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Much Is Lost By Not Listening to Each Other

Much Is Lost By Not Listening to Each Other

Friends of slain Shira Banki mourn by her grave
Friends of slain Shira Banki mourn by her grave

Leaders of A Wider Bridge tout the value of engaging with LGBT Israelis.

In the aftermath of January's Creating Change conference in Chicago, where our program about Jerusalem's LGBTQ community was shut down by a large group of anti-Zionist protestors, A Wider Bridge has learned a number of simple but important truths. The first lesson is this: Storytelling is powerful.

The guests that A Wider Bridge brought to Chicago were two leaders of Jerusalem Open House, the city's flagship LGBTQ community center. They never got to speak, but after Chicago, we brought our guests to cities across the country, and everywhere we went, as they told their story, hearts opened up. They spoke about the challenge of making Jerusalem a place that can be a home to all LGBTQ people -- the secular and the religious, Jews and Palestinians, the old and the young. They spoke candidly about the fear, anger, and grief that gripped their community after the stabbings and murder at last summer's Jerusalem Pride March and the paths the community has chosen to walk toward healing. They invited everyone they met into dialogue with them. As they spoke, their integrity, their character, and their commitment to bringing people together all became evident.

Stories reveal our humanity, and when we share them, the distance and differences that separate us melt away. This is the opportunity that was missed in Chicago, and perhaps why the protesters were so intent on shutting down our program. Had it taken place, it would have revealed the humanity and courage of our Israeli guests.

The second lesson, an unfortunate one, is that the forces on display in Chicago were not some kind of aberration. Both anti-Semitism and the idea that "shut it down" is the right response to programs that one objects to have become an integral part of the far left's anti-Zionist campaign. For example, a scheduled speech by activist Janet Mock at Brown University was fiercely protested in March by anti-Israel activists simply because the talk was to be hosted by a Jewish group on campus. Mock canceled her talk when it became clear that her message would be drowned out by the controversy. Just this month, a speech by the mayor of Jerusalem was disrupted by protesters at San Francisco State University, and he was never permitted to speak. These events and others like them demonstrate the radical left's antagonism toward Israel.

Their accusations of "pinkwashing" -- that speaking about LGBT issues in Israel is an attempt to distract people away from other issues -- have a "through the looking glass" kind of absurdity. They turn something that is essentially good about Israel into something to be condemned. But the accusations also contain an element of anti-Semitism, as they promote the stereotype that Jews, whatever we might be saying or doing, are really acting with some ulterior or sinister motive.

The third lesson is perhaps the most important, and certainly the most hopeful. We are seeing that the movement for LGBTQ equality is increasingly a global one, and it is clearer than ever that Israel and its LGBTQ community have a vital role to play in moving it forward. It is this idea that is actually at the heart of A Wider Bridge's work.

There is so much that LGBTQ activists across the globe can learn from each other's successes and challenges, and Israelis have both much to teach and much to learn. Consider the events since last summer's Jerusalem Pride March, in which that ultra-Orthodox man ran into the crowd and stabbed and murdered a 15-year-old girl. What has followed has not been more anger and violence, but rather the opening of dialogue among disparate communities and a more visible LGBT presence in Jerusalem. Last month it was announced that Jerusalem's historic Zion Square will be renovated and renamed Tolerance Square, in memory of the slain teenager, Shira Banki. In January, 40 members of Israel's LGBT Orthodox Jewish community came out with their stories and photos in social media as part of what they called the "Our Faces" campaign. And in February, an entire day at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, was dedicated to the discussion of LGBTQ issues. Organized by the Aguda, Israel's leading LGBT rights organization, the day brought hundreds of activists and community members to Jerusalem to witness and participate in this historic moment.

These developments are all important -- not because they are part of a story of Israel being some kind of paradise for LGBTQ people, but because they demonstrate the diverse fabric of LGBTQ life, the resilience of the community, and some of the progress that is being made in a challenging environment.

Israel is unique among the nations of the world that have given LGBTQ people a modicum of freedom to live their lives: It has a high degree of ethnic, religious and racial diversity, with many subcommunities, such as the ultra-Orthodox, Israeli Arab, and Russian communities, that are not predisposed to accept the idea of LGBTQ equality. There are many key areas of life in Israel where there is little separation between "church and state," and the nation is surrounded by countries that have a very different perspective on LGBTQ rights. Seen in the context of these complicated circumstances, the gains made by Israel's LGBTQ community are all the more remarkable.

The moment that struck me as perfectly capturing the strength, the challenge and the complexity of LGBTQ life in Israel happened last June, at a special meeting at the Knesset. It was just days before Tel Aviv's Pride Celebration, and the topic was transgender rights in Israel. More than 30 members of the Knesset attended the meeting, representing just about every major party in Israel. The testimony was delivered by more than a dozen Israeli trans teenagers, who spoke with remarkable power and confidence about their lives. Near the end of this historic three-hour meeting, as time was running out, one young man from a small city in the south of Israel was asked if he could condense his testimony to 30 seconds. He thought for a moment, and he said to the members of the Knesset, "Don't make me move to Tel Aviv. Help us create a country where I can live an out and proud life as a trans person in the town where I grew up." This comment was a lightning bolt; on the one hand, it is remarkable that Tel Aviv exists and is a beacon of LGBTQ equality to the rest of the country. But it is also inspiring that a young generation is standing up and saying that Tel Aviv is not enough.

We were filled with pride to witness these trans leaders speaking at a session of the Knesset (such a meeting has not yet happened in the U.S. Congress) and especially proud to see that the community is nurturing a young generation of trans leaders.

We are determined to continue our efforts to support the progress of this community and to ensure that both Israel and the global LGBTQ community can benefit from each other's experience, and from listening to each other's stories. This is the path forward that makes us stronger together.

ARTHUR SLEPIAN is the founder and executive director of A Wider Bridge, a U.S. organization that works to create meaningful engagement between the LGBTQ and allied communities of North America and Israel.

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Arthur Slepian