LGBTQs in Palestine and Israel

By Miri - 

Last week was very much associated with the LGBTQ1 community, both for the good and for the sad. Last Thursday, Jerusalem held its 10th Gay Pride Parade, while on Saturday, the Tel Aviv community commemorated the third anniversary of the shooting at an LGBTQ centre that left two dead and fifteen wounded on August 1st, 2009. 

Notwithstanding such incidents, Israel is usually considered a country that proved itself to be relatively open towards its LGBTQ community and the legislature concerning the community has been assessed to be amongst the most developed ones in the Middle East and Asia as a whole.
Like many other countries that, prior to colonisation, had no laws prohibiting same-sex practices, Israel inherited the British sodomy law, which criminalised same-sex relationships between men (women are not being mentioned), as a leftover from the British Mandate over Palestine. There is however no record of this law ever being enforced in the Israeli state and the prohibition of same-sex practices was formally repealed by the national legislative assembly in 1988.
Israeli gay and lesbian couples enjoy many of the rights that heterosexual couples enjoy, yet the power accorded to Jewish Orthodox authorities to determine at least partly Israeli legislation, does interfere with the freedoms of the LGBTQ community. Due to an absence of the possibility to perform civil marriages on Israeli soil, for example, are gay and lesbian couples, just like inter-religious couples, forced to marry outside of Israel. Their marriages are however accepted by the Israeli state and more recently LGBTQ couples also succeeded in court to defend their right to adopt children.
The 1992 legislation to prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation allows for some exemptions for religious organisations, and thereby implicitly sanctions the Orthodox view on same-sex practices and homosexuality.

Orthodox Jews protesting against the Pride Parade in Jerusalem
From a legislative point of view the situation of the Jewish lesbian and gay community in Israel can probably be assessed in relatively positive terms2, but equality really happens on the streets and also the streets of Israeli cities and towns are not all painted in rainbow colours.
Notwithstanding the troubling 2009 incident, Tel Aviv is unquestionably the most open minded place in Israel and in 2012 topped a survey to find the most popular city destination for gay travellers3. Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai was quoted as being very proud of the result and hailed his city as one that “respects all people equally, and allows all people to live according to their values and desires.” Jerusalem's former mayor, the Haredi Jew Uri Lupolianski on the other hand, did not take so much pride in the LGBTQ community of his city and in 2006 attempted to thwart the annual march.
The differences in terms of the openness of Israel's main cities becomes very obvious during those annual public celebrations. While the Tel Aviv pride is more of a street party that is embraced by many of the city's residents, the Jerusalem parade is considered a provocation and/or even an abomination by many Jerusalemites and has been and continues to be frequently attacked4.

"No Pride in the Occupation" - radical block in the Tel Aviv Pride Parade
The pride marches also provide an arena for the admittedly small radical section of Israel's LGBTQ community to raise attention to their opposition to the continuing Occupation, with slogans such as “No Pride in the Occupation”.
According to these activists the state uses the LGBTQ community as a propaganda tool. By emphasising the relative freedom and equality the community enjoys, Israel promotes its self-image as the "only democracy in the Middle East" and thereby deflects from the continuation of human rights abuses committed against the non-Jewish populations within and beyond the Green Line. This discursive move, which by now has acquired the established term of “pinkwashing”, also typically includes an emphasis on the supposed “backwardness” and intolerance of Arab/Muslim societies, particularly the Palestinian one, towards LGBTQ people.

The Palestinian LGBTQ activist scene on the other hand, does not shy away from criticising their own society for the discrimination and hostilities that they face, at the same time many do not accept and speak out against the widely held assumption of Israel being a safe haven for them and see their struggle at least as twofold, with one of them being centred around their identity as Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. 
Palestinian LGBTQ organisations, such as AlQaws (Arabic: "Rainbow") further emphasise that an assessment of the situation of LGBTQ people outside of countries associated with Western culture should always entail an acknowledgment of a different conceptualisation of sexual identities, and therefore of different priorities of the community. People may for instance engage in same-sex practices without necessarily viewing themselves as homosexual in terms of their identity. As such, they also do not see it necessary or do not even wish to come out of the closet, a notion that is considered to be key amongst many Western LGBTQs.

As mentioned above, the experiences of Jewish-Israeli LGBTQ persons vary considerably depending on their backgrounds and where they live. This is true about every community, yet in the case of Palestinian LGBTQ people this situation is aggravated by the fact that their legal status and with it the rights accorded to them vary substantially depending on whether they live in Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem or are citizens of Israel. Although they face discrimination in many areas, the latter group theoretically enjoys the same rights as Jewish-Israeli LGBTQs. For Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories the situation is very different and although there exists a Basic Law of the Palestinian Constitution that guarantees freedom of belief and expression, freedom of bodily integrity, freedom from discrimination "because of race, sex, colour, religion, political views, or disability" and protection of human rights, there is no no specific, stand alone civil rights legislation that protects LGBTQ people from discrimination or harassment. 
One reason for this can be found in the confused legal legacy of a long history of foreign occupations. In the Jordanian-controlled West Bank same-sex acts were decriminalised as early as 1951 and remain so until today. Gaza on the other hand inherited the above mentioned British “sodomy law” that outlaws same-sex acts between men. The Palestinian Authority in turn has neither legislated for or against homosexuality and consequently are same-sex marriages, civil unions or domestic partnerships not given legal recognition in the Palestinian territories.

In summary, both the Israeli Jewish and the Palestinian LGBTQ communities still have a long way to go to achieve full recognition and equal rights in their respective societies. While from a legislative point of view the Israeli community does have a more advantageous position, Palestinian LGBTQs carry the double burden of also having to struggle for the recognition of their national or ethnic identity and for their self-determination as a whole. 
Rather than demonising and generalising over Muslim societies for their supposed lack of openness, it should be our task to support those people who are striving to improve their situation. Rather than talking and writing about LGBTQs of colour or of non-Western backgrounds, we should listen to their voices to understand what their specific challanges are.


1 LGBTQ is the recognised initialism that collectively refers to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer and/or questioning community.

2 Note that just as in most other countries, including supposedly democratic states, the rights of Israeli trans- and intersex persons are far from being fully acknowleged or safeguarded.

3 It should be noted that this survey only refers to gay male travellers.

4 The most severe attack happened in 2005, when an Orthodox Jew stabbed three participants of the parade and moderately wounded them. He was subsequently charged with attempted murder and sentenced to a 12 years prison term.


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