As people prepared this week for San Francisco Pride and the 45th annual parade, a number of Northern California LGBTQ Jewish leaders were already riding their post-Pride high, having just returned from the Tel Aviv Gay Pride Parade and an international LGBTQ conference in Israel.
Held June 9 to 11 in Tel Aviv, “40 Years of Pride” was co-organized by A Wider Bridge, an S.F.-based organization that works to bridge the LGBTQ communities of North America and Israel, and the Aguda, Israel’s pioneer lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender organization.
“The conference was amazing,” reported Arthur Slepian of San Francisco, founder and executive director of A Wider Bridge. “We received many compliments for the diversity of voices and opinions that we brought to the table.”
Titled in recognition of the Aguda’s 40 years of advocacy, the conference drew 125 LGBTQ activists, lobbyists, Jewish communal leaders and nonprofit professionals from more than a dozen countries. Two openly gay politicians figured prominently: Christophe Girard, the mayor of Paris’ fourth arrondissement, was the opening keynote speaker, and Seattle Mayor Ed Murray gave the closing keynote speech.
While the conference did not shy away from polemical issues — such as efforts to achieve greater LGBTQ equality in Israel and other countries in which the separation of church and state is blurred — its organizers said that hot-button political issues were not intended to take front and center.
Controversy, however, did emerge, with the presence of Murray, who attended the conference and marched in the Tel Aviv Pride Parade with his spouse, Michael Shiosaki. Both Murray and conference participant Marsha Botzer, a transgender leader, also from Seattle, came under attack prior to their trip by proponents of Seattle’s well-organized boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. Murray and Botzer were accused of having fallen victim to “pinkwashing,” a strategy, according to BDS activists and others, in which Israel glosses over violations of Palestinian human rights by touting the rights enjoyed by LGBTQ Israelis.
Murray didn’t cave in to those who wanted him to cancel his trip, and in his closing keynote address, he told conference attendees, “I believe that the situation is very complex. I wish that people who are boycotting would actually come here, go to the West Bank like I went to the West Bank, talk to people here in Israel, as well.”
After his return from Israel, Murray added, “I welcome any opportunity to help advance the cause of LGBT equality and social justice, whether in Seattle or Tel Aviv. Israel is an incredible country, and we share much in common — both of our countries have made significant progress on equality, but still have much to accomplish. This trip provided an international platform to highlight Seattle’s leadership in the global LGBT movement, and it helped show how much we can learn from each other.”
Slepian dismissed any suggestion that 40 Years of Pride was a “pinkwashing” opportunity.
“ ‘Pinkwashing event’ is a “phrase way past its sell-by date,” Slepian said. “The Israeli LGBT community is not a creature of the Israeli government. The progress that Israel has made in LGBT rights was achieved through years of struggle on many fronts, not granted by the government as part of a branding or tourism campaign.
“Israel is a society that is open enough to have created an environment that has enabled an LGBT community to grow and develop, and stand up for itself,” he continued. “This community deserves to be a part of our global conversation about LGBT equality, and its work and its history merit respect.”
Indeed, conference participants were able to observe efforts to advance equality first-hand. For many attendees, the most memorable moments came during a conference side trip to the Knesset, where they observed more than 30 members of Israel’s parliament conducting a hearing on how to improve the well-being of transgender Israelis, particularly younger ones.
“From Likud to the left,” said Joe Goldman in describing the spectrum of nonreligious Zionist parties taking part in the session. Goldman, the legislative affairs and intergroup relations program associate for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, said that it was “magical” to see “people on the other side of the planet furthering democracy in an atmosphere that is as charged and intense as Israel’s.”
For conference participant Alice Kessler, a Sacramento attorney and lobbyist, a side trip to Ramallah and Bethlehem, in the West Bank was both welcome and illuminating.
“I gained multiple perspectives,” said Kessler, who formerly worked for Equality California, a statewide LGBT advocacy organization. “There is a wide range of opinions among Israelis, and there is room to criticize. … I came back from the conference feeling more jazzed up about Israel issues and LGBT issues. I feel more committed to the right to Israel to exist and to a just Israel.”
During the conference, participants heard from a 21-year-old gay man who is a member of the Druze community in the Golan Heights, as well as from a leader of a relatively new organization for LGBT Israeli Ethiopians and from representatives from Israeli’s Orthodox Jewish LGBT community.
“We wanted participants to experience Israel and its people for themselves,” Slepian said.