– A blog post from EQCA Legislative Director, Alice Kessler –
Last summer, I joined A Wider Bridge, an organization that builds bridges between Israel and LGBTQ North Americans and allies, on an LGBTQ Mission to Israel. A Wider Bridge now finds itself at the center of a controversy related to the National LGBTQ Task Force’s Creating Change Conference. As a Jew who has often felt uninformed about and hesitant to even talk about the Israeli‐Palestinian conflict, and as someone who has over a dozen family members living in Israel and Arab Muslim family members here in the U.S., I saw it as an opportunity to run toward rather than away from my discomfort. This would not be my first trip to Israel (I had visited once before in high school), but as a longtime LGBTQ advocate, I thought it would be fascinating to view the country through this lens. I joined twenty other diverse LGBTQ leaders, some of whom identified squarely in the pro‐Israel camp and some of whom had strong reservations about Israel.
Through our travels and meetings with a broad cross‐section of Israelis and Palestinians, Jews, Christians and Muslims, secular and religious people, those young and old, I came to appreciate the complexity of this land.
For example, on a day trip to the West Bank led by a Palestinian guide, I saw the separation wall and military watchtowers up close. I also saw art and graffiti that frequently extolled and incited violence against Israelis. Alternatively in Ramallah, I witnessed a community going about its business — bakers, shopkeepers, and school children engaged in the banalities of daily life. Seeing that gave me a glimpse into an autonomous Palestine that hopefully one day will exist peaceably side‐by‐side with Israel. On a trip to an Arab fishing village called Jisr Al Zarqa, we met with two remarkable families — one Jewish and one Arab — who had started a backpackers’ hostel together, invigorating the economy of this very depressed hamlet. It was a shining example of the ways that some Palestinians and Jews are transcending the typical narrative we often hear about the conflict.
I witnessed another conflict altogether — that between Jewish secularism and orthodoxy. In arguably the holiest place on earth, this struggle is real. There are those whose belief systems do not allow women to pray on equal terms as men, to sit next to them on an airplane, or reveal parts of their bodies in public. There are those whose lives of prayer are subsidized by the state while their non‐ultra‐Orthodox brethren are conscripted into military service as a fact of life. While civil marriages performed abroad (including same‐sex marriages) are recognized by the Israeli government, marriages between Jews in Israel itself can only be officiated by the Orthodox rabbinate. Not only does this situation exclude same‐sex couples and those who wish to have a Reform or Conservative wedding ceremony, but it denies over 600,000 Jewish Israelis who are of mixed heritage and not considered Jewish “enough” to get married in their own country.
I noticed the inequalities, economic and otherwise, vis‐a‐vis Ashkenazi Jews (those of European origin) and the Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews of the Middle East and North Africa. Yet, I also observed the melting pot that exists in Israel between Jews of different origins in the diaspora.
I sat for a hearing in the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, which was devoted to better understanding transgender issues and what more must be done by the government to treat transgender people with fairness. I heard affirming statements by numerous Members of Knesset from various political parties. However, I also heard testimony from transgender adults and youth about the discrimination and struggles for safety, dignity, and economic security they have faced. These problems were laid bare in a very public and visible way – far from the accusations that this trip would be nothing more than “pinkwashing” or a propaganda tour to showcase how good LGBTQ people have it in Israel.
On a visit to Jerusalem Open House, we met with an elderly couple that had been together for more than fifty years and shared their story of living deeply in the closet and eventually coming out as Israeli society progressed and changed. We also heard about how Jerusalem Open House seeded and nurtured a group called al‐Quaws, which is now an independent organization run by and for LGBTQ Palestinians. I marched in Tel Aviv Pride and could have sworn I was in San Francisco. Then, on my last day on the way to the airport, I rode in a taxi with a Jewish driver who told me how disgusted he was by all the Pride revelers.
Because of this trip, I have many healthy critiques of Israel, its current controlling party, the Occupation, and aspects of Israel’s governance much in the same way I do about my own country. Israel and its people are varied and complicated. You can’t paint them or the situation there in any kind of broad strokes. It takes people like me engaging, not turning away, to ever hope to make progress on the idea of peace, dignity, and human rights for all in the region.
A Wider Bridge has been subjected to unfair accusations and exclusion this past week by some in the LGBTQ community, including a leading organization, and I am compelled to speak up. A Wider Bridge is not the pocket of the Israeli government. It does not seek to portray only one side of Israel or sweep others under the rug. Rather, it an organization that strives to understand and dissect Israel in all its complexities, in an incredibly thoughtful way, while acknowledging the importance that Israel holds to many LGBTQ Jewish people and our allies.
Watching the events at Creating Change unfold, first the cancellation of A Wider Bridge’s reception which was to discuss a deadly attack (by a zealous Jewish man) at Jerusalem Pride, then the reinstatement of the event, and then the protest, left me hurt and appalled. I have listened to the perspective of some of the protesting groups, and I concur that there is and must be a place for condemnation of the Occupation and the illegal settlements. However, the protestors’ chant of “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” amounted to a call for the destruction of the Jewish state and smacked of anti‐Semitism.
A Wider Bridge and Jerusalem Open House have done incredible work to promote inclusiveness, understanding, and dialog. I can only hope that in the future Creating Change will model these same values.