twice—the proposal to include sexual orientations in an anti-discrimination bill.
His statements after the murder were empty and demeaning; even as he talked about the murder, he minimized as much as possible any political context. If you wonder what a fierce statement, one which places a tragedy within its broader political context, should look like, check out Netanyahu’s statement after the shooting in Toulouse.
Further, his visit to the Aguda was a disgrace. Accompanied by Education Minister Saar and Police Chief Aharonovitz, he met with the leadership of the LGBT community. At no point was the press allowed in; even the arrival and departure of the delegation were blocked from view. Netanyahu might have a gay-friendly heart. But what does it matter if his love remains private?
But it’s too easy to direct the fire at just Netanyahu. “The pressures to cancel the Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem were immense, but the authorities held firm” said Oren. Mr. Ambassador, I remember differently. The pride parades in Jerusalem, organized by the Jerusalem Open House, are, indeed, an important, telling achievement of the Israeli LGBT community. But the parades take place despite the authorities, not because of them.
One needs look no farther than the mainstream to see this troubling opposition. Then Vice prime minister Shimon Peres voiced his opposition to the pride parade at the house of Shas's spiritual leader, former chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who regularly calls gays and lesbians "evil and abominable." Haaretz reported that Peres would help stop the parade in exchange for Shas supporting his presidential bid. Indeed, President Peres spoke at a vigil in Tel Aviv after the 2009 shooting. But we know that for Peres words come easily; getting elected takes work. Education Minister Yuli Tamir (Labor), a philosophy professor who was my teacher at Tel Aviv University, opposed the right of assembly in city center Jerusalem, on the ground that it was a provocation. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert carefully closeted his genuinely gay-friendly sentiments as long as he held office. In fact, his Labor-Kadima government endorsed legislative efforts to curve freedom of assembly, intended to check future parades.
The pressure on the Open House was not just from religious or conservative circles. This we expect, and are willing to stand against. It was the authorities, including the police, who tried to curb activists.
The problem is that that Israeli authorities don’t hold firm, and fail to exercise power for the sake of those who have little. Today Israeli LGBT people have more personal power, such that their elevated private station obscures the lethargy of Israel’s government. Butnot all of us are equally strong, and if tomorrow we are less influential, what support can the fine words of the Israeli law offer, when the government doesn’t faithfully execute them?
Yes, the same year, 1993, that America enacted Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the Israeli army allowed openly-gay soldiers to enroll;. That was not the end of it—only the beginning. In fact, both in America and Israel, the campaign for LGBT inclusion in the military began in earnest that year. Even the repeal of the sodomy laws in Israel in 1988 (which were never faithfully executed) took place when several progressive Knesset Members made sure that a reform to the penal code which was being considered, would omit the problematic article. LGBT activism is no different than settlement-building: to get things done in Israel, you keep the issue away from debate to have the fact on the ground or in the book.
Ambassador Oren is correct when he says: “In Israel, LGBT rights is not an issue that divides us.” Most Israelis, regardless of sexual orientation or political color, would not put LGBT rights high on the agenda. Israel is gay friendly, not because of a favorable relation by the authorities, but because gays are strong enough to take advantage of general indifference, institutional weakness and legal loopholes.
The situation of gay Israelis is like gay marriage in Israel—not really marriage but “marriage.” It is registered if performed abroad, but the official acknowledgement is meaningless in terms of status and rights.