Growing up as a black-hat Orthodox Jew, I never celebrated Israel in a Zionistic fashion. Zionism was a secular concept, sort of like Thanksgiving.
I studied in yeshiva in Jerusalem after high school but didn’t connect to Israel until the summer of 2009 — my first summer in Israel as a gay Jew. I felt at home in a country that embraced both my gay and Jewish identities (in Tel Aviv at least). When I started organizing gay Jewish parties in New York City (think Matzo Ball, but for gay Jews), many attendees asked me to push Birthright to organize an LGBT-themed trip. I was surprised to find that Israel Experience, a provider for Taglit-Birthright trips, was already organizing such trips. I staffed my first gay Birthright trip in January 2011 and saw how this experience changed the lives of LGBT Jews.
When the Jewish National Fund reached out to me in 2011 to create the first LGBT group under the auspices of a major Jewish organization, I looked at this as a shining moment of LGBT inclusion in the mainstream Jewish community. Our initial fundraising event for Out@JNF attracted more than 150 attendees, with the proceeds providing two scholarships for LGBT students at the JNF-funded Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. At the event there were anti-Israel activists with big poster boards that read, “JNF: Just Not Fabulous.” While I chuckled at their creativity, I felt a bit annoyed that my gay community was protesting Israel.
This past summer I led another LGBT Birthright trip, followed shortly by a JNFuture Leadership Institute Mission, designed to showcase JNF projects in Israel. (It’s not just planting trees, though we did plant one!) This would be my first time in Israel as a self-identified “activist” for Israel. I was certainly excited.
A small but influential group of LGBT activists have accused Israel of “pink-washing,” promoting itself as gay-friendly to distract the world from the mistreatment of Palestinians. Does Israel have policies I don’t agree with? Yes, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that Israel does gay rights pretty well. Other activists accuse the Jewish National Fund of “green-washing,” masquerading expulsions of Palestinians from their homes with environmental objectives. So, I came on this trip with open eyes, wondering what my blind spots might be.
The LGBT Birthright trip touched on all the hot spots of Israel with gay excursions here and there. We visited the LGBT centers in both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, met a gay family who lived in Chanaton, interacted with gay and lesbian soldiers from the Israel Defense Forces, and had a night out at a gay bar in Tel Aviv.
When the trip was over, I spent a day in Bethlehem and the Palestinian side of Hebron. I was determined to spend some time in the Palestinian territories, experience a checkpoint and have conversations with local Palestinians.
At first, I was nervous about being in those areas as a Jew (I wore a Band-Aid over my Hebrew tattoo), but quickly felt comfortable and safe.
It was interesting hearing the Palestinian tour guide’s thoughts on the conflict, the separation wall and his certainty that Israelis and Arabs can live in peace side by side. I felt, for the first time, reassured that if everyone in Israel had his passion and vision for peace that it certainly can happen. I was inspired, until he asked me if I had a girlfriend.
“No”, I answered. He must have responded to the look on my face at the word “girlfriend,” because he then asked, “Wait, do you have a boyfriend?” Not liking his tone of voice at the word “boyfriend,” I immediately replied no.
He then went on a rant about homosexuality and informed me of the rightful honor killings of homosexuals in Palestinian society. I was shocked to find that I was comfortable being out as a Jew in Palestinian territories, but not as a gay man.
I wondered about the anti-pink-washing activists who never discuss the mistreatment of gays in the Palestinian territories, but are quick to criticize Israel.
On my flight home from Israel, I looked back at the month I’d spent there and couldn’t help but feel annoyed by people who criticize Israel for the good things that are taking place in the region. What I do know is that it’s those very same critics of Israel that have ignited a fire within me to stand and loudly support Israel and all the good that she does.
Jayson Littman is the founder of He’bro (www.myhebro.com), which produces and promotes events for gay secular and cultural Jews in New York.