Though he was raised in a Jewish household, Judaism wasn’t a big part of Arthur Slepian’s life until after he came out as a gay man. The San Francisco resident returned to his Jewish roots when he discovered Congregation Shaar Zahav, the city’s inclusive synagogue for LGBT Jews and their friends. “It was a matter of finding a place where I could be both gay and Jewish to get me to return to Judaism,” he says.
Slepian is the Executive Director of A Wider Bridge, whose mission is stated simply on the group’s web page: “Building LGBT Connections with Israel.”
Slepian explained what inspired him to create the organization:
I founded it because with all the progress we had made with being included in the Jewish world, what was missing was a deep connection to Israel. Israel was either avoided or argued as a matter of politics. For me what was missing was an opportunity to engage with Israel — to build bridges between Jews in the USA and with the vibrant LGBT communities in Israel. On a legal level, LGBT Israelis have a lot of rights. That doesn’t mean it’s any easier to come out. There are still tremendous levels of homophobia.
In March 2012, Slepian, through A Wider Bridge, sponsored Rainbow Generations: Building New LGBT Pride and Inclusion In Israel.
Rainbow Generations’ agenda was simple. Guests from Israel embarked on a tour of the Western United States to talk about the challenges faced in helping Israeli LGBT youth, and their parents, deal with issues related to coming out. Stops included Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. Panelists included Adir Steiner, LGBT liaison for Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai.
“We’re making progress,” said Steiner at the group’s March 13 appearance at Congregation Shaar Zahav. “But the legal front is not the same as changing people’s attitudes. There’s still a lot of homophobia among the Orthodox. Slowly, things are changing. It’s not going to happen overnight, but it’s a beginning.”
Steiner has quite a personal story to share. When his late partner died of cancer, he was denied survivor benefits from the IDF. But Steiner sued and won. It was one of two cases that opened the floodgates, resulting in the numerous equality laws that LGBT Israelis now enjoy.
Iris Sass-Kochavi, the panel’s lone heterosexual member, works with Tehila, the Israeli counterpart of P-Flag (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). “Sometimes the support groups are the only place you can hear the words,” she said. “We are the voice of our kids. If there is a strong, loving family, the kids can handle anything.”
Sass-Kochavi spoke of her hope to launch Russian and Arabic Tehila chapters.
“People need to speak in their mother tongues,” she added.
Tehila’s support for Arab LGBT youth went unnoticed later that same week, when the panel’s scheduled appearance at Seattle City Hall was cancelled by that city’s LGBT Commission. Also canceled was an event in Tacoma, while the appearance in Olympia was moved to a synagogue after protesters from within Washington State’s LGBT community accused the panel of attempting to hide Israel’s treatment of Palestinians by touting the country’s record on gay rights, a practice often referred to by pro-Palestinian activists as “pink washing”.
“A group of respected LGBT leaders came to the USA to discuss their work in making Israel a more inclusive place, and a better place to be a teenager,” said Arthur Slepian in an official statement through A Wider Bridge’s website. “Their voices have been silenced in Seattle by those who seek to demonize and legitimize Israel, and who are willing to throw the Israeli LGBT community under the bus in the process. We were dismayed that the Commission gave in to objections raised by a small number of activists.”
On the evening of Friday, March 16, Seattle’s Capitol Club, a gay dance venue, hosted what was dubbed a “party to celebrate the cancellation of the pinkwashing event.”
A closer look at anti-Israel protesters, both in Seattle and elsewhere, brings forth profoundly disturbing results. On March 17, 2012 Seattle resident Stephanie Fox, a self-described “queer Jew” who serves as director of grassroots organizing at Jewish Voice For Peace, posted the following statement:
In my region of the United States, the Israeli consulate and militant pro-Israel group Stand With Us partnered to promote a tour of LGBT activists, not to advance gay rights, but to divert attention from Israel’s occupation and abuses of human rights.
On Monday, March 26, 2012, The Seattle Times published “Sponsors of Israeli Group Weren’t Here For Open Dialogue,” an op-ed by Fox, in which she wrote:
The LGBT Commission’s responsibility is to LGBT people in Seattle, not the Israeli government and groups that cynically exploit our LGBT community to justify Israel’s illegal occupation. The voices of Palestinian queers and queer Jews like myself are systemically silenced by the kind of “Brand Israel” propaganda that Stand With Us and the Israeli Consulate advance. The commission’s decision opened the door for real, inclusive dialogue about LGBT issues in Seattle and the Middle East.
QUIT Palestine (QUIT is an acronym for “Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism”) is a self-described “Queer Activist” group that has long stood in solidarity with Palestinian activists. On its website’s About page, QUIT makes the following statement regarding suicide bombings:
We don’t support attacks on unarmed civilians. At the same time, it must be understood that it is the right of any occupied people to fight for their freedoms. It is in fact their duty. Historically, every freedom struggle has been accompanied by acts of terrorism from the oppressed.
QUIT was co-founded by Kate Raphael, a Jewish lesbian who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has participated in activism around the world. Prior to her 2004 deportation from Israel, Raphael made many trips to the West Bank. She publicly admitted to never having come out as a lesbian to her Palestinian friends in the territories, claiming it was “because no one asked.”
Raphael, who has also been deported from Bahrain, denies that there is anti-LGBT violence in the Arab world. She claims that during one bombing incident in Beirut, people sought refuge at the Beirut LGBT community center. She doesn’t specify when this occurred, nor does she acknowledge that Article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code prohibits sexual relations that “contradict the laws of nature.”
LGBT Palestinians in fact have no legal recognition in any of the territories. Same-sex relations among men remain a criminal act in Hamas-controlled Gaza. Hundreds of gay Palestinians are known to have fled the territories due to the extreme levels of hostility they face from their own people. At no time does Raphael, Fox, or anyone else involved in anti-Israel protests address this issue or offer support to LGBT Arabs, who are routinely subjected to violence from their own governments.
On March 2, 2012, the Seattle LGBT Commission offered an official apology for cancelling the City Hall event and for refusing to meet with the visitors from Israel:
We apologize both to those leaders who were invited as our guests and to the many members of the Israeli, Palestinian, and LGBT communities in Seattle and worldwide that were affected by our decision. We listened to extended public comment from members of the public, both in favor of and against the event. Our intent to vote to cancel the meeting was not to take a stand for either side, but to recognize that we could not facilitate a neutral space for dialogue and learning and keep the conversation focused on LGBT issues versus the larger issues of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. We have also heard from many who celebrate the cancellation of this event. We flatly reject the suggestion that there could be any joy or celebration in this outcome.
“The truth is that Israel is a good place to be LGBT,” states Arthur Slepian. “It is so because there are countless people within Israel doing amazing, courageous work every day, especially with LGBT teens and families, saving lives, including the lives of young LGBT Palestinians who often have nowhere else to turn. Their work deserves to be supported, and their stories deserve to be told. It is not pinkwashing to tell the truth.”