December 7, 2019

Israel Is the Only LGBTQ Safe Haven in the Middle East

The 2019 Gay Pride Parade in Tel Aviv, Israel; Photo by Amir Levy/Stringer/Getty Images

LGBTQ groups in Israel have asked me numerous times to write letters to Israel’s Foreign Ministry on behalf of LGBTQ Palestinians seeking asylum in Israel to escape the terror of being hunted down because they are someone other than a heterosexual. It is common in Arab society when the family finds out a child is gay to try to kill him or her.

It has never been safe to be gay or lesbian, transgender or bisexual in the West Bank or Gaza but in recent months, it has gotten even worse. 

After the stabbing of a 16-year-old Israeli Arab boy by a family member outside Beit Dror, Tel Aviv’s LGBTQ youth shelter, protests set in motion much argument and discussion in the Israeli Arab community and West Bank about violence against LGBTQ people. The protests and debate focused on the serious issues of violence and hate against LGBTQ people in Arab society.

In August, the Palestinian police issued a statement banning activities in the West Bank by alQaws, the only LGBTQ group that educates and advocates for the rights of LGBTQ people in the Palestinian Authority. This summer, Palestinian police further encouraged members of the public to report any suspected activity by members of alQaws. The organization’s newsletter read: “The police statement lent dangerous legitimacy to the social violence and stoked calls for prosecution, threats, and harm to our institution, our activists, or even anyone perceived as having a different sexual and gender orientation.” Leaders of alQaws were harassed and intimidated with military-style investigations that included blackmail, violence and interrogations of their private lives. For LGBTQ people in the West Bank, life is difficult and closeted.  

For LGBTQ people living in Gaza, it is even worse. There still are laws on the books dating from the time of the British Mandate that forbid any acts of consensual sex between same-gender adults. Hamas actively tries to trap LGBTQ people by monitoring social media, and has been known to torture those arrested and put other people to death for being gay.

Yet, in progressive political circles, support for Palestine and its cause is sacrosanct. The California Democratic Party has seen numerous proposed resolutions over the past year condemning Israel and praising the Palestinian cause, even calling for the erasure or delegitimization of the state of Israel. While these ideas have been soundly defeated, there is a growing identification in the far-left with Palestinians, and a rising condemnation of Israel.

However, there is a blindness in their orthodoxy. They refuse to look at the way in which LGBTQ people in the West Bank and Gaza are persecuted and murdered for being themselves. They never have anything to say about this. 

Often, it is these same people who charge that Israel engages in “pinkwashing.” This is a term that means Israel holds up and celebrates its open society and equality for LGBTQ people as a cover for the way it treats Arab Israelis and Palestinians. But the progressive left that is so busy chanting “from the river to the sea, Palestine must be free” refuses to understand or look at the deep problems within Palestinian society that reject equality for LGBTQ people.

This is yet another example of the far-left’s confusion and orthodoxy. It isn’t pinkwashing; it is truth telling. Tel Aviv’s Pride celebration is one of the largest in the world. Even the Pride march in Jerusalem, despite the violence and murder of 16-year Shira Banki by Yishai Schlissel, an Orthodox Jewish man several years ago, grows annually.

The progressive left that is so busy chanting from the ‘river to the sea, Palestine must be free’ refuses to understand or look at the deep problems within Palestinian society that reject equality for LGBTQ people.

Israel’s LGBTQ community is thriving, with a network of organizations including LGBTQ centers in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Beersheva and Haifa; youth organizations, including IGY-Israeli Gay Youth and the Beit Dror youth shelter; educational organizations such as Hoshen; and parent support. Recently in Efrat, a settlement town in the Gush, Mayor Oded Revivi hosted TEHILA, which is the support group for parents of LGBTQ children.

The next time LGBTQ people or the far-left want to tell me they stand with the Palestinian Authority, let me remind them of this: 

Because Israel is a democracy, we still can advocate for different policies in Israel toward its Arab citizens. Because Israel is a democracy, we can advocate for a two-state solution and improving the lives of Palestinians. Because Israel is a democracy, we can demand an end to the occupation.

But please stop with the “pinkwashing” trope. Israel is the only safe space in the Middle East for LGBTQ people.

Not the West Bank, not Gaza, not Iran, not Saudi Arabia, not Syria, not Egypt.

So to my fellow LGBTQ people and progressives, let us not be blind nor naive that the Palestinian Authority or Hamas is a welcoming home for your next Pride parade. Instead, let us do the hard work of seeking peace and building bridges for our fellow LGBTQ people in Israel and in the Palestinian Authority.

I will be doing just that in the coming days. I will lead an interfaith mission to Israel with A Wider Bridge and Interfaith Partners for Peace. This trip will be for LGBTQ Christian leaders, with a couple of rabbis thrown in for good measure. The trip is designed so these leaders can learn for themselves rather than rely on the one-sided anti-Israel rhetoric often provided to them.

Several of the leaders in our group have never been to Israel or the Palestinian Authority. In Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, the Galil and in Ramallah, we will meet with LGBTQ leaders; Jewish, Arab, Christian and Muslim leaders; peace makers and government officials.

We will engage in the hard work of building a world of inclusion, prosperity, equality and safety for all.


Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the senior rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood and is the co-editor of the recently published “Gender and Religious Leadership: Women Rabbis, Pastors and Ministers” (Rowman & Littlefield).