Andrew Sullivan and I hugged it out at at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner last weekend (and we have witnesses, in case anyone doubts it). We do this from time to time, but it doesn't mean that he's going to stop thinking I'm some sort of apologist for fascism, or that I'm going to stop thinking he holds Israel to a ridiculous triple-standard. It's always nice to see him, though. Don't ask me to explain why.
Nevertheless, I wish I had known last weekend what I know this weekend, which is that the Equality Forum 2012 Summit meeting in Philadelphia, the largest gathering of LGBT civil rights activists in the country, has made Israel its "featured country," and it hosted the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, at its convention yesterday. I would have loved to have shared this news with Andrew, who is, of course, one of the most influential thinkers on gay rights in the world.
The honor granted to Israel by the Equality Forum comes after Gaycities.com named Tel Aviv the best gay city in the world for 2011. I suspect this recognition derives not only from the fact that gay Tel Avivis, and gay visitors, find the place so welcoming and open, but because Tel Aviv is also a refuge of sorts for gay Palestinians, who, if they lived the lives they were meant to live in their home cities and villages, would risk isolation, excoriation and even death. (Here is an interesting piece from the Times of Israel about Tel Aviv's "Palestinian Queer Party.") My impression is that fair-minded gay rights activists know that Israel is the one place in the Middle East in which gays and lesbians can serve in their armies and run for elective office and have domestic partnership rights, and most gay rights activists judge Israel not against a utopian standard but the standards of its neighborhood -- and the standards of its foremost adversary, Iran, where men have been executed for the state for being gay. (Read this report from Human Rights Watch if you want to know just how atrocious is the level of anti-gay persecution in Iran.)
Now there are some people who say that Israel is engaged in "pink-washing," an attempt to convince the world to ignore the plight of the Palestinians by focusing on how progressive Israel can be toward the LGBT community. Israel's tolerance for gays, of course, long pre-dates the modern leftist anti-Israel delegitimization movement, which makes "pink-washing" one of its main charges, and, in any case, a society can't be forced by its government to be accepting of gays of lesbians simply by explaining that tolerance makes for good propaganda. And most important: It's not pink-washing if it's true, and it is true that Israel is a pretty good place to be if you are gay. Israel is progressive on matters related to gays and lesbians because it is, still, an essentially liberal, free and democratic state. There are forces lined-up on the right side of the political spectrum trying very hard to turn Israel into an illiberal place, and they must be fought. But I do not think they will win.
Here's an excerpt from the Globes story on Michael Oren's speech to the Equality Forum:
Oren mentioned three cases that highlight Israel's liberal attitude toward the LBGT community: two women IDF soldiers who harassed a lesbian soldier were sentence by a military court to prison; and an Israeli diplomat, who received a top posting in Europe, asked and received without further ado full rights for his partner; and the Israeli government did not capitulate to intense pressure from religious parties to cancel the Jerusalem Gay Pride parade, which was held to great success under heavy police protection.
"Our activists have faced many challenges, but they can build on a solid foundation of liberty," said Oren. "Today, Israel's LBGT community is part of the country's diverse and thriving social fabric. Together, we are soldiers, professors, legislators, judges, factory workers, members of the medical professions, and teachers. Together, we are not gays, heterosexuals, bisexuals, or transgenders, but proud Israelis."
Oren added, "In fact, two Palestinian organizations that are fighting for LBGT rights in the West Bank, operate out of Israel because they cannot operate freely in the Palestinian Authority."
Oren said that it is not difficult to be more liberal than Israel's neighbors, adding that Israel must be more advanced not only in the region, but in the world. "We must never cease our efforts to remove the remaining obstacles to total equal rights in Israel. We must ensure that these rights are guaranteed in law, and we must ensure that abuse at school, intolerance by certain religious circles, and public prejudice become unacceptable. Period," he said.
UPDATE: Yes, I'm aware Andrew called Sarah Schulman's infamous pinkwashing op-ed for The New York Times nonsense. What Andrew doesn't do is acknowledge that Israel's treatment of LGBT issues has larger meaning. In other words, Israel's treatment of gay people is reflective of Israel's treatment of other minorities among its citizens -- and that its citizens, all of its citizens, have rights unheard of across the greater Middle East. And yes, of course, the occupation is a shame, and Israel must decide whether or not it is going to extend democratic rights to the Palestinians of the West Bank or let them go free, but the truth of the matter, as Carlo Strenger put it in an eloquent piece for Haaretz not long ago, is that we risk stripping language of meaning when we say we are "appalled" by Israel's behavior, and also "appalled" by Syria's behavior. My only request of people like Andrew Sullivan is that they gain some perspective.
UPDATE #2: A Goldblog reader suggests I'm setting the bar too low, by asking critics like Andrew Sullivan to compare Israel's record to Iran's:
You are right to highlight how much more tolerant Israel is than its neighbors toward the LGBT community. The same argument can be made about Israel's treatment of racial minorities and the disabled. But let's face it: it is easy to be more tolerant than Iran or Saudi Arabia. A more compelling argument can be made on Israel's behalf, namely, that it is also more tolerant than many *Western* countries. This is certainly true for gay rights. Speech in Israel is, arguably, freer than in the US. Arabs are, arguably, better integrated into Israeli society than into French society. Etc etc.
In short the proper bar to judge Israel is not by its neighborhood, but by North America and Europe. And Israel does pretty well by comparison.