More than 200,000 people are expected to travel to Tel Aviv this weekend to participate in the annual Pride celebrations – the largest such event in the Middle East and Asia.
The event symbolises Israel’s strong record on LGBT rights. The new Jewish state inherited Mandate-era laws banning same-sex relationships. While they were not formally repealed until 1988, there is no record that these discriminatory laws were ever enforced after 1948. Moreover, in 1963 – four years before the bar on gay sex was lifted in Britain – the Israeli attorney general made clear that they would not be applied in cases involving consenting adults.
Israel has, indeed, led Britain in its approach to gay rights on other fronts too. Discrimination in the workplace was banned in 1992; the bar on gays serving in the IDF was lifted in 1993; and same-sex partner benefits were recognised in the private sector in 1994 and public sector in 1997. The age of consent was equalised in 2000 – the same year as in the UK. Two years later, Israel’s first openly gay member of the Knesset was elected.
The absence of civil marriage in Israel means same-sex marriage does not exist. However, the country recognises same-sex marriages performed abroad and both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem accept gay couples as legal familial units. In 2014, Israel announced that the Law of Return would apply equally to same-sex couples: Jews in same-sex relationships married abroad wishing to emigrate to Israel can do so – even if their partners are not Jewish – and both partners will receive Israeli citizenship. Late last year, the ban on gay men becoming blood donors was also lifted.
Nonetheless, Israel’s record is not without critics. At home, the government is charged with inaction. Last weekend, ministers from the Haredi parties, Jewish Home and Yisrael Beiteinu blocked three LGBT rights bills proposed by opposition MKs and managed to delay two more (including one on civil unions), leading to accusations by one Likud insider that the ministers had formed a “homophobic coalition”. Gay rights supporters in the Knesset say that progress on LGBT rights is coming from civil society, not legislation. Public support for gay rights in Israel is both broad-based and growing. According to a poll last year, 76 per cent of Jewish Israelis support some form of marriage for gay couples, up from 64 per cent in 2015.
Despite all this, the BDS movement takes a special pleasure in attempting to turn Israel’s gay rights record against it, accusing it of “pinkwashing”. “Pinkwashing” is the supposedly cynical attempt by Israelto detract attention from its treatment of the Palestinians by using gay rights to play up its liberalism. In recent weeks, the Tel Aviv LGBT film festival has faced a wave of cancellations as a number of foreign participants pulled out under pressure from BDS activists. Nonetheless, BDS supporters will be frustrated that beyond that their tactics appear to have little effect: 30,000 gay tourists will visit Israel during this week’s Pride events.
“Pinkwashing” not only denies and belittles the Israel LGBT movement’s long (and continuing) struggle for equality, it also directly targets those Israelis who are at the forefront of the wider campaign for liberalism, tolerance and peace.
The silence of the BDS movement on the tragic plight of gay Palestinians is most telling. Homosexuality is not illegal in the West Bank. However, the Palestinian Authority has been widely accused of doing little to protect the rights of gay Palestinians. Gay men have been attacked and persecuted by local gangs – and, in some cases, murdered in so-called “honour killings” by their families – with impunity. The PA police are also reported to maintain unofficial lists of gay Palestinians in order to blackmail their victims into becoming informants. Allegations of torture and extrajudicial killings have also been made. During the Second Intifada, the PA is said to have targeted gay men, accusing them of being collaborators with theIsraelis.
However precarious, the situation in the West Bank for those who are gay is preferable to that in Gaza, where Hamas has made homosexuality illegal under its strict interpretation of Islamic law and 10-year prison sentences are meted out. Hamas preachers, however, advocate the death penalty, while its leaders incite attacks by Islamist militias on gay Gazans. The organisation’s co-founder, Mahmoud Zahar, for instance, described gays as a “minority of perverts and the mentally and morally sick”, while accusing the West of “not [even] liv[ing] like animals. You accept homosexuality”. Last year, the group executed one of its own senior commanders having accused him of “moral turpitude” – Hamas-speak for homosexuality.
That contrast – between Israel’s record on gay rights and that of Hamas – is one that the BDS movement can neither acknowledge nor accept for it exposes its true purpose. As Michael Lucas, a US film director whose film featured in the 2013 LGBT film festival, argued recently: “BDS, in truth, cares nothing about Palestinians and human rights … [It] does not dislike Israel because of its policies in regards to Palestinians. It simply is old-fashioned Jew-hatred disguised in its modern, more politically correct form: anti-Zionism.”