When the Seattle LGBT Commission hosts an Israeli LGBT delegation later this year, as expected, it needs to have a truly open discussion — one that can be both spirited and civil, says guest columnist Richard Silverstein.
LAST month, Seattle was roiled by a controversy involving an Israeli lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender delegation scheduled to be feted with a reception by the city’s LGBT Commission.
The visit was officially sponsored and partially funded by the Israeli government, which saw the trip as an opportunity to promote its gay-rights record in juxtaposition to that of Palestinian society. Israeli, Jewish and Palestinian gay peace activists objected to celebrating Israel in this way, given its human-rights record of oppressing Palestinians through decades of occupation. After commissioners heard from those supporting the reception and those opposing it, they canceled the event.
The resulting furor brought out local and state politicians and leaders of the gay business community in support of the Israeli delegation. As a result, the LGBT Commission has been directed to host a new Israeli delegation in October or November.
How should such a future event be structured by the commission and how should the local LGBT peace-activist community respond? If commissioners want more light than heat, I suggest asking that the future delegation be independent and not sponsored by the government or any of its U.S. surrogate organizations. I also suggest that composition of the LGBT delegation be diverse, incorporating Israeli Jews, and Muslim and Christian Palestinian citizens.
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If, as I suspect, this is not acceptable to the Israelis, I would urge the commission to provide a diverse panel and a public discussion of the issues surrounding gay and human rights in Israel. Local members of the Palestinian and Israeli activist community should be invited to join in an event with the visiting delegation.
The event should be structured so that it becomes a spirited discussion, not a slugfest. That means employing a well-respected community figure to act as moderator. It might mean devising a set of discussion points and questions to be addressed by the panelists, such as:
• The status and achievements of Jewish and Palestinian gays in Israeli society;
• The status of gay Israelis in the context of gay rights in the Middle East;
• An examination of the broad human-rights environment in Israel of which the gay community and gay rights are a part;
• Ways in which the Israeli government highlights gay rights as a political issue in its battle with Arab societies in the Middle East.
None of this was part of the original program that the commission canceled, which is why I supported that decision.
So, if we’re going to host the Israeli LGBT delegation, let’s do it right. Let’s debate these issues with Israeli and Palestinian gays living in Seattle who have differing views. Allow us to learn something about these issues, rather than merely allowing the Israeli government to promote itself.
I’m in favor of true free speech. When Israel’s LGBT delegation returns, let’s really talk about the issues — all of them.
If we can do this, then we might even become a model for a vigorous, but ultimately civil and thoughtful, discussion of this contentious subject. If we do anything less, we risk forcing the local LGBT activist community to boycott the event and protest it from the outside.
I don’t see how that helps anyone except the extremists on both sides who prefer heat to light.
Finally, I’d urge the local Jewish community to offer a more diverse discussion of these issues. Let’s not accuse those protesting of being “anti-Israel” or raise the specter of anti-Semitic violence supposedly incited by such criticism. And the media must open their pages to divergent views.
If we are to air these issues properly, both sides must get down from their high horses and meet somewhere in the middle. When contentious issues arise, people understandably prefer to retreat to where they are safe and comfortable. But such a retreat doesn’t advance the debate, nor does it educate or inform the broader community. That’s what me must try to do.
Richard Silverstein writes the Tikun Olam blog about Israeli human rights and democracy (www.richard-silverstein.com).