When a delegation of nine LGBT leaders from the United States arrived last week in Israel for an intensive seminar, we knew the gay residents of progressive Tel Aviv enjoyed broad acceptance and myriad legal protections. But imagine our surprise when TV personality and commentator Gal Uchovsky announced that we had arrived in “gay heaven.”

Israel is “the best LGBT country in the world,” he told us, adding that the nation’s LGBT residents face no serious problems that he could identify. A gay child growing up in rural Israel is better off than a similar kid in the rural United States, he observed. Homelessness is rare here and Israeli parents embrace their gay kids because, well, better to be gay than dead.

Uchovsky is a proud cheerleader for his country, which is endearing, though his privileged worldview has perhaps shielded him from some unpleasant, inconvenient realities. Life for LGBT Israelis is, indeed, more complicated than Uchovsky’s rosy assessment and, thus, our trip’s catchphrase was cemented: “It’s complicated.”

The stellar seminar, sponsored by Project Interchange, a program of the American Jewish Committee, brought me well out of my comfort zone and right into Ramallah and to the edge of the Gaza Strip. The focus of the visit — LGBT issues — was often overshadowed by the frustrating stalemate of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Why can’t the two sides come to an agreement on a two-state solution? It’s complicated. And, as we learned, it’s far more complicated than American mainstream media seem to grasp.

And so from the West Bank to Jerusalem to Tel Aviv to the Negev, the nine of us trekked to learn all we could from a diverse range of perspectives, including from Palestinians and Israeli experts critical of the country’s record on LGBT rights.

We toured Tel Aviv’s bustling, posh community center, touted as the only such center in the world that is municipally owned.As we made our way up the stairs to meet with Even in the community center, we could hear the giggles of young children and stepped over a pile of neatly arranged kids sneakers in a hallway. Another sign of the times.

The government’s funding of such centers and related LGBT causes is a mixed bag. In the United States, small LGBT non-profits and HIV service providers jockey for limited public grants, often leading to turf wars. But most such U.S. groups aren’t beholden to the government or muzzled by fears of government retaliation. It’s not clear that the same is true in Israel. It’s a dilemma: accept public money to advance your important work and mute your criticisms of the government or reject public funds and risk financial shortfalls that will curb programming. As one speaker put it, “I’d rather our public money went to gay causes than to building another bomb.”

The highlight of that visit for me was hearing from Uzi Even, the first openly gay member of the Knesset and a pioneering elder statesman of the Israeli LGBT rights movement who has helped rid the military of discriminatory policies and liberalize adoption laws. In a true sign of the times, his latest cause involves sorting out Israel’s divorce laws as they relate to same-sex couples.

My advice to Israeli LGBT advocates: Take time now to celebrate and honor the contributions of Even and others like him. Record his personal history and share it with young people. It wasn’t so long ago in Israel when gay sex acts were illegal. Such lightning-speed progress doesn’t happen by accident and brave pioneers like Even deserve our gratitude.

Several speakers emphasized the role that a 2009 shooting played in advancing gay acceptance. On Aug. 1, 2009, a gunman burst into the LGBT community center in Tel Aviv and opened fire, killing two and injuring at least 15 others. It’s hard to quantify how significant a role that tragedy played in changing Israeli attitudes toward gays, but our speakers agreed it was a turning point.

It’s a stark contrast to what we see in the United States, where violent hate crimes continue to plague our community, from trans women routinely killed in our inner cities to the recent murder of a gay man in the heart of New York’s gay village. Americans are so inured to violence that these crimes barely register in the mainstream media, let alone lead to a widespread change in attitudes.

After a couple of days in progressive Tel Aviv, we made our way to Jerusalem. In addition to the usual religious sites, a group of us visited the Jerusalem Open House, an LGBT community center engaged in broad grassroots work in the face of complicated problems like funding, space constraints, religious critics who have sometimes turned violent and the ever-present challenge of building relations with Arab residents of the city.

Celebrating gay pride in Jerusalem has been complicated, too. They don’t agree on much, but anti-gay animus was something that united the world’s major religions as conservative Jewish and Arab leaders denounced plans for pride parades in the holy city in recent years. In 2005, marchers were attacked by an ultra-orthodox Jewish man who stabbed three participants. The following year, Jerusalem was selected to host WorldPride, which led to more unrest and violent protests. Some lawmakers in the Knesset attempted to ban gay pride parades in Jerusalem, but those efforts fizzled. Our hosts in Jerusalem insist that relations are improving and that Pride is safer than in the recent past. Here, another stark contrast to the way we celebrate in the United States, with our corporate-sponsored pride villages, beer gardens and all-night parties.

From Jerusalem, we took a day trip and toured Efrat, a small city in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc with its mayor, Oded Ravivi. The issue of settlements commands a lot of attention in U.S. media coverage of Israel and so I was curious and excited to see one up close. Efrat has eschewed the barbed wire fences that snake through so much of the Israeli landscape and officials have worked to cultivate economic ties with surrounding Palestinian villages. But we learned that such efforts only go so far. When the mayor approached a Palestinian schoolmaster about sending teachers to Efrat to teach Arabic to Israeli kids, he declined, fearing he would be “slaughtered” for collaborating with the Jews.

In one awkward moment, a member of our group asked Mayor Ravivi how he would react if one of his children came out to him as gay. He seemed startled by the question and suggested it couldn’t happen in his family. Cue the eye rolling among some of us. Such reactions are common among many who proclaim they don’t discriminate but haven’t devoted much thought to the underlying issues.

After absorbing the complicated problems and history of Jerusalem, some of us needed a release and our gracious hosts at Open House took us to the one gay bar in Jerusalem, called Video, where we had a few drinks and danced till the wee hours alongside a diverse crowd of revelers. Music, indeed, makes the people come together.

Accusations of ‘pinkwashing’

The concept of “pinkwashing” emerged as a hot topic throughout the week. Some critics claim the country’s embrace of LGBT rights is merely a propaganda effort to claim the mantle of modernity and establish a stark contrast to homophobic regimes in the West Bank, Gaza and elsewhere in the Middle East. These critics claim the government’s support for gay rights doesn’t threaten or undermine the structure of Israel and amounts to a “fig leaf,” and an attempt at distracting attention from the difficult problems of finding peace with the Palestinians.

I’m not convinced. Politics is about the art of the possible, not the ideal and certainly not the perfect. Sometimes we have to accept imperfect solutions or motives in the interest of securing protections for people in need. What’s most striking about Israel’s LGBT record isn’t what it has achieved legislatively or through court rulings, but the fact that all this progress is happening in the heart of the Middle East. Our group trip featuring nine outspoken American LGBT advocates is simply not possible anywhere else in the region.

Even compared to the progress we’ve seen recently in the United States, Israel stands out because it is such a young country enacting these reforms. Americans are notoriously forward thinking and, as a result, we tend to forget our history. It was less than 10 years ago when President George W. Bush called for a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and scores of states enacted their own constitutional bans. The architect of this shameful attack on LGBT rights was Ken Mehlman, a closeted gay man and modern-day Roy Cohn who has since come out as gay and now raises money for marriage equality campaigns. The change afoot is new and fast but fragile. Would America be seeing such dramatic change now if Mitt Romney had won last year’s election?

Meanwhile, Israel opened its military to out gays and lesbians and transgender service members — something still barred by the U.S. military. There is relationship recognition, if not full marriage equality. The government directly funds and supports the LGBT movement, for better or worse. And it doesn’t hide that support, but promotes it.

Still, some see nefarious motives.

Upon returning home from this trip, I received a letter criticizing the visit from a group called New York City Queers Against Israeli Apartheid. It read, in part:

“The delegation met with some unspecified ‘Palestinian officials in Ramallah,’ which strikes us as nothing but a token gesture. Worse, ‘pinkwashing’ — the attempt to use Israel’s supposedly decent record on gay rights to whitewash Israeli occupation and apartheid — has been front and center in international LGBT organizing over the past several years, particularly in the US. Any delegation of LGBT ‘leaders’ to Israel that doesn’t address it is clearly intended to contribute to pinkwashing.”

Our group was sensitive to pinkwashing from the outset and several of us requested meetings with gay Palestinians and their representatives. Project Interchange worked hard to provide a balanced view of the issues and invited two Palestinian LGBT groups — alQaws and Aswat — to meet with us. Officials at the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem LGBT centers were also asked if they could assist in persuading those groups to meet our delegation or knew of other Palestinian LGBT representatives who would be willing to meet us. Sadly, the groups refused to meet with us. Change is simply not possible without dialogue and I deeply regret this lost opportunity the Palestinians had to engage with an open-minded group of visitors seeking nothing more than understanding and education.

(I invited NYCQAIP to respond to this story and they accepted. I look forward to publishing their reaction and thoughts on pinkwashing in the coming days.)

We met with Abu Zayyad, a scholar and Fatah and PLO adviser. It seemed somewhat silly to ask him about the state of LGBT affairs given all the day-to-day challenges facing Palestinians in the West Bank. But he insisted that there is a level of gay acceptance, even if such views differ widely among family members, noting there are no laws in Ramallah related to gay issues and that there are at least two non-governmental organizations that espouse gay rights. He spent most of his lecture discussing the state of life for Palestinians and much of what he said was not encouraging. He lamented the lack of mobility for Palestinians, who don’t have passports, making international travel difficult at best. Locally, the checkpoints that Ramallah residents must navigate just to visit nearby Jerusalem create daily headaches. Zayyad, who said he spent three months in prison for participating in an anti-Israel protest, fears that a two-state solution will be impossible five years from now, when an estimated one million Israelis could be living in West Bank settlements.

“It will explode again,” he warned.

It’s often been said that Israel is a land of contradictions and that assessment came into sharp focus last week. Israel celebrates its status as the only Democracy in the Middle East, while its non-Jewish residents live under a flag adorned with religious iconography. In a nation so steeped in history, Israel is just 65 years old and is surprisingly lacking in many traditions. Located in the heart of the Middle East, where homosexuality can be punished by jail time or even death as in Iran, Israel has emerged as one of the world’s most pro-LGBT nations. A country that is more than 60 percent desert has perfected drip irrigation and desalinated water from the Mediterranean to solve a decades-old water crisis. And in a nation with such ancient religious influences, a large chunk of the population — estimated by one speaker as high as 50 percent — identifies as secular or atheist.

It’s impossible to summarize our weeklong adventure in a couple thousand words. A sincere and heartfelt thank-you to the team at Project Interchange, all of our speakers and to the people of Israel for all your hospitality. We were serenaded by Ivri Lider; walked the Stations of the Cross; toured Yad Vashem, the Western Wall tunnels, the Mahaneh Yehuda Market and indulged in far too much of Israel’s impressive cuisine. We visited Sderot, Mitzpe Ramon and slathered ourselves in mud before floating in the Dead Sea.

It was in that moment — nine of us standing half naked, covered in mud — that I perceived a lasting bond forming among us. Despite our differing views on policy back home and occasional misunderstandings, we’d been through something emotional, powerful and unique together. An experience impossible to explain or summarize here, because, well, it’s complicated.