An Unlikely Activist

BY Michael Luongo

January 13 2011 3:15 PM ET

EZRA MAWI ELAD MUDHOUSE X390 (MICHAEL LUONGO) | ADVOCATE.COM

It’s easy to
believe Orthodox settlers are homophobic. But Israeli soldiers? It goes
against assumptions about a country with movies like Eytan Fox’s 2002
Yossi & Jagger, about gay Israeli soldiers. Israel is also working
to build its gay reputation to the outside world. According to Geoffrey
Weill, president of Geoffrey Weill Associates, a public relations firm
working with Israel, the country has produced viral web videos promoting
itself as a gay destination, and invited “journalists from gay media
and websites,” for press trips. Tel Aviv recently contended for Sexiest
Place on Earth and Best Breakout Destination in Logo’s TripOut Gay
Travel Awards.

In spite of this, Sydney Levy, director of campaigns
and programs for the San Francisco–based Jewish Voice For Peace, which
is providing assistance to Ezra, says Nawi “faces additional
discrimination because he is gay and because he is an Iraqi,” in a
country he says prefers to forget many Jews have Arabic backgrounds. He
adds that the Israeli government “spends a lot of money on this idea” of
a gay-friendly Israel, even promoting the gay fantasy of the “sexy
Israeli soldier,” used on Israeli tourism posters during San Francisco’s
2009 Pride. Levy adds, “At the same time, you have the current minister
of Interior [Eli Yishai] who calls gay people sick” and tried to block
Tel Aviv’s 2009 Pride.

“More complex,” according to Levy, is how gay
issues deflect attention from the Palestinian conflict, a concept called
“pinkwashing” by various activists. Levy says that “part of the bargain
Israel suggests is that we are like you, we are homo-friendly, and they
are homophobic, so you should ignore all the human rights violations we
have.” He adds, “Even if you were to assume that every Palestinian was
homophobic and every Israeli was homo-friendly, you don’t bargain human
rights. That should not impinge on the fight Palestinians have for equal
rights.”

While Israel has gay politicians, and parades and bars in
Tel Aviv, how homophobic Palestinians are in contrast depends on whom
you talk to. “All of my friends are gay-friendly. Even if they are not
gay-friendly, they are gay-tolerant, like the Palestinians,” Ezra tells
me. And yet concerning Fuad and other gay Palestinians, Ezra’s words are
very different in Citizen Nawi, in which he says “it’s not a nice situation”
for them.

According to Hossein Alizadeh, the Middle East and North
Africa program coordinator for the International Gay and Lesbian Human
Rights Commission, Palestinian treatment of gays varies by city, clan,
and other factors. The worst case he worked on was in Gaza, where a gay
man had received death threats from his father, who “intentionally
kicked him out of the house so Israelis could kill him,” during an
Israeli army shooting raid. In addition, he has heard of honor killings
and cases of being burned while wrapped in tires “but not seen
documentation.” In general, Alizadeh explained, the West Bank is typical
of Arab communities in that “if you have the support of the family and
you are discreet,” things can be OK, adding, “I don’t call it exactly
quality life.”

Through my journalistic work in the region, I know of
cases of gay Palestinians seeking asylum in Israel, others forced to
spy for Mossad, the Israeli secret service, complicating the discussion
of homosexuality in the West Bank and conflating it with broader
political issues. These were major topics of discussion during the 2006
Jerusalem World Pride, though in spite of trying to interview such men, I
was never able to. Further confusing the Palestinian picture is that
the Palestinian Liberation Organization had an openly gay spokesman, the
American-Palestinian Michael Tarazi; and that there are reports that
Yasser Arafat, the longtime leader of the PLO who died in 2004 of what
was termed a mysterious blood illness, might have been bisexual, based
on communist-era spy recordings in Romania.

Still another view comes
from Canadian lesbian filmmaker Elle Flanders, who lived in Ramallah
and directed the 2005 documentary Zero Degrees of Separation, about gay
Palestinian-Israeli couples, and included Ezra and Fuad (who was called
“Selim” in the film). Flanders says gay life is “as repressive in
Palestinian societies as it is 100 kilometers [60 miles] outside of the
biggest queer American center.”

Says Rauda Morcos, a consultant on LGBTI
issues in the Middle East North Africa region for the Dutch rights group
Hivos and former director of Aswat, a group working on lesbian issues
for Palestinians living on both sides of the wall: “I know of no
law against gays in the West Bank.” Her view is that “saying it is a
difficult place for gay people won’t help.” Her preference in Palestine
is to “change the reality” through activism.

Morcos says that while
Israel is portrayed as liberal for gays, “It is only Tel Aviv, and maybe
one quarter of one part of Tel Aviv,” mentioning the August 2009 Tel
Aviv gay youth center shootings and the 2005 Jerusalem gay pride stabbings.
She says Jewish Israeli gay groups have little interest in Palestine,
commenting that they “might be supporting the occupation. I mean most of
them served in the Army.”

Ezra, who says he was part of one of
Jerusalem’s first gay rights groups, Apple, in the 1970s, also believes
most Israeli gays care little about Palestinian issues or other social
causes. He tells me, “They refuse to be involved in social problems, the
Palestinians, the people who don’t have housing, people in the bottom
of the country.”

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