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Gay Pride in Israel: Tel Aviv Hosts Global LGBT Leadership Conference

Gay Pride in Israel: Tel Aviv Hosts Global LGBT Leadership Conference

Seated around one half of a large table in a meeting room were members of the Knesset and their representatives from every political party except for the ultra-Orthodox. Filling out the table were a dozen transgender teenagers and their adult leaders. Crowded into the seats ringing the room was our group — nearly 100 LGBTQ leaders from around the world — and 30 teens from Israel Gay Youth (IGY).

We’d come to this historic Knesset meeting to hear testimony about transgender rights in Israel.

The riveting testimony of these trans teens — their voices so strong and confident that it was easy to forget that some were only 15 or 16 years old — had many of us on the verge of tears, tears of pride. Near the end of the gathering, one trans boy from a small city in the south, upon being told that time was short, thought for a moment before uttering these powerful words: “Please don’t force me to move to Tel Aviv. I want to be out and trans and to be seen and accepted in the community where I grew up. Please help us build a country where that will be possible.”

In Israel for 40 Years of Pride, the first global LGBTQ leadership conference in Israel, our group of 125 leaders from more than a dozen countries had an opportunity — many for the first time — to meet and learn from one another. As we left the hearing room, many of those first-timers noted that this particular experience was remarkably different than what they had expected, while among the Americans, there was unanimous agreement that what we had just witnessed would not happen anytime soon in Congress.

Just as inspiring as the transgender teens were the remarks of Davis Mac-Iyalla, a remarkable LGBTQ leader from Nigeria, who spoke about the extreme challenges within his country’s LGBTQ community.  After the conference, he had this to say about his experience:

There are beautiful people in Israel who are working for peace, equality and human rights for all people and are as frustrated as the rest of us. If you stay afar, you will think that Israel is all about war and conflict, but it’s not. The best way to know Israel is to come to Israel and I will tell you that you will never regret it.

It is worth noting, too, that several conference participants came under intense pressure from boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) supporters in their home communities not to attend 40 Years of Pride. Among them was our keynote speaker, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, who addressed this issue directly in his remarks.

The conference, of course, highlighted Israel’s LGBTQ community — both its successes and challenges — whose rising stars are younger and more diverse than even a decade ago. Among them are Yaniv J., who leads KALA, a group for Israeli LGBTQ Ethiopians; Zehorit S. and Daniel J., who play a pivotal role in the growth of the “religious” (i.e., Orthodox) LGBTQ community in Israel; Elisha A., Israel’s leading transgender activist, who created a thriving leadership group for trans teenagers in Israel; and a 21-year-old gay Druze man (who asked to have his anonymity protected) from the Golan Heights, now living and studying in Tel Aviv.

Although Tel Aviv has been called a “gay paradise” for some time, even here, the community is redefining itself: embracing more colors, genders, religious practices, and a broader range of political perspectives. In fact, the theme of the city’s pride celebration this year — “Transgender Visibility” — symbolized the new Israel. We were delighted to end our trip by participating in the celebration, which drew more than 180,000 people to the streets for a moving, fun, and chaotic display of pride.

Postscript: Six weeks after Tel Aviv Pride, the Jerusalem Pride March was the scene of horrific stabbings by a crazed religious zealot. Six people were wounded and, tragically, 16-year-old Shira Banki was killed.

Voices from all corners of Israel have condemned the violence, but condemnation is not enough.  As Parashah R’eih teaches, we must open our eyes to both the curses and the blessings that God has set before us, objecting whenever people suggest that LGBTQ people are the “other,” less than human, or that we should be forced to live in the shadows of our communities, if we are allowed to live at all.

At a memorial vigil for Shira, Benny Lau, one of Israel’s most pre-eminent Orthodox rabbis, declared, "No one should have to live in a closet. The closet is death, and we are commanded to choose life....We must free the Torah of Israel from the handcuffs she has been bound in by people of darkness."  May it be so, in Israel, in North America, and wherever Jews gather around the world.

Arthur Slepian is the founder and executive director of A Wider Bridge, a pro-Israel organization based in the U.S. that builds bridges between the LGBTQ communities of Israel and North America.

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