A recent New York Times article on LGBT rights in the Middle East praised Lebanon, yet completely neglected Israel. Bay Area Mizrahi leader Rachel Wahba takes the Times to task.
Seriously? Lebanon, not Israel, is the only country in the Middle East and North Africa with gay rights? What’s going on?
Is this a basic geographical ignorance or a deeper unconscious bias, when the New York Times “forgets” that Israel is a Middle Eastern country by publishing an article declaring that Lebanon is the only country in the Middle East where gay people have (minimal) rights?
How does one forget or ignore Israel as a Middle Eastern country? According to which myth? Ben-Gurion might have initially wished for a mini-Europe, but wishing is not reality.
Over half of Israel’s Jewish population are Mizrahim (Jews from Arab lands), including my family. They were from Iraq and Egypt, and are now Israelis today. They have gay children marching in Tel Aviv pride, one of the biggest gay pride parades in the world.
When Arab Rage reached a peak with the advent of modern day Israel, my Iraqi and Egyptian families were among the displaced. Ancient Jewish communities with a 2,500 year old history were completely destroyed.
Fortunately, most Mizrahi Jews from all over the region, from Iraq to Egypt, got out alive in the expulsions of the 1950s and 60s. Yes, with PTSD, but alive, as pauperized “forgotten” refugees into Israel.
Rachel Wahba’s family in Baghdad, circa 1941, Source: https://www.rachelwahba.com/heritage
The early European leaders in modern day Israel may have wanted the country to be a bastion of European culture and Western modernity, but reality played out differently. My tribe, the Jews from Arab lands did not disappear, we were many in numbers and brought with us our colors, our Middle Eastern-ness. Arabic music and food, as well as everything about our cultures from every country in the region where we lived for thousands of years, erupted into Israel culture.
Bringing my lesbian partner into my family of origin was traumatic. For my Iraqi mother it was a horror “worse than the Farhud (the 1941 pogrom my mother witnessed in Baghdad). It was haram, a sin, for my father. But my parents like Israel, chose growth over stagnation. They expanded their hearts instead of throwing me off the roof. It was not an easy ride – we struggled, we grew, and we stayed a vibrant family. Just like Israel.
It may be seductive to imagine Israel as “European,” because it is a vibrant, growing, free country, with LGBT rights, unlike any other country in the Middle East on the books.
Israel is not only in the Middle East, it is a Middle Eastern country, full of Middle Eastern Jews and non- Jews. It is also the only country in the region where LGBT communities can march in one of the largest LGBT parades in the world. Yes it is, Blanche, it is. Israel is a Middle Eastern country. Go see.
Rachel Wahba is a writer, psychotherapist, and co-founder of Olivia Travel/Companies. An Iraqi -Egyptian Jew, born in India, she grew up stateless in Japan. Rachel is an alum of the A Wider Bridge/Olivia 2017 Women’s Mission to Israel.