The Seattle LGBT Commission was wrong to cancel a reception for visiting Israeli gay leaders; in so doing, Seattle shut off discussion and committed a moral outrage, writes guest columnist Robert Wilkes.

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HER name is Irit. She has close-cropped hair and the steely determination one expects from a woman with a long career as a lesbian activist. I expected that. What I didn’t expect was the depth of her tenderness, her goodness and her ability to bond on a fundamental human level with everyone and anyone.

As we met in a Seattle law office, the city below was washed in a sodden gray. On a day like this I tell visitors how incredible our city looks in summer. This morning I have no power to evoke sunlight, because my city, so famous for its openness to differences and kindness to strangers, has betrayed them. It has treated them with a boorish disrespect I once thought unimaginable.

Irit is the head of Hoshen, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) education center based in Tel Aviv, Israel. She is part of a delegation of LGBT leaders from Israel winding up a West Coast tour meeting with similar organizations in San Francisco, Los Angeles. They are not here at the behest of the Israeli government. They are not a propaganda tool of anyone. They are here to learn and share ideas with American LGBT leaders. They will take those ideas back to Israel to better serve their communities.

Seattle’s Civil Rights Commission includes an LGBT sub-commission to advise on gay and lesbian issues. One presumes the commission’s purpose is to foster understanding and tolerance, and to overcome discrimination against gays and lesbians. One would be wrong. When the visiting Israeli delegation sought to meet with it, the commission refused — simply because they were Israeli.

The commissioners caved to a few confrontational anti-Israel extremists who argued that the delegation was here to “pinkwash” Israeli “crimes” against the Palestinians. The commission, in an act of supreme cowardice and ignorance, declared that the issue was “complex.” They turned their backs on their brothers and sisters. Seattle has committed a moral outrage, and a shanda (Yiddish for a shame). I am ashamed for my city, and my state. Only in Washington state did LGBT leaders refuse to meet with Israeli LGBT leaders.

Israel is a land of irony, and here the irony is powerful. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are confronted with more than intolerance; their sexual orientation can become a question of life or death. This is a sad reality throughout the Middle East, except in Israel. “In the Palestinian territories, a youth who goes to a gay party can be killed by his own family,” said Avner Dafni, executive director of Israeli Gay Youth (IGY). “Israeli LGBT organizations are often the only places gay or lesbian Palestinians can turn to.”

Israeli gays or lesbians in Israel are protected from discrimination by law and by the high moral standards of the culture and society. In some respects, Israel is more accommodating to gays and lesbians than we are. For example, the gay partner of a deceased Israeli soldier gets the same benefits as a widow, unlike partners of servicemen and women in the U.S.

LGBT organizations can be lifelines for gays in ethnic minorities in Israel. “Immigrants from Ethiopia don’t even have a word for homosexual,” said Irit. “We provide a safe place for gays from all of Israel’s ethnic populations.”

Irit has the calm wisdom of a fighter who believes in her cause and has battled intolerance before. “I am used to it,” she said. “Whenever I leave Israel, right away I have three problems. My passport is Israeli, and I am proud to be an Israeli. I am Jewish, and I am a lesbian. So I am not so welcome in many parts of the world.”

No one with a realistic view of the world doubts her. But this is Seattle. We’re better than that. It’s a shanda.

Robert Wilkes is president of Wilkes Creative, a marketing communications agency based in Bellevue. He is active in the Jewish community and speaks and writes on Israeli-Palestinian issues.