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Israeli Ambassador to U.S. Applauds Country’s LGBT Rights Record

by Michael K. Lavers
National News Editor
Monday May 14, 2012
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Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren stressed during a speech at Equality Forum’s annual dinner in Philadelphia on May 5 that the Jewish State remains at the forefront of the global struggle for LGBT rights.

"Israel’s LGBT community is part of the fabric of Israel’s diverse and vibrant society," he said at the National American Museum of Jewish History. "Together we are soldiers, we are professors, we are legislators, we are jurors, factory workers, health care workers and we are educators. Together we are not gay or straight or bi or transgender, but merely, proudly Israelis."

Oren opened his speech with references to a gay senior Israeli diplomat in a European capital who received full spousal benefits from his government, two soldiers whom the Israeli Defense Force court-martialed after they taunted a fellow servicemember because of her sexual orientation and support of Jerusalem Pride in spite of strong opposition from the city’s rabbis, priests and imams. He also noted that more than 100,000 people attended Tel Aviv’s annual Pride celebration last year.

"None of these torches of LGBT rights in Israel could have been possible without the energy and courage of generations of activists in Israel," said Oren.

The IDF has allowed openly gay and lesbian servicemembers since 1993. While gays and lesbians cannot legally marry in Israel, the Jewish state does recognize same-sex marriages that are legally performed in other countries. The country does allow gay and lesbian Israelis to sponsor their foreign-born partners for residency permits.

The Israeli government’s legal adviser in 208 ruled that "partner" in the country’s adoption law includes same-sex partners.

In spite of these advances, some have accused the Israeli government of promoting its record on LGBT rights as a way to deflect attention away from criticism over the treatment of Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Protestors Criticize Israel for "Pinkwashing" Human Rights Record
A group of protesters interrupted a panel that Israeli-born Mazzoni Center executive director Nurit Shein moderated on May 3. A heckler who identified himself as a queer Israeli interrupted Oren’s speech at the museum.

"Israel is a country that only offers equality to chosen group of Jewish Israelis with no regard whatsoever to Palestinians, regardless of their sexual orientation," shouted the man as security personnel escorted him from the ballroom. "No Palestinian-LGBT or otherwise-enjoy any equality in Israel."

Oren dismissed claims during his speech and in an interview with EDGE that his government has "pinkwashed" its human rights record. He said that Israel’s National LGBT Task Force receives roughly 3,000 "distress calls" from across the Middle East each month. Oren said that two Palestinian LGBT rights organizations now operate in Israel because he said they cannot operate in Israel.

"Throughout the period when Palestinian suicide bombers were blowing up our buses and restaurants, when thousands of rockets were raining down on our cities, we still provided shelter for Palestinian gays who needed shelter because their own communities in the West Bank or Gaza made their lives impossible," he told EDGE, referring to the two Palestinian LGBT rights groups. "These organizations themselves know that Israel is a pioneer in LGBT rights and has nothing to do with the Palestinian situation."

Oren conceded that bullying and full relationship recognition of same-sex couples remain issues on which his government continues to work. He stressed to EDGE, however, he remains proud of what he described as Israel’s embrace of its LGBT citizens, allies and neighbors.

"Israel proves you can respect tradition and at the same time acknowledge modernity and work to reconcile the two," he said. "They can coexist."

Based in Washington, D.C., Michael K. Lavers has appeared in the New York Times, BBC, WNYC, Huffington Post, Village Voice, Advocate and other mainstream and LGBT media outlets. He is an unapologetic political junkie who thoroughly enjoys living inside the Beltway.

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