Israel’s Other War
By Mel Frykberg
"We’re fighting for equality," said Hagai El-Ad. "But if we do it at the price of collaborating with an oppressive and discriminatory establishment, then we’re no better than the millions of other Israelis who’ve already chosen to become hardened and indifferent to the suffering of the other, of the enemy."
One would automatically assume that statement refers to the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation; it is not. Hagai El-Ad is a Jewish gay rights activist.
In a region where homosexuality is regarded as something abhorrent and punishable by law it is ironic that many gay Palestinians fled both Gaza and the West Bank and, with the help of gay Israelis, were able to find refuge in the state which epitomizes their enemy, Israel, and among a community vilified by their own communities back home.
"In the eyes of the Jewish majority it is sufficient for the other person to be an Arab to justify almost any humiliation and violence against them. Even if the other is an Israeli citizen, even if she is a pregnant woman, even if it’s a child on her way to school," stated El-Ad.
In a nutshell this sums up the empathy with which the suffering of Palestinians in general, and especially those in the Palestinian gay and lesbian community, is regarded by the majority of Israel’s homosexual community.
"We started a project to help protect and promote the rights of gay Palestinians who had fled the West Bank and the Arab villages in Israel," Nimrod Baron from Jerusalem’s Open House, a gay refuge center, told the Middle East Times.
"And so successful was the program that gay Israeli Arabs and Palestinians have now started their own program aimed at empowering gay members of their community," added Baron.
Although some Palestinian gays and lesbians are hiding out illegally in Israel in order to escape violence, intolerance and being disowned by their families, significant expatriate groups exist in Netanya and Tel Aviv where many live with their Israeli partners.
The police have in many cases turned a blind eye due to the intervention of organizations like Agudah, a gay activist organization in Tel Aviv.
Another problem facing gay Palestinians is that many in their community equate homosexuality with collaboration with Israel. While there is some basis to this, due to Israel’s internal security service, the Shin Bet, recruiting some individuals in return for money or resident permits, this does not apply to all the Palestinians who fled their homes.
However, those even suspected of collaborating with Israel face either death or imprisonment. Several years ago Tayseer, a young man from Gaza received a summons from the Palestinian police after he had engaged in homosexual acts. When his family found out, he was severely beaten and warned by his father that the next time he would be strangled.
When he refused to implicate others during his interrogation, he was tortured and imprisoned where he suffered constant taunts from interrogators and other prisoners. After his release a few months later, Tayseer crossed into Israel, something which is now virtually impossible due to the strict security procedures.
He now lives illegally in an Arab Israeli village and works in a restaurant.
For Jewish gays and lesbians the fight for equality has been a hard one, but one that has borne fruit, despite prejudices from orthodox Jewish groups. Sometimes the prejudice leads to violence. At the 2005’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras three marchers were stabbed by a Jewish fanatic.
Israel’s small but powerful orthodox community, including political parliamentarian groups, has been able to enforce its religious agenda on the Israeli public to a significant degree despite the outrage of the majority of Israelis who are secular.
Public transport is prohibited on Shabbat, or Sabbath, the Jewish holiday which starts at sunset on Friday and ends at sunset on Saturday, selling pork is illegal, and there is no such thing as civil marriages between Jew and non-Jew. These rules, however, are bent in the less religious climate of Israeli cities such as Tel Aviv.
And due to the determination and political activism of Israel’s gay community, Israel today has some of the most progressive gay rights in the world.
"The gay rights lobby here fought their successful campaign, both through the media and on the political level," Baron said.
Lesbians can officially adopt children born to their partners by artificial insemination from an anonymous sperm donor.
Same sex marriages performed outside of Israel are also recognized. Foreign partners of gays receive residency permits while spousal benefits and pensions are extended to the partners of homosexual employees. Israel’s attorney general has also granted legal recognition to same-sex couples in financial and other business matters.
Israel’s Defense Forces allow gays to serve openly and even in special units. In 1992 legislation was introduced to prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. But El-Ad concluded that however rosy the current scenario is, the rights of Israeli and Palestinian gays are inextricably intertwined.
"The struggle for our rights is worthless if it’s indifferent to what’s happening to [gays in the occupied Palestinian territories] a kilometer from here."