Pushed aside, Israeli gay rights movement searches for footing

It is not as severe as Iran’s nuclear program, not as consensual as the movement calling for a universal draft, and not as hip as the growing fight for social justice. The gay struggle just can’t seem to find its place.

By Amnon Brownfield Stein

Participants in Tel Aviv's Gay Pride parade protesting "pinkwashing" by Israeli government, June 8, 2012 (photo: Roee Ruttenberg)
Participants in Tel Aviv's Gay Pride parade protesting "pinkwashing" by Israeli government, June 8, 2012 (photo: Roee Ruttenberg)

There wasn’t much pride in the Jerusalem air Thursday evening. The annual pride parade – once a matter of critical national importance, was serene. The pride parades in the city, which started 10 years ago, were no stranger to public controversy. In 2002, Shas MK Nissim Ze’ev said of the marchers, “We must exterminate this phenomenon-or else we’ll have aids like in Africa.” The 2005 parade saw a stabbing attack; the march was canceled the following year.

It seems that today, the pride parade and the gay struggle on the whole are losing public significance. The national agenda is crowded and focused on security, and the pink movement is forced into a corner. It is not as severe as Iran’s nuclear program, not as consensual as the movement calling for a universal draft, and not as hip as the growing fight for economic justice. The gay struggle just can’t find its place.

Media coverage indicates the fall of the parade’s popularity. Israeli’s major news portals like Ynet, Walla, and Mako seem to demonstratively ignore its existence. And why shouldn’t they? The parade, which is first and foremost a demonstration, hasn’t tried to ride the revolutionary waves of the summer. It was a detached event that did not bring a clear statement or signify its uniqueness. It was best described by one of the organizers on Facebook:

If you haven’t yet heard about the parade, perhaps that is because its relevance is unclear. It marks a decade of marching in Jerusalem, but says nothing meaningful about it. It marches on the memorial day of the massacre in the Bar-Noar, but says nothing meaningful about it. It marches during Tu B’Av, but says nothing meaningful about it. And it marches during one of the largest civil uprisings in Israel’s history, two weeks after the death of Moshe Silman from his wounds, but says nothing meaningful about it.

Truly, what kind of significance and relevance does the pride parade hold in its current state? The media has not ignored it out of homophobia, but due to a lack of journalistic interest against the backdrop of ongoing demonstrations. The gay struggle depicted itself as a sectoral struggle, and most importantly, as an alien liberal struggle. While leftist activism, which is still the basis of the gay movement, moved to a new phase of social and economical bon ton, the pride parade remains as lonely as the last disco dancer in the 80s.

Gays in the army remain a public issue

But the buzz hasn’t left the parade for good. When traditional media disappoints, the time comes for new forms – personal media and social networks, especially Facebook. A single photo (shown above) taken from the parade, of a soldier in military uniform drew more than 10,000 likes and 1,200 shares. The soldier is holding a sign that  reads – “Uri Ariel, I’m the faggot who guards your ass!” The sign is a direct response to the member of Knesset from the right-wing opposition party National Union, who claimed in June that gays and lesbian shouldn’t enlist in the army, because they weaken its military strength. His statement was condemned shortly after, when a collage of gay soldiers was distributed online.

While it seems that there is profound support by the Israeli people for the integration of the gay community in the IDF, mostly as a part of the national hysteria in favor of the universal draft, there are underground forces who wish to challenge this support. Along with MK Ariel’s claim was a radical pamphlet distributed around Jerusalem’s central bus station and the light rail stations last week. This pamphlet depicted the photo of two soldiers holding hands, which was taken by the IDF Spokesperson and made virtual waves several weeks ago. The pamphlet proclaimed that such images weaken the IDF and distance it from Jewish tradition. In their messianic dreams, the IDF’s true force derives from the heavens, and they wish to see it as a successor to David’s army. While some religious Israelis vehemently opposed military enlistment, they see it as an opportunity to take control of the security apparatus and remove the secular label from IDF. The banishment and segregation of both women and gays are fundamental steps toward their utopia. Who knows this method better than Ariel himself, a “graduate” of the prestigious Unit 7 of the IDF Armored Corps?

While the gay leadership views the struggle for equality in the army as an intrinsic part of the general struggle for equality, others from the left think differently. The photo of the soldier from Thursday was distributed by some with the caption “Proud of the occupation,” playing off the slogan “There is no pride in the Occuption.”  In the last year, a new phrase has emerged in field of hasbara (Israeli PR): “pinkwashing.” Pinkwashing is Israel’s use of positive features of the treatment of the gay community to distract from the occupation and consequent violation of human rights. Such photos as that taken by the IDF Spokesperson, which was found to be staged, are said to be directed abroad in an attempt to portray Israel’s army as a positive and liberal institution. Internally, many on the left declared that the road to equality cannot proceed through the segregation, violence and discipline that characterizes the army.

The agony of gay culture

The demand and need for a powerful pride parade in Jerusalem is more urgent than ever. The status of gay rights in Israel’s hasn’t progressed during the last year. What was once a blossoming and hopeful community was frozen by the deadly cynicism of politics. The pride parade in Tel Aviv may attract over 100,000 party-goers, but this only perpetuates its dominance in the movement. This presentation of Tel Aviv as the only enlightened city in Israel causes gays to leave their home cities in great numbers. This process of reverse gentrification is significant in the gay community, leaving gays in the periphery scared, alone and closeted gays.  It also prevents the investment of other municipalities in gay culture, leaving many cities, including Haifa, with no gay community center.

According to former president of the Haifa gay community, “It is difficult. The fact is that most of the gays are still in the closet and afraid to come out. With no center, no home, we can’t provide full support. There are dozens of horrible stories, like a handicapped man who can’t come out because he can’t survive without his family’s support, or a youngster who is forced into marriage because he can’t stand up with his identity.”

This is the gay community in Israel. Trapped by a steady outpour of hatred, broken by a frozen political climate, hopeless outside of Tel Aviv. Where will change come from? The Knesset? The courts? The street? Until this change occurs, the gay struggle will remain pushed to the side.

Amnon Brownfield Stein is a a 19-year-old activist living in Tel Aviv. He was recruited to join the intelligence services of in the IDF, but left the army and will begin civil service with Amnesty International in October. He works for Greenpeace and is a sports writer for the12thplayer.