Proud to be proud

At the same time as Tel Aviv celebrates tolerance and diversity by turning street crossings into rainbows, throwing a lavish street parade and hosting a myriad of social and cultural events in celebration of Gay Pride Week, just 20 kilometers away gays and lesbians in the Palestinian Territories live in fear, shame and anonymity.

The Arab/Israeli conflict is mired in questions of ideology, religion, land and history, but the issue of gay rights gives an articulate reminder of what really divides the two peoples are war.

While both societies are steeped in tradition, revere the past and honour the wisdom of their clerics and sages, Israel remains steadfastly democratic. And while democracy demands that social conservatives and the religious community in Israel are free to express their objections, it also demands that people are ultimately free to choose their lifestyle without fearing the tyranny of the state.

In the territory of the future Palestinian state, gays are labelled “a minority of perverts and mentally and morally sick”. They are subjected to honour killings by family members, are brutally targeted and exploited by militants and suffer terrifying ordeals of public torture and humiliation. Their sole crime is their sexual preference.

Meanwhile, in Tel Aviv, gays freely walk hand in hand. Gays can serve openly in the military and there are openly gay members in the Knesset. A recent American poll found Tel Aviv to be the most popular destination for lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual tourists in the world and was described as “the gay capital of the Middle East, exotic and welcoming, with a Mediterranean c’est la vie attitude.”

Israel is a place of refuge for Arab gays and lesbians with an estimated 300 gay men fleeing the West Bank for Israel where they feel safer amidst their supposed foes than among their own people.

Tel Aviv is now host to a monthly “Palestinian Queer Party” which remarkably demonstrates that Israelis more interested in promoting Palestinian sexual equality than the Palestinians themselves.

This is not to say that Israel’s proud record of protecting minority rights and equality means that every decision of the Israeli government vis-à-vis the Palestinians is correct or beyond scrutiny. Far from it. In fact, fallible decision makers are another happy feature of democracies in contrast with the divine rulers which inhabit the rest of the Middle East.

But surely the comparative treatment of gays in Israeli and Palestinian society allows certain conclusions to be drawn and certain questions to be posed?

Can the slur that Israelis intolerant to the point of apartheid really hold water in a society that has demonstrated fiercely democratic values and defends diversity and equality?

How can any true supporter of social liberalism attack the very right to exist of a state which is a beacon of democracy and equality in a region of unspeakable brutality and intolerance while supporting the national aspirations of a repressive and intolerant society?

How could any campaigner for human rights defend Palestinian political factions which routinely humiliate, torture and murder gays and relentlessly delegitimise the state in which these very same oppressed seek refuge?

For those who see something romantic in Palestinian “resistance”, surely the abhorrent attitude of Palestinian society towards gays reveals that this is not a campaign for freedom and liberty, rather it is a mission to replace Israeli liberalism and openness with the darkness and subjugation that pervades the rest of the Middle East?

Can any true supporter of gay rights endorse the creation of a 23rd Arab state in which one is not free to be gay?

The gay issue in Israel and the Palestinian territories not only reveals the contrasting morality of the Jewish and Palestinian national movements, it exposes those who use the language of human rights and equality to attack Israel as disingenuous, manipulative and willing to debase the very values they claim to uphold in the name of attacking the only country in the Middle East which defends democracy and human dignity.

This piece was written in a personal capacity and the views contained herein are not necessarily representative of NGO Monitor.

About the Author
Alex Ryvchin is Public Affairs Director for the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, the peak representative body of the Australian Jewish community. He is a former Israel Research Fellow at Jerusalem-based research institute, NGO Monitor, a lawyer and the founder of opinion website, The Jewish Thinker.