The New Civil Rights Movement’s John Culhane is the official blogger for Equality Forum, Philadelphia’s internationally known and always interesting cavalcade of events that celebrates, informs and provokes on all (or many, anyway) things LGBT. John will be sharing reports daily over the next few days. Read all John’s Equality Forum posts here.
Well, that was interesting.
About an hour into last night’s Equality Forum “Featured Nation: Israel” panel, four or five protesters barged into the room and began shouting about Israel’s inhumane treatment of the Palestinians. They had a huge banner that they never managed to unfurl, and what looked like a manifesto that they never managed to read — because they were quickly dragged out of the room by the hotel’s security staff.
All but one woman. Inexplicably wearing what looked like a Mardi Gras mask, she moved toward the front of the room and tried to speak. For a minute or so, there was a bizarre stand-off between her and several loud and angry audience members, who shouted (unhelpfully) “Get out.”
Enter Nurit Shein, the panel moderator (and Executive Director the Mazzoni Center), who tried to quell the disturbance by calming stating that she understood the reason for the protests, but that this wasn’t the right forum. Then, in a welcome surprise, another panelist — Anat Nir, a young Israeli activist who works on the economic side of LGBT equality — somewhat disagreed with her, contending that these were issues that needed airing. Then she and other panelists described the work that the LGBT leadership in Tel Aviv was doing with Palestinians in Gaza and Arabs living in Israel in order to help them deal with a culture that was more repressive than Israel’s. The activist seems disarmed by this civil response, and, while she didn’t exactly go quietly (a security guy “helped” her out), the panelists had found the antidote to the venom in her voice.
Was the event the better for the protesters? I’d say yes, but not in the way they’d intended. They did succeed in getting the panelists to talk about the challenges of doing LGBT rights in a society where there are other injustices that go unaddressed; although, as more than one of them painfully pointed out, the situation isn’t markedly different in the U.S. (It was either Shein or Nir who pointed out that, for example, the continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan is problematic, but that’s no reason for the work of LGBT activists to stop.) And they did, in a way, get people to consider what they were saying. But really, their goal was to disrupt and to shut people up. And that rarely (not never!) seems like a good idea to me. Why not be part of the audience and ask penetrating questions? And then set up your protest outside? They did that — as I walked to my car, a small group of college-age students were standing on the sidewalk bearing signs that rebuked the “pink washing” of Israel — by which I gather they mean the effort to use progress on LGBT rights to camouflage the deeper human rights abuses that continue.
The protest aside, the panel was remarkably informative. Shai Doitsh, the Chairperson of the Israeli National LGBT Task Force, provided a succinct summary of LGBT rights progress in Israel over the past thirty years. Until 1988, it was illegal to be gay (by which I took him to mean that the law criminalized acts of same-sex intimacy, as the Israelis had uncritically imported English law into their system when the nation was founded). Then that law changed, and, a few years later, the exclusion of gays from the military was lifted. (More than one panelist described the importance of this legal change in Israel, given the social standing of the Israeli Army and the expectation that everyone will serve.) And — in a reminder that high-profile media events are as important as legal change in moving a rights agenda — he pointed to the 1998 EuroVision win of an Israeli transgendered woman, Dana International, for the song (wait for it!) “Diva.” (For those who don’t know what EuroVision is, shame on you! One word: ABBA!)
Doitsh said that many of the advances had come from the courts and not Parliament, a statement that provided a smooth segue into the remarks by Irit Rosenblum, a very smart lawyer who directs the New Family Organization. This title isn’t a politically motivated misdirection for a group that deals with LGBT rights — as its name implies, “New Family” is concerned with the rights of all kinds of families that aren’t recognized under Israeli law. And because that law is grounded in religion, the group of legal outliers includes couples interfaith couples, non-religious couples, and foreign workers — along with LGBT couples. The strategy has been to pursue practical solutions to the legal problems of parenthood, private contracting, inheritance, and so on by “flooding” the family courts with petitions and cases. And this has paid off, because dozens of adverse rulings are quickly swamped by one or two good ones. Once a court has simply seen and protected the couples in front of them, it becomes harder for later courts to backtrack. This approach has also gained some traction here in the U.S., with scholars like Nancy Polikoff emphasizing the need for the law to “value all families” — not just the LGBT ones that are, for many of us, our primary concern. Small victories can be used to pry bigger ones out of the courts. (I was particularly interested in the story of how a gay couple was forced to cool its heels in India with the baby they’d created with a surrogate, until a combination of legal and social pressure resulted in their repatriation.)
Yaniv Weizman, a Tel Aviv city council member and advisor to the mayor on LGBT issues, thanked Rosenblum for her work and then, movingly, gestured to his husband in the front row as evidence of its effect. “Tel Aviv is so gay!”, said Weizman. While we have a “Gayborhood” (I hate that name!) in Philadelphia, Tel Aviv is an entirely gay-open city. (I also learned that it was recently named the No. 1 Gay Tourist Destination in the world.) But the rest of the country isn’t as progressive. In this way, the city isn’t too different from American cities and their surrounding areas. But it’s often described, he noted, as a “bubble” — an image that I’m sure would have appealed to the protesters as a way of describing the LGBT’s focus on their own equality (but the image isn’t accurate or entirely fair to the LGBT community, even though Weizman conceded that they “weren’t doing enough” to help their Palestinian gay brothers (not sisters so much, who I gather are so invisible at this point that there’s not much to be done right now)).
Anat Nir was the most practical, and, in a way, the most compelling (which is saying something given the effectiveness of all the panelists). She clearly understands the need for financial backing in support of social spaces and artistic ventures as ways of pushing things forward. She began by opening a lesbian bar because there was no place for her to go. But then she realized that there was a need for broader social opportunities, and has pushed forward with a gay and lesbian film festival. She has also provided funding for the first year of a safe living space for LGBTQ youth, and has campaigned for medical facilities to serve our population. Then there’s mortgage financing and life insurance issues, which she is currently working on.
Thanks to committed activists like this, a lot’s getting done in Israel, and especially in Tel Aviv. And they’re not leaving out their Arab neighbors. I can’t resist closing with this quote from the Epilogue of one of the best books I’ve ever read, A History of the Jews. I include it here as a counterweight to the sometimes veiled anti-Semitism that too-often colors otherwise accurate criticisms of Israel:
“Human confidence…, if it is strong and tenacious enough, is a force in itself, which pushes on the hinge of events and moves them. The Jews believed they were a special people with such unanimity and passion, and over so long a span, that they became one. They…indeed have a role because they wrote it for themselves.”
Were he born 10,000 years ago, John Culhane would not have survived to adulthood; he has no useful, practical skills. He is a law professor who writes about various and sundry topics, including: disaster compensation; tort law; public health law; literature; science; sports; his own personal life (when he can bear the humanity); and, especially, LGBT rights and issues. He teaches at the Widener University School of Law and is a Senior Fellow at the Thomas Jefferson School of Population Health.
He is also a contributor to Slate Magazine, and writes his own eclectic blog. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter if you’re blessed with lots of time.
John Culhane lives in the Powelton Village area of Philadelphia with his partner David and their twin daughters, Courtnee and Alexa. Each month, he awaits the third Saturday evening for the neighborhood Wine Club gathering.
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