Israeli gay activist reports strides, strife on visit here

First, the bad news: "Mavet l'homo'im" (death to gays) was scrawled on the offices of the Agudah, the gay rights organization, in Tel Aviv earlier this year. A rabbi from the fervently religious Shas Party said on national TV that gays should be executed.

But there's good news, too.

The Agudah, which at first was functioning primarily in Tel Aviv, now has 10 active chapters around the country, up from just two last year.

And when The Pink Times, the publication for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, had a recent "Man of the Year" contest, the Israel Defense Force cooperated completely in permitting the three out of 10 finalists who were soldiers to be photographed and interviewed.

That's quite a difference from when Etai Pinkas was drafted to serve in the military 10 years ago.

"Today, in most army units there are people who are out," said Pinkas, a 28-year-old lawyer who is the chair of Agudah. "The army is adjusting. The laws don't mention GLBT people at all, which is the best status we ever wanted. We don't want any special rules."

Pinkas was in San Francisco recently as part of a four-city U.S. tour, to drum up support for American Friends of the Agudah.

Another IDF-related controversy arose recently when a high-ranking colonel came out, and the official newspaper of the IDF put him on the cover. One army official was so incensed, he closed down the newspaper for three days.

The official denied the colonel's sexual orientation was the cause, but after much public pressure, he reopened the newspaper and apologized. "It was a very hot story," said Pinkas. "I think all of these little stories build up the visibility we need so much, and the army is definitely opening up."

The Agudah has long had a friendly relationship with the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Congregation Sha'ar Zahav in San Francisco.

When donors to the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation went on a "Journey of Pride" mission in April 2001, they met with gay residents of northern Israel. Cut off geographically and socially, these residents had no way of meeting one another.

While Agudah's central office can offer support, both logistical and financial, no local chapter can really take off without local involvement, Pinkas said.

Once contact was made, the Agudah stepped in to help. Recently, a chapter was officially formed in Kiryat Shmona, the largest city in the JCF's partner region, to serve all of northern Israel.

The rented space is centrally located, near the bus station. "This is important because Kiryat Shmona is the center of a pretty wide area," said Pinkas. "About half the population is not necessarily residents of the city, but of kibbutzim or moshavim, and some come from more distant locations, like the Golan or Tiberias. This location is dramatically important."

New chapters don't always experience smooth sailing. When a newspaper in the city of Hadera advertised the Agudah would be holding a meeting there, a rabbi who is also the local minister of education said something along the lines of, "Hadera is a healthy place and homosexuality is a disease. Go back to Tel Aviv; you're not welcome here." When the Agudah held its meeting, members of the Shas Party showed up and refused to leave until the police came.

"There was no physical confrontation, but it was very close," said Pinkas. Finally, the head Shas rabbi of Hadera agreed to meet with some members of the Agudah.

Pinkas laughed as he remarked, "It seemed like they didn't know much about us; they were pretty fascinated by these strange people."

Even though the intifada is the main preoccupation of the government these days, Pinkas said that when Agudah members requested an audience with President Moshe Katsav three months ago, they immediately got one.

At the only other such meeting, a former Israeli president made an anti-gay slur and had to apologize.

Pinkas described the recent meeting with Katsav as generally positive, as the president acknowledged some of the problems members of the GLBT community face. But he stopped short of saying, "I'll fight for all your rights and sacrifice my job for that," said Pinkas.

Agudah members also met recently with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the first such meeting with a prime minister.

The intifada has taken its toll on every aspect of Israeli society, and the GLBT community is no exception.

The Agudah has long made an effort to reach out to queer Arabs, both inside Israel and in the Palestinian territories, but not always successfully.

For one, Arab society is much less open and accepting. For another, the intifada has made it nearly impossible for Palestinians to get into Israel. Gay Palestinians are often rejected by their own families and can be subjected to beatings or even death. When they flee into Israel, Agudah members will sometimes host them and help them get work permits.

To those in charge of Israeli's security, "they are potential terrorists like any other citizen of the Palestinian Authority, and practically speaking, we can't guarantee that they're not," said Pinkas. "It's a hard situation, and we don't have real solutions, but we're working now on negotiating with the European Union to try and create some kind of refugee status for these people. But that could take awhile."

In general, the Agudah has a full agenda, in securing rights for domestic partners, protecting the rights of transgender Israelis — despite the high profile of singer Dana International, transgender people suffer some of the worst discrimination — and developing its speakers' bureau.

"We want more lecturers entering schools, talking about the community," he said. "When gay and lesbian young people attend, they get more confidence and some legitimacy that is usually so missing."

Noting that a third of teen suicide results from conflicts over sexual orientation, Pinkas said educating the straight public is equally crucial. Such lectures "help the heterosexuals treat these people better and have different views about different people in general."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."