The past couple of months the global Jewish community witnessed in horror how the rest of the world hopscotched in its love-hate relationship with Israel. Sadly and alarmingly, biased criticism of Israel’s defence against Hamas’ underhand, persistent and relentless attacks on the people of Israel has led to the rise of widespread anti-Semitism across the globe.
Not surprisingly, as a result I’ve asked myself this question: “What would life be like if I found myself in a situation where both homophobia and anti-Semitism were used to discriminate against me?” The potential brutality of such a scenario is too upsetting to even think about… images of Hitler’s concentration and death camps, where homosexuals were worked to death, quickly flash through my mind.
Given how quickly people (Joe Public and politicians alike) are swayed to engage in flag-waving politics and to display uncomfortable levels hatred and extremism, the possibility for the Israeli and Jewish LGBT community to be trapped in such a double-whammy is perhaps not so farfetched.
Geographically, Israel shares its borders with Lebanon in the north, Syria in the northeast, Jordan and the West Bank in the east, the Gaza Strip and Egypt on the southwest.
LGBT rights in most of its neighbouring countries pales in comparison to Israel. A 2007 poll by Pew Research Centre suggested that 79 per cent of Lebanese believe “homosexuality should be rejected”, as opposed to 18 per cent who believe “homosexuality should be accepted.” In April 2013, Lebanon’s interior minister of the interim government, Marwan Charbel, said: “Lebanon is opposed to homosexuality, and according to Lebanese law it is a criminal offense.”
In Syria, same-sex relationships are illegal and those found guilty of having homosexual relationships can serve up to three years in jail. A report by the Austrian Centre for Country of Origin and Asylum Research and Documentation, in 2009, noted that homosexuality in Syria carries a social stigma that may result in torture and even death.
An Egyptian sexologist, Heba Kotb estimates that 10 to 12 per cent of the Egyptian population is homosexual and yet according to Pew Research Centre 95 per cent of Egyptians believe that homosexuality is unacceptable. While homosexuality (and same-sex relationships) is not specifically outlawed, under Egyptian morality laws punishment can be up to 17 years in prison with or without hard labour.
According to a 2010 compendium of laws against homosexuality produced by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual and Intersex Association (ILGA), the decriminalization of homosexuality in the Palestinian territories is patchwork.
In the Palestinian Hamas-controlled Gaza Territories, same-sex relationships between men are punishable with up to 10 years in prison. In fact, Hamas’ exact position on homosexuality is ambiguous. In September 2011, Hamas cofounder Mahmoud Zahar, declared homosexuality punishable by death when has said: “You in the West do not live like human beings. You do not even live like animals. You accept homosexuality. And now you criticize us?”
In the Jordanian-controlled Palestinian West Bank, same-sex acts were decriminalized in 1951 and remain so to this day. In 1951, the Jordanian Criminal Code was revised in order to legalize private, adult, non-commercial, and consensual sodomy, with the age of consent set at 16. Same-sex marriages, or more limited civil unions, are not legally recognized and there is no public effort in Jordan to modify these laws. Nonetheless, there is a growing level of tolerance and visibility in certain artistic or chic-cosmopolitan parts of Jordan, especially in Amman. Recent reports suggest that a new wave of younger LGBT people are coming out of the closet and are becoming more visible in the country, working to establish a vibrant LGBT community of filmmakers, journalists, writers, artists and other young professionals.
Israel on the other hand was the first Middle Eastern country to recognize unregistered cohabitation between same-sex couples. Although same-sex marriages are not performed in the country, Israel recognizes same-sex marriages performed elsewhere, also making it the first and only country in the Middle East to do so. Same-sex couples are allowed to jointly adopt after a court decision in 2008. Israel’s Supreme Court also grants gays family rights including inheritance and survivors’ benefits.
Earlier this week, the Israeli government announced that it will now allow Jews to immigrate to Israel with their non-Jewish same-sex spouses. In a directive publicised on Tuesday 12 August, Israeli Interior Minister Gideon Saar told immigration authorities not to differentiate between married gay and straight couples.
Gays and lesbians also serve openly in the military and an increasing number of gay recruits do full military service, often in combat units. Unit 8200, one of the largest units in the Israeli army, is well-known for the large number of openly LGBT soldiers serving in it.
Treatment for Gender Dysphoria in Israel can be paid for using the country’s public health insurance system if a patient receives approval by the Committee for Sex Reassignment. In 2013, the IDF announced they would, for the first time, allow a transgender woman to serve in the army as a female soldier.
The city of Tel Aviv recognizes unmarried couples, including gays and lesbians, as family units and grants them discounts for municipal services. Under the bylaw, unmarried couples qualify for the same discounts on day care and the use of swimming pools, sports facilities, and other city-sponsored activities that married couples enjoy.
Tel Aviv has frequently been referred to as one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world, famous for its annual Pride Parade and gay beach, earning it the nicknames “the gay capital of the Middle East” or the “Manhattan of the Middle East.” The city also boasts one of only a handful of monuments dedicated to the LGBT victims who were persecuted by Nazis during World War II.
It’s not difficult to recognise that Israel is a LGBT rights frontier in the Middle East. In fact, Israel’s critics seem to quickly forget that it is the only country in the Middle East that has stood up for human rights, particularly those of women and gays, time and time again.
Those same critics will tell me that writing an article about Israel’s noble LGBT rights record at a time when Gazans are in the midst of one of the most violent defence attacks engulfing their narrow and over-populated strip of land, is ‘pinkwashing’ the Palestinian conflict.
I agree to some extent… what I’ve said so far can easily be misconstrued as a public relations campaign marketing Israel as a LGBT haven in the Middle East, while conveniently glossing over Israel’s human rights record in Palestine.
If that is how my words come across then it is unintentional… and let’s not use this argumentative rhetoric to deviate from the facts.
As a country who does not have a centuries-old history of wars, imperialism and world domination like many European countries do, Israel, in its short existence, is learning quickly to live up to the higher standards the rest of the world is holding it to… Unfortunately it’s a learning curve that hasn’t come without conflict, war and the loss of lives. Still, Israel is an eager scholar and its treatment of the LGBT community proves my point. It is not only setting an example in the Middle East, but also for the rest of the world. Yes, some of Israel’s policies and conduct may not be perfect (in some cases it may even be questionable), but I am yet to see a country with a perfect track record in treating all of its citizens and neighbouring countries with respect and equality. Such a place (and such a government) does not exist.
Thankfully, what does exist is a place where Israeli and Jewish LGBT people can feel safe (a lot more than what can be said about some cities in ‘civilised’ Europe), while being surrounded by neighbouring countries who do not share the same values of freedom, tolerance and equality. Without a doubt, these are values that must be respected and protected, because the alternative — a world where men and women are tortured, brutalised and murdered because of their sexuality, religion and nationality — is unthinkable.
As a humanist and an activist, like countless Israelis and Jews around the world, I want to see lasting peace between Israel and Palestine. I have always believed that LGBT people are active agents of change and that if one of us is in chains then none of us are free… whether heterosexual, LGBT, Jewish, Christian, Muslim or of any other religion.
I know this much is true: The Middle East would’ve been far more unkind to LGBT people if it had not been for Israel’s influence… albeit in some instances simply because of Israel’s liberal presence. It is with this conviction — that Israel wants to do better than what it already is and it wants to affect change — that I support any conversation that will help bring peace, safety and equality to all the people of the Middle East.