Today I went to my first Israeli protest. Not a pro-Israel protest, but an actual protest inside Israel.
Recently, the Israeli government announced that it recommended to the Supreme Court that gay couples not be able to adopt. In twisted circular logic, they claimed it was because of the prejudice kids would face because of people who were anti-gay. Just like the current government and this very policy they’re promoting.
Needless to say, LGBT Israelis and allies were really pissed off. Including me, because I’m now one of those people. Thousands of people protested with colorful signs, shouting chants, and cheering with speakers who affirmed their identities and criticized Benjamin Netanyahu’s backward government.
One thing that was interesting was that, being from DC, the crowd seemed small to me. If I had to guesstimate, there were 5-10,000 people there maximum. I’ve been in many, many rallies in D.C. that were over 200,000 people- on issues ranging from immigrants rights to pro-Israel to gay rights and beyond. And I was at Obama’s first inauguration which had approximately 1.8 million attendees. So my perspective is influenced by my personal experiences at much larger rallies. That being said, Israel is a very small country compared to the U.S. (8.5 million vs. 323 million), so according to my Israeli friends, this was a sizeable protest. Always good to consider how someone who grew up here might view things to put it in a new light.
What was very clear was this crowd was fired up. People were angry and enthusiastic. And there was a real sense of community and common purpose. Their rally chants could be improved (some were really long and hard for people to follow)- but I feel confident that I can help with that. Rally chanting is one of my favorite things to do, as some of my protestor friends in D.C. know.
The crowd was fairly diverse too- you had people from several different youth movements and political parties (although not a single coalition-member party was represented, which is shameful). I was particularly proud that the rally was co-sponsored by the Reform Movement- my movement. Not a single other religious organization was represented. I was never prouder to be a Reform Jew. You had all the colors of the LGBT spectrum present- and mentioned quite clearly in the speeches. I’ve definitely been to some protests in the U.S. where the emphasis was quite clearly on the G in LGBT and not so much on the other letters. Not here- everyone was welcome.
After I started feeling tired and hungry, I went to meet a friend for a happy hour. There was this group of olim (new immigrants) and I started talking to one woman who was French. I was really excited because I love speaking French so we got to talking. She told me she was Modern Orthodox and that while people were more traditional in France, she preferred the more modern streams of Orthodoxy she had encountered in Israel. She saw a gay rights sticker on my shirt and asked what it was about. I explained that the government was against me adopting children because I was gay. And she had the gall to actually say, to my face, that she didn’t think gay couples should be allowed to adopt either. To put this in perspective, she was probably 25-30 years old, was finishing her Master’s thesis, and was looking for jobs in high tech. Not exactly the stereotypical profile of a bigot. But a bigot nonetheless.
She proceeded to tell me that actually she preferred gay couples to single people. She thought single people absolutely shouldn’t be able to adopt. She would rather a gay couple adopt than a single person. And, in her opinion, straight couples should get preference over both because that’s what’s best.
I was in utter shock. I thought Tel Aviv was this diverse, international, progressive Jewish paradise where people loved gays. The prejudiced people live in the “other Israel” (read: everywhere outside of Tel Aviv- the periphery, Jerusalem, etc.). And while there is a lot of truth to that (it’s an extremely gay city with a lot of progressive people and other parts of the country can be more conservative), there are also people who don’t fit that mold. There are clearly people in Tel Aviv who are bigots. There were also some Modern Orthodox people at the rally protesting for my rights (and in some cases, their own because they were gay themselves).
The point is Israel is not black and white. There are confusing gray spaces that require careful navigating. I thought I could count on a highly-educated young French Jew to support me and I was wrong. I also saw Orthodox people at this rally wearing yarmulkes.
Israelis like to tell me that life in Israel is “lo pashut” – not simple, not easy. Well no shit! Life isn’t easy in America either, which is part of why I’m here. We have our own insane politics, our expensive healthcare, our gun violence, our poverty. We have our issues too. And so does Israel. And one of them is gay rights. Israel is by far the most progressive country in the Middle East on gay rights and it also is not a place where I feel equal. It has a lot of work to do and I intend to be a part of the community that makes it happen. Join me, here or abroad, in fighting for my right to equality. I was part of the movement to pass marriage equality in America and I intend to win here too. “Yes we can” is not a dream- it’s a statement.