Arab-Israeli Tensions Spill Over to Pride Celebrations

by Joseph Erbentraut

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday June 28, 2010

Pride season means many different things to many different people within the LGBT community, but one theme - that of unification and temporarily putting aside the various disagreements that fuel community infighting - is an undeniable Pride pillar oh which many queer people lean.

But Pride season can also exacerbate existing tensions within the community, particularly in response to major world events. The May 31 Israeli attack of a Turkish humanitarian aid flotilla headed to the Gaza Strip - an attack that resulted in the deaths of nine, the injuries of dozens and the detainment of hundreds - has proven to be one of those events.

As media, governments and protesters worldwide largely condemned Israel's attack on seemingly innocent civilians, tension boiled over into Pride celebrations worldwide. Pride organizers' actions raise serious questions over the role of censorship in queer-centric spaces.

LGBT outcry over attack

In Madrid, an Israeli singer's concert was canceled and an Israel delegation was banned from participating in that city's Pride Parade, scheduled for late June, due to reported security concerns over their presence. In an interview with the Guardian, Antonio Poveda, president of Spain's Federation of Lesbians, Gays, Transexuals and Bisexuals, said: "After what has happened, and as human rights campaigners, it seemed barbaric to us to have them taking part."

And in Toronto, tempers flared palpably as a pro-Palestinian group called Queers United Against Israeli Apartheid was originally barred from marching in their city's parade, set for July 4, after the city threatened to pull its funding of the event. Over 20 honored by the Toronto Pride organization returned their honors in protest and the decision has since been reversed, as reported by EDGE: Queers United Against Israeli Apartheid will march in the parade, despite criticism from some pro-Israel LGBT advocates.

Avi Benlolo, president of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust Studies, is among those angered by Pride Toronto's reversal. "We feel that Pride Toronto is no longer a representative of gay rights, but has now been unfortunately hijacked and has become a vehicle for anti-Israel bashing and agitation," Benlolo told the Toronto Star.

The controversy understandably has American LGBT advocates on both side of the contentious and centuries-old Israel-Palestine issue seeing red during our rainbow-intensive season.

Can the Palestinian struggle be separated from gay rights?

LGBT activists who stand in solidarity with the Palestinian population paint a different picture of Israel. For them, the many pro-Israel advocates in the gay community see on the state's progressiveness on LGBT issues as "pinkwashing." San Francisco-based Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism, an organization similar to the group originally banned in Toronto, considers themselves part of "an international movement for human rights that encompasses the movement for Palestinian liberation, and all other liberation movements."

Andy Thayer, the Chicago-based founder of the Gay Liberation Network, who's recently traveled to Russia to protest government oppression of Pride celebrations there, is among those activists who aligns himself in solidarity with the pro-Palestinian movement.

"We've heard the repeated chant over and over that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, and yet there's a whole section of the population who are segregated from the rest of society," Thayer told EDGE. "It's completely outrageous that Gazans are living as virtual prisoners on their own land, 80 percent of them living off less than two dollars a day."

Thayer considers many present-day American LGBT organizers as remiss in what he describes as a failure to speak out against governments that actively oppress any given class of people, including our own. He describes many organizers' single-issue, U.S.-only focuses as ahistorical, ignoring lessons from earlier organizers like Harvey Milk who reached out to labor and immigrant communities for mutual support.

"If we as LGBT people are going to ask for solidarity for our struggles, whether it be here in the U.S. or abroad, we cannot remain oblivious to the struggles of others," Thayer continued. "If we are going to maintain any sort of internal cohesion to our movement, we will need to take up these 'other' struggles."

Obviously, the Israel-Palestine issue is a complicated one, and LGBT activists' opinions on the matter range greatly, owing to the sense of nuance and history required to fully understand the various moral dilemmas at play.

Jay Michaelson, a columnist for the Forward newspaper and director of Nehirim, a national organization which builds community for LGBT Jews, told EDGE while he hopes queer activists would oppose oppressive regimes, he emphasized groups like the Tibetans and victims of ethnic cleansing in Darfur should, too, not be ignored. While sympathetic to the dire living conditions for many Palestinians living in Israel, he acknowledged the Gaza blockade as a response to previous attacks on civilian Israelis.

But ultimately, according to Michaelson, "human rights are human rights." Both he and Thayer emphasized many Israelis, including many LGBT people, are working to help Palestinians struggling to survive through poverty, despite often coming up against criticism from the Jewish community.

"I'd encourage the LGBT community to not paint Israelis with any kind of broad brush. The issue is complicated on both sides and is cause for patience and co-existence," Michaelson said. "Israel is not respecting the rights of Palestinians in the way many of us think it should, but there are a lot of shades of gray here. It's not as simple as the good guys vs. the bad guys."

'Complicated' is an understatement in the Mideast

Varying viewpoints and strategies aside, the ultimate goal on both sides of the issue remains peaceful co-existance. Though media representations frequently place spokespeople from both sides of the issue in opposing corners, when the gloves are off, one would hope there is room for all kinds of LGBT voices to be expressed in the complicated and ever-changing debate.

Arthur Slepian, founder of A Wider Bridge, an organization that works to connect LGBT Jewish people with Israel, characterized international response to the flotilla attack as "a massive and somewhat hypocritical overreaction" that proves counterproductive to encouraging further progress toward LGBT equality there. He hopes the queer community will engage with Israeli society on a broader level, rather than focusing on any particular government's policies.

I think people need to see Israeli society and its LGBT community, even the state itself, as distinct from the particular goevernment or individuals that are in power at any moment in time," Slepian told EDGE. "Israel is a relative oasis of LGBT freedom surrounded by a desert of oppression."

"Israel-Palestine does not work on a soundbite level," Michaelson continued. "We're in a very tense climate in this community on this issue and it's a shame that even in the gay community we're not as tolerant of different perspectives as I think we should be."

Slepian hopes activists will avoid shutting their door on Israel, as further work remains to be done in improving living environments for people of all backgrounds - gay, Jewish, Muslim, straight - to survive and thrive there.

There is also no denying that Israel is firmly in the forefront of gay issues. Although a vocal minority of ultra-Orthodox Jews express homophobia equal to any of their counterparts on the Christian right, the fact remains that Israel, officially and unequivocally, in the gay rights camp. Its armed forces were the first to legalize gays openly serving (probably as much a product of necessity in a tiny nation where every able-bodied young man and woman is needed).

But the judiciary has come down for gay parents and adoptions. And the country is inching toward civil unions, if not out-and-out marriage. When Tel Aviv's LGBT center was attacked by an armed gunman, the outrage and solidarity within Israel was universal.

"While there is still much more work to do to combat homophobia, extend added legal protections and rights to LGBT people, there is a vibrant and dynamic set of LGBT and allied organizations that are working to make things even better," Slepian said. "I believe that getting more LGBT people engaged with Israel, rather than enraged with Israel, can be a force for peace in the region. LGBT Jews have transformed the Jewish world by getting involved. And in much the same way, by engaging with Israel they can help to bring about the change they want to see."

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to to read more of his work.