GSBA traveled to Israel with A Wider Bridge (AWB) on their 2019 Pride Leadership Mission to Israel. A Wider Bridge is an LGBTQ organization that brings US LGBTQ and allies together with Israeli Jews, Palestinians Israeli’s, Ethiopian Jews; Jews from throughout the Middle East and those from the Arab community, both Christian and Muslim, for the purpose of getting to know each other and learn more about the complex issues faced by each peoples. Actually, the mission of AWB is “Equality for Israel and Equality in Israel”. GSBA and AWB have an ongoing relationship, and have stayed in touch about issues that affect the LGBTQ and Jewish communities of both Washington State and Israel. GSBA President & CEO Louise Chernin, Director of Communications Eric Moss, and GSBA family member Mary Klein joined 27 other delegates from across the US for eight days packed with meetings, tours, and cultural exchange between the Israel and Washington LGBTQ communities.
Joining our cohort were 30 people from across the country who gathered to learn more about Israel and the Middle East. Our group, included members of our trans community and LGBTQ people of color, as well as allies of color, young and older activists, elected officials, and grassroots organizers, people from the faith community, skeptics and nonbelievers. The experience was truly unique, powerful, and educational. While we can’t possibly recap every small, yet incredible moment we experienced in Israel, we find it important to share with the GSBA community a few notable highlights from our trip and how these experiences may compare or differ from life in the US.
A BALANCED VIEWPOINT
Throughout our travels and meetings, AWB was intentional, to the best of their ability, in providing a balanced point of view on each topic we were presented. For each Israeli point of view, there was a Palestinian, Syrian, Arab, Ethiopian, or Egyptian counterpoint presented. With every speaker, we were free to ask questions and open a dialogue about current issues, and to question openly the information we were presented. We had many difficult conversations with our speakers, some of which were uncomfortable, but all of them focusing on one or more opposing views on the same topic.
THE ISRAELI GOVERNMENT AND THE LGBTQ COMMUNITY
On our first full day in the country, we hit the ground running with morning meetings at the Tel Aviv LGBTQ Center. We met Idan Roll, a Member of the Knesset (Israel’s Parlament or House of Representatives); Chen Arieli, Deputy Mayor of Tel Aviv; and Or Keshet, an LGBTQ community lobbyist for The Aguda – LGBTQ Task Force. The last election in Israel brought a record number of five open LGBTQ Members of Knesset, as well as the first openly LGBTQ minister to serve in the prime minister’s cabinet. Later we would visit the Supreme Court of Israel, sit in a courtroom, and learn about the Israeli judicial system. At the Supreme Court, we heard from fellow IGLTA member and tour operator Russell Lord of Travel With Russ, about his experience as a plaintiff in the legal battle that brought about the recognition of LGBTQ marriages performed in other countries to Israel.
Political parties and the political processes in Israel are different from those in the US. In Israel, everything is much more complex, and we learned that this was a common theme for many issues across the country. For many Israelis it is possible to hold multiple truths at once within their political identities. For example, it is possible to be deeply pro-LGBTQ, conservatively religious, and also for the expansion of equality for all. For any number of complex issues across the country, Israelis tend to isolate their stance on each topic individually, not lumping everything together into one party’s view or one belief system.
ISRAELI COMMUNITY ORGANIZATIONS
We heard from a panel of some LGBTQ leaders in Israel. The panel included Liana Meirom, Vice President of Israeli Gay Youth (IGY), a youth movement to bring full LGBTQ equality to Israel; Chen Shmilo, CEO if the Israeli AIDS Task Force; Shachar Grembek, founder of LGBTech who works with Israel’s largest businesses to create support and equity for the LGBT+ community in the workforce; Tamar Yahel, CEO of Hoshen, Israel’s outward LGBTQ education and training organization; and Ella Amest of Ma’avarim, a trans community resource to support, empower, and advocate for the Israeli trans community. In a breakout session after the panel, Louise and Eric sat with Shachar Grembek to learn more about the work and relationships within LGBTech, their LGBTQ business organization, and how they work with major corporations in Israel to institute policy changes that expand and protect LGBTQ equality in the workplace.
Unlike in the US, there isn’t a strong culture of philanthropy in Israel. NGOs (nonprofits) that are formed and officially recognized are government funded. This creates competition for resources, and means that the NGOs must fight each budget cycle to receive the same level, or more funding than the cycle before. Each organization fills a specific need in the LGBTQ community and they work independently on their missions with few staff and a legion of volunteers. Many of the LGBTQ organizations work closely with (on somewhat of a coalition basis) a group called the The Aguda, which translates to “The Association.” The Aguda is Israel’s LGBTQ Task Force and provides legal resources, reporting of LGBTQ violence, the LGBT Refugee Project, advocacy work, and provides businesses with the “Pride Tag” to indicate their support of the LGBTQ community. Across Israel, and even in the government, the LGBTQ community isn’t referred to by an acronym but instead, if you are an active member of the LGBTQ community, you are part of “The Proud Community.”
THE CONFLICTS BETWEEN ISRAEL, PALESTINE, AND THE ARAB NATIONS
A Wider Bridge organized speakers from many points of view surrounding the Israel-Palestine conflict, and others from organizations who are working together to ease tensions and build relationships across borders. We met with Yigal Elhanan and Rawan Bashart from Sadaka Reut, a movement that brings together Palestinian and Jewish students who share a vision of a better future for both countries. Yigal shared with us about how despite losing grandparent in the Holocaust and his younger sister in a suicide bombing, he still believes peace is possible. Rawan told her story about growing up in a segregated society where she had never met a Jewish person until she was an adult. The two shared some of the long-standing struggles both populations have in understanding the “other.” Yigal and Rawan believe that a key to solving these conflicts comes from educating youth about both cultures and building relationships across borders at a young age.
They describe their mission, “As Palestinian and Jewish citizens of Israel, and as activists, we feel that it is our responsibility to correct the current reality. Our work is based on our sense of belonging to our people, and on the belief that partnership, solidarity and a joint struggle are the only way to secure real change and build a more just and egalitarian society.”
Again, the speakers emphasized how there is no “easy fix” to healing the trauma of thousands of years of fighting and the generationally ingrained discomfort for the “other side.” These issues are deep and complex, and over time working with the youth, there’s at least hope for future good-faith discussions.
We traveled in Jeeps within feet of the Syrian border past the UN border-crossing checkpoint in the Golan Heights, where we met with someone from the Druze community, a religious minority group, and shared lunch in an abandoned and crumbling Syrian army barracks building. Later on our trip, we would end up in the Palestinian Territories of the West Bank, downtown in the city of Ramallah where we visited the Al-Amari Refugee Camp. In addition, while in the Palestinian Territories, we heard from respected Palestinian pollster Dr. Khalil Shikaki, from the Palestinian Center for Policy & Research, who presented his research in partnership with Israeli pollsters to gage the public openness to peaceful solutions to the conflict and “best case” outcomes. We heard from Abdallah Hamarsheh, CEO of Zimam, another grassroots organization in Palestine which works with the youth by “Bringing together thousands of Palestinians from across the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, Zimam is building a society united through respect, peace and democracy.”
While in the West Bank, we also met with leaders from the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) who gave us a specific Palestinian point-of-view on the origin of the conflict, the issues that promulgate the conflict, and what they think is a viable solution to end the conflict. The conflicts with Israel from its neighboring populations, by all presenters, was again described as “complex.”
YAD VASHEM AND LGBTQ PEOPLE IN THE HOLOCAUST
Our group spent time at Yad VaShem, Israel’s National Holocaust Museum, where our guide Alice Marcu, a lesbian Romanian Jew who’s family were victims in the Holocaust, customized our visit to call special attention to the specific struggles of LGBTQ people in that time, and shared stories of LGBTQ victims. We learned about the story of German Jewish athlete Fredy Hirsch who after he was arrested under the suspicion of homosexuality, was placed in concentration camps and worked to improve - at least temporarily - the lives of children in Auschwitz. Later in his imprisonment, he was open about his sexuality and ultimately took his own life rather than see the children he sought to care for murdered by the Nazis when they ended the children’s programs. We also learned of Willem Arondeus, an openly-gay Dutch man who destroyed public records to keep the Gestapo from identifying Dutch Jews. He was eventually captured and executed for his crimes, uttering his final words, “Let it be known that homosexuals are not cowards.”
CULTURAL FOOD AND SPEAKERS
Dinners throughout the tour were hosted by notable and celebrated Israeli chefs, many of whom were members of the LGBTQ community themselves, while more guests and speakers shared their stories. We heard from a queer soldier in the Israeli Defence Force (IDF); ate Shabbat dinner with Zehorit Sorek, a lesbian Orthodox Rabbi; heard from Yiscah Smith, a trans Jewish educator, author, and Jerusalem community leader; listened to Oref Erez, the first known transgender officer in the IDF, and CEO of Jerusalem Open House (JOH), the country’s oldest LGBTQ Community Center; and met Liel Messele, who shared her experience as a second-generation Ethiopian Jew living in Israel. Food from across the country was fresh and abundant everywhere we ate. We enjoyed salads and the famous Israeli egg dish shakshuka for breakfast, more salads and the freshest falafel for lunch. By the evening, we tucked into dishes of grilled chicken, lamb, beef and eggplant - and you guessed it - more salads for dinner. Every meal came with hummus and tahini as the go-to condiment. One stop in the north of Israel took us to the only winery in the country certified to make both kosher and non-kosher wines in the same facility. Israel’s landscape makes it an ideal place to grow citrus and wine grapes, and the country’s wine industry has grown to be recognized around the world.
On our final day in Israel, we heard from Tal Becker, an author, Guggenheim Prize winner, and Principal Deputy Legal Adviser at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He spoke about his experience as a peace negotiator between Israel and Palestine, explained the flaws in Zero-Sum Logic, and about what may be next for the peace process. He explained, “What you do in foreign policy is to try and make life better for more people, more of the time.”
Tal helped us frame our experiences, observations, and conversations of the week with the underlying context, “it is very complex.” From his experience, the cultural lens of a typical American is that we tend to look at a problem, identify what we see as the cause, and think we can fix it. Many also tend to believe that every problem has a current known solution and that if we just work harder, we can solve the problem. When addressing the question, “Will there be peace?,” Tal told us the hope lies not in a plans or negotiations currently taking place, but that these talks haven’t stopped yet, and they have not exhausted all options. The hope is somewhere in, “the permanent possibility of the presently unimaginable.” As long as all parties believe the right compromise just hasn’t been discovered, there’s still hope for a resolution.
We left Israel with more questions than answers. We left Israel with a somewhat better understanding of how ancient, complex, and how deeply the conflict and victimhood is tied to the region’s sense of identity. We left Israel having heard from the government, military, community, and citizens across the country, and understood their stories and their truths just a little bit better. We left Israel inspired by the people doing the hard work for equality there, as well as by our fellow delegates doing the work back here at home. Israel is a progressive country and a conservative religious country at the same time. Activists and community leaders have moved the needle for full LGBTQ equality in Israel, but they still have a long way to go. After meeting the folks on the ground doing the hard work day in, day out, we also left Israel with hope that the fight will continue, and they will eventually succeed.
Equality for LGBTQ folks in Israel is a win for LGBTQ folks in the United States, and vice versa. As the worldwide LGBTQ community grows closer together and we become more connected through the internet, the media, and travel, we have to recognize that there isn’t much of a difference between LGBTQ communities of Tel Aviv, New York, Seattle, Spokane, or London. We are all one “Proud Community.”
If you would like to hear more about GSBA’s travel to Israel, our experiences with the LGBTQ community there, or how you may be eligible to go on your own trip with A Wider Bridge, please join us for some wine and snacks at GSBA Headquarters on Wednesday, 8/21/2019 from 5:00 - 6:30 PM, by registering HERE.