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From Holy Land to gay mecca? – Panelists discuss the evolution of LGBT rights in Israel

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From left: Shai Doitsh, Yoni Ish-Hurwitz, Itay Harlap and Arthur Slepian - Jodie Shupac photo

“This is a talk about Israel and about LGBT issues. It’s not going to be a simple one.”

Pronounced by moderator Arthur Slepian, founder of U.S.-based organization A Wider Bridge, which works to strengthen connections between the LGBT communities in North America and Israel, such was the starting point of the panel discussion “From Holy Land to Gay Mecca in 40 Years.”

Presented by Pride Toronto as part of WorldPride and sponsored by the Miles Nadal JCC, Congregation Shir Libeynu and LGBT Jewish group Kulanu Toronto, the event was held at the Miles Nadal JCC, and focused on the evolution of LGBT rights in Israel on June 25.

The panel was comprised of Itay Harlap, chairperson of Hoshen, an education centre for the LGBT community in Israel, and who teaches television studies and film theory at Tel Aviv University and Sapir
Academic College, Shai Doitsh, chairperson of The Aguda –the Israeli National LGBT Task Force – and Yoni Ish-Hurwitz, adviser on human rights at the Permanent Mission of Israel to the United Nations.

They addressed the LGBT community’s struggle for marriage and other legal rights, ongoing issues of inequality and homophobia in the country and the particular difficulties faced by queer Israelis within the Orthodox community and queer Arab Israelis.

To start, Slepian posed whether it’s really fair to dub Israel a “gay mecca.” Harlap emphasized how much things have improved over the last 20 years, recalling his own painful experience as a closeted gay teenager in a culture that didn’t acknowledge the existence of homosexuals.

He said that nowadays, gay characters abound in popular Israeli television and film. But to challenge negative perceptions it is integral for youths to actually meet and hear the stories of real gay, lesbian
and trans individuals, as is facilitated through his organization.

“If I’d met someone like me back in high school, it would have been so much easier,” he stressed.

Harlap also noted that, as a man living in cosmopolitan Tel Aviv, the general sense of acceptance he feels in Israeli society likely doesn’t align with the experiences of lesbians, trans people and those living
in smaller towns.

Doitsh, who relayed that the isolation he felt as a gay teenager drove him to consider suicide, outlined the history of the Aguda and the critical role it has played in advancing rights for LGBT Israelis.

Founded 40 years ago, when it was still illegal to be gay in Israel, the Aguda’s initial goal was simply to reverse the law. Today, it’s still going strong, fighting to improve conditions for the LGBT community.

Doitsh explained that, though far from perfect, Israel is relatively advanced when it comes to the legal status of LGBT people – in some ways, more so than North America. Discrimination based on sexual orientation was banned in the early 1990s and the Israel Defence Force’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was repealed in the mid ‘90s, years before it was cancelled in the United States.

Ish-Hurwitz recounted that it was only while in the army and being invited to the birthday party of a fellow gay soldier, attended by the latter’s openly gay friends, that he realized “it was OK to be gay.”

While same-sex marriage cannot be legally performed in Israel, the state recognizes it when performed elsewhere, and same-sex couples are permitted to adopt children. Still, all agreed that homophobia and
discrimination persist, particularly for lesbian women and trans folk, and that the notion of Israel as an outright sanctuary for gays and lesbians is false.

They further touched on the challenges faced by LGBT Arab Israelis and Orthodox Israelis, expressing that it can be tricky for the advocacy groups they represent to extend their reach and have impact in these communities.

“A gay, secular Israeli can see a gay character on TV, if they want they can go online toaccess social  services. An Orthodox Israeli teen only has access to the ‘Kosher Internet…’ Arab Israelis have access to the Internet but may be unable to access [the full range of services] in Arabic,” Doitsh said.

Slepian said that, from what he has seen, shifts are beginning to occur even within the religious communities in Israel. While the panelists agreed that there is still much work to be done, they emphasized how positive all the progress has been thus far.

“If the fathers of the Aguda saw us now…we’ve accomplished things they couldn’t have imagined,” Doitsh said.

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