Last Tuesday the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the City of Jerusalem had engaged in impermissible discrimination in its ongoing refusal to fund the City’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community center, Open House. Year after year, the City had refused funding requests from Open House, and the Court ruled that “The history of the relationship between the sides reveals that the appellant’s hand reaching out for support has met time and time again with the miserly hand of the municipality … We cannot but express hope that the municipality will not behave stingily again and that the sides can shake hands without further involving the court.”
Ynet News has the story, and the opinion is available here, but only in Hebrew at the moment. An English translation should appear soon, but Google Translate will give you a rough sense of the justices’ reasoning.
It’s great that the Israeli Supreme Court feels a strong commitment to eradicating acts of discrimination against LGBT individuals and organizations. That’s more than we can say of the Supreme Court of the United States, quite frankly. Who among us isn’t concerned about how the U.S. high court will handle the same-sex marriage and “don’t ask, don’t tell” cases that are careening their way?
But must the recognition of the equality rights of one community come at the expense of another? Apparently so, according to the Israeli Supreme Court. In an unfortunate part of Justice Isaac Amit’s opinion in the case, he wrote (paragraph 55), that equal and respectful treatment of the gay community was one of the criteria for a democratic state, and that this is what separates Israel from “most of the Mideast states near and far, in which members of the gay community are persecuted by the government and society.” Justice Amit then mentioned Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech at Columbia two years ago in which he claimed that there were no homosexuals in Iran. This claim by the Iranian President served as evidence, in Justice Amit’s view, of Israel’s comparative tolerance, modernity, and morality.
So what’s wrong with this observation on Justice Amit’s part? Well, it has to be viewed in light of recent efforts by the Israeli government to rebrand itself in a self-conscious and well-funded campaign termed alternately “Brand Israel” and “Israel Beyond the Conflict.” According to the Israeli government – whether Labor, Kadima or Likud – a modern, democratic, and tolerant state should respond with empathy and outrage when “their homosexuals” are discriminated against or attacked. As Justice Amit claimed, this is what distinguishes a state such as Israel from, for instance, its Muslim and Arab neighbors. Various pro-Israel advocates, including the Israeli government, have seen a strategic advantage in comparing Israel’s tolerance of gay people with intolerance toward gays in neighboring countries. Not too long ago, the Israeli Foreign Ministry, concerned that the international community held an unfairly negative view of Israel, launched an extensive public relations campaign, as then-Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni put it, “to make people like us.” Other Israeli diplomats were explicit about the role for gay and lesbian rights in this strategy: “Ministry officials view gay culture as the entryway to the liberal culture because, as he put it, gay culture is the culture that creates “a buzz.” Naomi Klein, in an interview, laid it out plain and simple: “the state of Israel has an open strategy of enlisting gay and lesbian rights and feminism into the conflict, pitting Hamas’s fundamentalism against Israel’s supposed enlightened liberalism as another justification for collective punishment of Palestinians.”
Unpopularity was not the Foreign Ministry’s only worry. Concerned that the international community was wavering in its hard line stance toward Iran’s growing nuclear capability, it allocated roughly $2 million to a new campaign to discredit Iran by specifically highlighting its mistreatment of lesbians and gay men. Similarly, StandWithUs, a pro-Israeli advocacy organization based in Los Angeles, echoing Justice Amit, has explicitly pursued a strategy of responding to criticism of Operation Cast Lead (the invasion of Gaza in December 2008) by emphasizing how well lesbian and gay people are treated in Israel. “We decided to improve Israel’s image through the gay community in Israel” said an official with StandWithUs to the Jerusalem Post. “We’re hoping to show that Israel is a liberal country, a multicultural, pluralistic country…That is a side of Israel we are very proud of and that we think should be shown around the world… As far as a lot of people are concerned, Israel is Gaza and the West Bank and tanks, and they don’t see the beautiful culture and the liberal side.” Other bloggers similarly saw an opportunity to blunt international criticism of Operation Cast Lead by pointing to Hamas’ intolerance toward gay men as a justification for the Israeli military action. Back in the U.S., StandWithUs circulated a flyer on college campuses in which it compares Israeli, Egyptian, Jordanian, Palestinian, Iranian, Lebanese and other Middle Eastern states’ policies on “sexual freedom” and concludes that Israel is the “only country in the Middle East that supports gay rights.”
(Justice Amit, portrayed as a progressive liberal in the media coverage of this case, ruled this summer that the easing of the Israeli blockade of Gaza did not apply to Fatima Sharif, a 29-year-old lawyer from Gaza who sought permission to travel out of Gaza to Bir Zeit University to study for an master’s degree in human rights and democracy.)
It is worth noting why, how and to what effect a state’s posture with respect to the rights of “its” homosexuals has become an effective foreign policy tool, often when negotiating things that have little or nothing to do with homosexuality. The “win” in the Open House case should be celebrated, but celebrated critically, in so far as the rights of the lgbt community have been conscripted in a much larger state campaign to drum up support for a military attack on Iran. A victory for gay rights, isn’t a victory for gay rights, isn’t a victory for gay rights. We need to remain attentive to how and at what price these rights are secured, and how the rights claims of the lgbt community are being appropriated for other purposes. Marriage rights in the U.S. should not be secured for same-sex couples at the expense of a viable life for those who choose not to marry, and civil rights for lgbt organizations should not be recognized in Israeli at the expense of Palestinians and other Arabs/Muslims, or as part of a larger state-based campaign to justify military action elsewhere. Many progressive Israelis get this, but the pro-homo rights community in the rest of the world may not, and it ought to take notice.
(Some of this post is drawn from an essay, Ahmadinejad Comes To Columbia: The Perils Of Standing Up For The Gays, on which I am working that examines the ways in which “gay rights” are conscripted in the name of and in furtherance of other state interests that have little or nothing to do with sexual freedom.)