Building an Inclusive Israeli Society

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This mission, which took over 100 lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer Jews and allies throughout the country, was an eye-opening look at the complexities of Israel.

The following is a personal account from Warren Hoffman, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Associate Director for Jewish Life and Learning, who coordinated Philadelphia’s participation in the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) National LGBTQ Mission to Israel last week.
Lunch at the residence of Israeli president Reuven Rivlin. A private concert with gay Israeli pop star Ivri Lider. An afternoon at an Arab employment agency. Marching down Bograshov Street with thousands of people for Tel Aviv Pride. These were just some of the many extraordinary experiences that I and four of my fellow Philadelphians — Harry Wachstein, Albert Ziobro, and newlyweds David Gold and James Yiaski — enjoyed  last week while part of JFNA’s LGBTQ leadership mission to Israel. This mission, which took over 100 lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer Jews and allies throughout the country, was an eye-opening look at the complexities of Israel. It showed us parts of Israeli society I had personally never witnessed, as well as the impact that Jewish Federations, including our local Jewish Federation, are having in this region.
The major impetus of the trip was to understand first-hand LGBTQ life in Israel, looking at both the victories and the challenges that remain for this community. While Israel is the only place in the Middle East where LGBTQ individuals can live with such freedom and openness, there are still struggles. Gay marriage is not yet a possibility, as Israel does not allow any Jew, gay or straight, to marry outside of an Orthodox rabbinical system. JFNA has started a program called iRep that is working to bring civil unions to Israel, not just for LGBTQ citizens, but for straight couples as well who do not want to be married by the rabbinic authorities. And while gay men have risen to positions of celebrity and influence in Israeli society (we met with notable leading figures, including an “out” member of the Knesset and a radio talk show host), lesbians and members of the transgender community still struggle for an equal place at the table. The transgender community in particular suffers from a significant lack of financial and social service resources that continues to impede their full inclusion.
In learning about LGBTQ life in Israel, though, it soon became apparent that such issues are part of a much larger conversation and struggle around diversity and inclusion. Is Israel a Jewish state or is it a pluralistic state (or is it both, and is that possible given the racial, ethnic and religious tensions that fuel the region)?
Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of our trip was the site visits we made to a variety of social service agencies in Israel that are funded by JFNA. While it is pretty obvious that Jewish Federations help the Jewish community, many of us were excited to see with our own eyes that JFNA funding helps all the citizens of the country, Jew and non-Jew alike. We visited the American Jewish Joint Distribution Commitee’s Arab Employment Program Center, which helps Arabs find work in Israel, as they are often at a disadvantage compared with their Jewish counterparts. And while many people know that Israel is a land of startups and cutting-edge technology, it was rewarding to visit two agencies in the predominantly Arab-populated city of Nazareth to see a JFNA-supported Social Venture Fund that connects Arabs and Jews with new high-tech projects, as well as [email protected] (funded by the Jewish Agency for Israel) where Arab and Jewish youth work together on computer-related projects. The nightly news might make it seem like Israel is nothing but a hotbed of war and in-fighting, but what is often not seen are the many ways in which Jews and Arabs are finding new ways of living and working together.
Finally, our local contingent made a special stop in our partner city of Netivot, which is close to the Gaza Strip. Despite the ongoing dangers of living in this “hot zone,” Netivot has become a model city in the Negev. From supporting new high-tech projects to art galleries to fitness engagement for the entire city, our Jewish Federation’s financial contributions through our Partnership2Gether alliance have made a significant impact on this rapidly growing city.
In addition to making new friends and meeting colleagues from across the U.S. on this once-in-a-lifetime mission, looking at Israel through an LGBTQ lens made me and others realize how we must continue to fight for the inclusion of all Israelis, regardless of background, belief, culture, gender or sexual identity. Only then, when everyone’s identities are fully acknowledged, will Israel be shalem (whole) and true shalom (peace) be attained.

 

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