Breaking the Political and Religious Stalemate on LGBTQ Rights in Israel

Announcing A Wider Bridges 201920 LGBTQ Impact Grants
By Tyler Gregory

Tamar Yahel, CEO of Hoshen, marches in the Fight for Trans lives event on July 28, 2019; photo credit: Adam Kaplan.

Ten years ago, a masked gunman walked into the Bar Noar LGBTQ Youth Center, run by our grantee, the Aguda – Israel LGBTQ Taskforce, and opened fire. Teenager Liz Trubeshi and youth guide Nir Katz were murdered in the attack, and nearly a dozen more were seriously injured. The tragedy was a wake-up call to Israeli society that change was urgently needed to support and protect our LGBTQ kids. Across the pond in San Francisco, my predecessor Arthur Slepian moved into action to create a new kind of organization, dedicated to the understanding, cooperation, and advancement of LGBTQ rights and the LGBTQ community in the US and Israel.

Reflecting on the tragedy, Arthur remembered the words of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, who said, “The whole world is a narrow bridge, and the most important thing is to have no fear.” And it was in that spirit that several months later, A Wider Bridge was born.

Last summer, after nearly nine years of education, advocacy, and relationship building to support LGBTQ life in Israel, we launched AWB Impact – providing grants to empower LGBTQ organizations in Israel to expand rights and acceptance within their communities.

In 2019, the community faces political barriers preventing the advancement of LGBTQ rights at the Knesset, coupled with LGBTQ-phobia emanating from far too many political and religious voices. Our grantmaking is about building the capacity of the LGBTQ Israeli field to change the status quo – from Tel Aviv to the periphery, from the political left to right, from secular to observant, and from Ashkenazi Jews to Mizrahim, Ethiopians, Arabs, Druze, Eritreans, and beyond.

Today we are excited to announce our Cycle 2 (2019-20) Grantees, and share the important advancements our Cycle 1 grantees have made in partnership with A Wider Bridge this past year.

Political Change: The Aguda LGBTQ Task Force

The past 12 months have been transformative for the Aguda’s work towards political and societal change. After leading a 100,000-person strike for LGBTQ rights in Rabin Square, The Aguda launched a candidate training program, equipping LGBTQ candidates from municipalities ranging from the Galilee to the Negev with the tools to run for office. Former Aguda Chair and current Tel Aviv Deputy Mayor Chen Arieli reflected that “The project is for activists who believe that it is time for us to take key positions and promote the agendas we believe in from the inside.” Last Spring’s national elections also resulted in five openly-gay Members of Knesset and today Israel has the first openly gay Minister in Justice Minister Amir Ohana.

This year also saw a record 40 LGBTQ Pride events coordinated by the Aguda and local community partners across Israel – building LGBTQ visibility for the first time in places like Zichron in the north and the predominantly religious Beit Shemesh near Jerusalem.

We are also proud to support a project grant to the Aguda’s LGBTQ Refugee Program, which supports LGBTQ Arabs and Palestinians, Africans, and refugees in Israel with legal assistance; psychological, social and financial support; and access to health care and employment.

Religious Acceptance: Bat Kol, Havruta and Shoval

Our partners in the LGBTQ religious and orthodox space – Bat Kol (queer religious women), Havruta (gay religious men), and Shoval (LGBTQ religious education and change) are changing attitudes in traditional Jewish communities across Israel. This work is doubly challenging: LGBTQ religious Israelis face continued discrimination on one hand from both their traditional and orthodox communities, and on the other hand from the largely secular Israeli LGBTQ community, which harbors some resentment against religious Judaism for casting out LGBTQ people. This past year we were proud to fund the “Our Faces” video campaign, an 8-part series in which members of Israel’s religious LGBTQ communities tell stories about their families through personal objects in their homes. The campaign helped raise awareness and empathy for Israel’s religious LGBTQ+ communities.

Safe Schools: HoshenLGBTQ Education and Change

Last month, Israeli Education Minister Rafi Peretz made reprehensible public comments endorsing gay conversion therapy, a practice that is widely discredited by all major health organizations. We were proud to join Hoshen and our Israeli partners in calling for Prime Minister Netanyahu to fire him for these dangerous comments for LGBTQ youth. After public pressure and community protest, Peretz walked back his comments.

Thanks to Hoshen, public schools across Israel are now including LGBTQ curriculum in their courses and providing opportunities for LGBTQ role models to speak about their experiences in classrooms and larger assembly gatherings. The organization also trains public sector professionals in LGBTQ core competencies – including police and border guard corps officers, soldiers, army cadets and officers, medical staff, social workers, and guidance counselors.

Fighting for Trans Lives: Maavarim

This summer, a transgender teenager living in Beit D’ror, the LGBTQ youth shelter, was stabbed by a family member, and was left critically wounded. The attack bolstered attendance at the 2nd annual March for Trans Lives, led by our grantee Ma’avarim – the transgender community organization working for trans empowerment and policy change – and attended by a thousand trans Israelis and allies. The incident was an important reminder that even in the heart of progressive Tel Aviv, more work needs to be done to support LGBTQ people, especially our most vulnerable.

Jerusalem Pride 2019; photo courtesy A Wider Bridge.

Queering the Capitol: Jerusalem Open House

Last year, Jerusalem Open House, the flagship LGBTQ organization in Jerusalem and its only LGBTQ center, made a courageous decision to move up their annual March for Pride and Tolerance to early June, a week before Tel Aviv Pride, to kick off Pride Month in Israel. The move came after the tragic murder of 15-year-old Shira Banki in the 2015 Jerusalem Pride March. The decision paid off handsomely: in 2019, more than 30,000 people across Israel and visiting from around the world marched down the streets of Israel’s capitol to fight for LGBTQ equality. Previous marches garnered around 5,000 people. We were proud to support the 2018 and 2019 Marches, which with larger capacity, required more security precautions, and with challenges from Jerusalem City Council to cancel the March, required more staff time and energy to pull off the event.

LGBTQ Health: The Israel AIDS Taskforce

The Israel AIDS Taskforce works to provide testing services to Israelis across the country, and lend visibility and education to fight the stigma HIV positive Israelis face in society. While infection rates are decreasing in the gay male community, thanks in part to the accessibility of PreP, rates are increasing in marginalized communities, like the Arab, Ethiopian, and Eritrean asylum-seeking communities, where a lack of educational resources and language gaps are creating challenges.

We are proud to fund mobile testing clinics, which travel to parts of the country where anonymous testing centers are largely unavailable. The testing clinics also sit outside popular LGBTQ night clubs, providing easy access to testing services.

Safe in the Workplace: LGBTech

LGBTech strives to create a diverse and inclusive workforce by educating employers and providing tools, skills and knowledge promoting diversity and inclusion. Recently, they built an index for corporate workplace inclusion in Israel, inspired by a similar strategy used in the U.S. at HRC (the Human Rights Campaign).

In their own words: “The workplace is a setting where people come in contact with others, like-minded and not. It serves as a bedrock for different opinions to be voiced, allowing dialogue to ensue. When this dialogue is met with an enabling and inclusive environment, differences can be bridged. Israel’s largest growth engine, the high-tech sector, has the power to lead a change in the employment composition of the Israeli workforce.”

We Are Everywhere:” Israel Gay Youth

Visit any of the 40 pride events across Israel this past June, and at the front of the march are LGBTQ youth, dressed in red, marching and chanting for LGBTQ equality. These are the thousands of Israeli LGBTQ youth of IGY – Israel GLBTQ+ Youth. IGY empowers thousands of young people each year to create a leading role for themselves in a more accepting society, while supporting their own understanding of sexual and/or gender identity.

With our support, IGY will launch “IGY Tube,” a YouTube channel for LGBTQ+ youth. In their own words: “IGY Tube will provide and distribute relevant content accessible to all youth in Israel. We believe this could be a groundbreaking opportunity to turn LGBTQ+ youth into agents of change.”

Tyler Gregory serves as the Executive Director of A Wider Bridge, the LGBTQ organization advancing equality in Israel, and equality for Israel, and is a Schusterman Fellow. He envisions a progressive movement in the U.S. that sees no contradiction between a love for Israel and a commitment to social justice and equality.