The image of Israel as an open-minded haven for the LGBTQ community is one that supporters, both of Israel and of the LGBTQ movement, are proud of and are keen to publicize.
Leading the effort to promote Israel as a forward-thinking democracy and a champion of gay rights is the S.F.-based organization A Wider Bridge, which on June 5 hosted its first San Francisco-Israel Pride Reception jointly with the Israel Consulate.
“It’s important for us to support this community, and to support a bridge between the LGBTQ community here and in Israel,” said Shlomi Kofman, consul general for the past two years at the S.F.-based consulate that serves the Pacific Northwest. “Because the LGBTQ community is part of Israeli society. And sometimes some of these things are not reflected.”
Kofman and his wife, Sharon Vanek, hosted the event at their residence, with roughly 40 officials, donors, A Wider Bridge staff and friends of the organization in attendance.
Though yet to legalize same-sex marriage, Israel is the most LGBTQ-friendly country in its corner of the world, where gay and transgender people typically face ostracization and often legal persecution in countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Tel Aviv’s gay beaches, nightlife and exuberant summer Pride parade make the city a destination for LGBTQ travelers. As one Boston Globe writer put it — in a 2016 travel essay headlined “Welcome to Tel Aviv, the gayest city on earth” — Tel Aviv is “gayer than a Neil Patrick Harris pool party.”
At the gathering, Kofman cited new Israeli Justice Minister Amir Ohana and Matan Zamir, Israel’s incoming deputy consul general in San Francisco, as examples of prominent LGBTQ Israelis; Ohana is the first openly gay Israeli cabinet member and Zamir also is openly gay. Notably, Ohana, a Likud stalwart, is a hardliner when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying that “being attracted to men doesn’t mean you have to believe in creating a Palestinian state.”
A Wider Bridge’s tagline is “Equality in Israel. Equality for Israel.” The organization was founded in 2010 by Arthur Slepian, a San Francisco economist and former financial services executive who wanted to build partnerships between the U.S. and Israeli LGBTQ communities, and to destigmatize support for Israel within the LGBTQ communities around the U.S. and the world.
“I wanted to create an organization that would bring our communities closer together, because I thought there was so much we could learn from one another,” he said at the event. “And I wanted there to be a voice in the world that said there is no conflict, there is no contradiction, between having pride in our LGBTQ identities, and pride in the people in the land of Israel.”
Funding for A Wider Bridge comes partly from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, the Natan Fund and the Paul E. Singer Foundation, among other individuals and organizations, according to its website. In 2017, AWB reported about $960,000 in revenue.
Staunchly pro-Israel, members of A Wider Bridge see the country as a safe haven for LGBTQ people, similar to its role as a safe haven for Jews. In its mission statement, AWB calls Israel “the most important project of the Jewish people.”
“We believe Israel’s story and future, her people, and contributions to the world — which extend far beyond the Jewish community — are worth sharing, celebrating, and advocating for in our own communities and with others,” the statement reads.
The organization leads 10-day Israel trips for LGBTQ leaders in “politics, entertainment, government and advocacy” designed to have them “experience the country through an LGBTQ lens,” according to its website. AWB also brings Israeli LGBTQ leaders to North American cities for networking and other events, and donates money to Israeli nonprofits such as Ma’avarim (which supports trans Israelis) and the LGBTQ Refugee Program (which offers a variety of assistance and services).
A Wider Bridge has faced some criticism for “pinkwashing,” or obscuring rights abuses by the Israeli government behind a veil of progressive policies and attitudes.
In 2016, an AWB-sponsored presentation at the Creating Change national LGBTQ conference in Chicago was interrupted by pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist protesters. A video from the incident shows demonstrators chanting “hey hey, ho ho, pinkwashing has got to go.”
In an op-ed following the incident, Slepian said that it’s simplistic to assume members of the LGBTQ community should support Israel “reflexively” for its LGBTQ-rights record, but he criticized the “ferocity” of the anti-Israel protest, its latent anti-Semitism and the theory of “intersectionality” that he felt spurred it on.
“In practice, intersectionality often leads to rigidity and dogma, the abandonment of critical thinking and demonization of people who might otherwise be allies,” he wrote.
In a recent interview with J., Slepian acknowledged what he called a “small segment” of the LGBTQ community that holds stark anti-Zionist views. But, he said, those people are not necessarily the focus of AWB’s efforts.
“There’s a very large middle of people who are just confused about Israel,” he said. “They may be hearing a lot of noise from leadership.”
A Wider Bridge, he said, wants to “connect with people who haven’t made up their mind.”
The organization is currently led by Tyler Gregory, a 30-year-old former AIPAC staffer who seems acutely aware of the criticisms of AWB. At the gathering, Gregory mentioned his organization’s financial support of the LGBTQ Refugee Program, a project of the Aguda-Israel LGBTQ Task Force, supporting Palestinian and other minority and refugee groups with legal assistance, psychological and financial support, and access to health care and employment.
In her remarks to attendees, Equality California staff lawyer Alice Kessler said she sees Israel as a “beacon” in the Middle East, not just for Jews but for Arabs, too. She went on a leadership trip with AWB in 2015, and said she was educated on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “It’s a safe place to be,” she said. “It’s one where you feel embraced.”
Responding to the “pinkwashing” claims, Kessler said, “It’s important that we have a balanced conversation.”
Her trip, which took visitors into the West Bank with a Palestinian guide, did not have an agenda, she felt.
“That’s not to say that there aren’t issues,” she said. ”There are issues here in the U.S. But [Israel] holds a special place on the world stage.”