Seattle Mayor Ed Murray is right to participate in the Tel Aviv pride conference.
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s participation in a Tel Aviv celebration of Israel’s LGBTQ accomplishments has sparked predictable reactions from the extreme ends of the Israeli-Palestinian debate. There is no reason that support of gender rights and Palestinian rights are mutually exclusive, nor is concern for equal rights a reason to cancel the mayor’s trip.
Israel did not become a country with world-class rights for LGBTQ individuals overnight or as a PR stunt. That accomplishment, as well as the consciousness of the need for equal rights for other marginalized Israelis, belongs to the activists who fought and won.
The activists responsible for such victories come from every sector of Israeli society. From secular organizations like The Agudah to Israeli Arab lesbian groups such as Kayan to feminist groups within Orthodox Judaism like Kolech, they are the beating democratic heart of Israeli society, both Jewish and Arab. The founder of Jerusalem’s first LGBTQ organization, Jerusalem Open House, is now running the most significant group working for human rights in the occupied territories, B’Tselem.
That linkage is more than accidental. The same vibrant civil society sector that fights for LGBTQ rights is also the home for Israelis holding a mirror up to their own society on the issue of the country’s 48-year-long military occupation. The most trustworthy and credible human rights groups are Israeli homegrown: B’Tselem, Breaking the Silence, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, and a dozen more.
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Those are the groups and individuals who receive our support, both financial and moral. More than 800 organizations spanning the full breadth of causes — religious freedom, socio-economic equality, human rights in the occupied territories and environmental sustainability — have made Israel’s democracy the truly laudable work-in-process that it is today. It has been through the partnership of supporters abroad through organizations like the New Israel Fund that those groups could grow, fight hard, and, in some cases, win big.
This doesn’t mean that applauding Israel’s progress on LGBTQ rights is an excuse for ignoring or defending the occupation, the treatment of Israeli Arab citizens or other issues that threaten Israel’s democracy and standing in the human rights community. Lauding Israel’s LGBTQ record can be problematic when advocates are disingenuous. Israeli representatives or pro-Israel advocates cannot take credit for gender rights and then oppose Israeli human and civil-rights groups seeking to speak in Seattle on other important issues.
Palestinian advocates who oppose Jewish self-determination or, in some cases, perpetuate anti-Semitic tropes are a bitter embarrassment to real equal rights, anti-oppression activists. The mayor’s trip to Israel will be seen as encouragement to those Israeli organizations which strive to achieve human rights for all sectors of Israeli society.
We hold that it is not just possible to support both rights for LGBTQ individuals and for Palestinians, but a moral imperative. We know personally that those involved in this celebration have been loudly outspoken on the necessity of peace through two states and equality for all citizens. Boycotting this event is counterproductive and unfair. And abandoning event organizers in their fight just when they need it most is unacceptable to us.
We want to see an Israel where nobody is discriminated against because of their gender, ethnicity, place of birth, or religious beliefs (or lack thereof). We work actively toward an Israel where citizens have more freedoms, not less, including an Israel free of occupation.
As Mayor Murray said, “The situation in the Middle East is complicated,” and a responsible person seeking to make a difference should encounter a diversity of views.
We applaud his participation in the Tel Aviv pride conference. And we will be happy to arrange for him to meet leaders in civil society fighting for civil rights, including Palestinian-Israeli leaders, to ensure that his presence celebrates Israel’s successes and does not whitewash its current failures.