LGBT Israeli festival draws protests
by Matthew S. Bajko
It is meant as a showcase for LGBT artists from Israel and as a way to strengthen understanding between the Bay Area's LGBT community and the Jewish state.
The country's LGBT luminaries slated to take part in the monthlong Out in Israel LGBT Culture Festival sponsored by the Consulate General of Israel to the Pacific Northwest include folk singer Yael Deckelbaum; food critic and television star Gil Hovav; and author Yossi Avni-Levy.
It is believed to be the first time another country has produced an LGBT culture festival anywhere in the United States.
"Certainly, many LGBT Jews in America don't know a lot about Israel. They may not be connected to Israel," said Akiva Tor, Israel's consul general whose office is located in downtown San Francisco. "I would say it is not only for LGBT Jews. And I don't see it as purely LGBT. These are Israeli films and plays that are popular for everyone."
But the series of movie screenings, cooking demonstrations, theater performances, and discussions about Zionism and gay rights in the Israeli Army is also drawing protests from critics who see it more as a propaganda tool to "pink wash" Israel's actions in the ongoing conflict over the creation of a Palestinian state.
And it is not just pro-Palestinian groups who are giving organizers of the cultural event headaches. One person slated to be on a panel discussion tonight about queer perspectives on Zionism pulled out this week.
"I think it definitely is a hot potato," Tor told the Bay Area Reporter during an interview last week. "This conversation will address a kind of anomaly. On the one hand Israel is a very open, gay-friendly place. On the other hand a lot of anti-Israel feeling is centered in LGBT communities."
When he spoke before Congregation Sha'ar Zahav, the LGBT synagogue in the Castro, Tor said the reaction was decidedly mixed.
"On the one hand I was most warmly welcomed. But at the same time people got up and wouldn't listen to me," recalled Tor. "We need to talk this through."
Tor said he was unprepared when he took over the diplomatic post in 2009 to find himself under attack from local LGBT Jews.
"I do see it as a deep conundrum, why a significant portion of the LGBT community, and more important, significant portions of LGBT Jewish people, are radically opposed to Israel. It just doesn't make any sense to me on any level," said Tor. "I hope people who are reticent or critical about Israel will come with open ears."
Alex Ingersol, Congregation Sha'ar Zahav's president, said he hopes the festival offers a space for people to learn about Israel outside of the political discourse.
"At Sha'ar Zahav there is a range of political views. This allows us to engage with Israel without the politics, essentially without getting in to a political discussion," said Ingersol. "It is always easier, I think, to use cultural performers. Even if they have a political view, you can view it in a cultural context with a little more broader acceptance."
But not everyone is viewing the cultural festival in such a positive light. Demonstrators showed up for the opening night film screening at the Roxie last Thursday, April 8 and are planning to protest other events on the schedule.
They have not called for a formal boycott of the festival but do object to its one-sided perspective, noting there are no queer Palestinians taking part in the schedule of events.
[The consulate said it tried to invite LGBT Palestinians living in the Bay Area to take part in the festival. But Tor said they could locate only one person, who declined to participate.]
"Whether people go to it or not is less our concern than that people are not taken in by it. If people do go we want them to understand the context in which this is happening and raise issues about what Israel is trying to do, which is pink washing its war crimes," said Kate Raphael, founder of QUI
QUIT has backed a boycott of Israel since 2005 due to the deadlock on creating a Palestinian state and its contention that Israel is occupying Palestinian lands. Its members question Israel's commitment to LGBT and human rights, pointing to its being accused in a United Nations-commissioned report of committing war crimes during its military assault on Gaza in late 2008, early 2009.
The report accused both Israeli forces and Palestinian militants of war crimes and possible crimes against humanity. Both sides have contested the report's findings.
Detractors of Israel argue that the cultural festival is just another attempt at changing international opinions about the country.
"If I were a gay Palestinian, I would not find a warm welcome in Israel," said Mindy Spatt, an out lesbian and Jewish woman who lives in San Francisco. "It is really obvious from what I have been reading this is a conscious effort not just to market Israel for the sake of making money but for the sake of political cover. They are saying don't look at our policies in the occupied territories, look at these policies instead."
Spatt argues that the festival is just another ploy in Israel's PR-plan to sell itself as a progressive country by going after LGBT opinion-makers.
"Their PR consultants have told them the best way to do a makeover is to make yourself over as gay-friendly. Where better to do that than here?" asked Spatt. "The Israeli government doesn't seem prepared to change their policies. It seems to want to queer wash them. They know the international community has repeatedly condemned a lot of what they are doing."
The allegations that Israel is using the LGBT community in an attempt to remake itself puzzle Tor. He said part of his job is to market Israel as a place for American tourists to visit, especially LGBT people, and sees exposing them to Israeli culture as the best selling point.
"I don't see why it isn't possible for LGBT artists to come here to perform. It is just bizarre," said Tor. "I think the criticism of Israel is way, way over the top. We are not Serbs. We never behaved in the manner of Serbia. We are trying to make peace with our neighbors."
Openly gay Supervisor Bevan Dufty, who is Jewish and has twice visited Israel since taking public office, is hopeful that the festival will spark dialogue rather than mere confrontation.
"Like most Jews and most people in the world, I am concerned about the Middle East and finding a path to peace. I think people are discerning and it is appropriate to recognize Israeli LGBT culture and still acknowledge there may be differences around Israeli government policy that is separate from that," said Dufty. "As a Jew I am proud that LGBT individuals can serve in the military and that in many parts of Israel there is flourishing LGBT cultural expression. I think it is also important to note that Israel's LGBT community makes tremendous effort to be inclusive."
On his visits to LGBT agencies in Israel, Dufty said he saw a conscious effort on the leaders of those organizations to include Palestinian and other Arab LGBT people in their programs and services.
"Oftentimes Israel isn't given credit for the good things that are happening," said Dufty.
Tonight's panel discussion begins at 7 p.m. at the Roxie Theater, 3117 16th Street.
For information about other events, visit www.outinisraelsf.org.