For American Zionist LGBTQ group, Israel’s right-wing government has created an urgent crisis

Published first in JTA

The annual gala of A Wider Bridge, a Jewish LGBTQ group, had all the trappings of a festive event: Guests arrived in cocktail attire finery — one woman wore a tiered, ruffled rainbow dress — to enjoy salad, rice, chicken, an assortment of desserts and schmoozing — and to celebrate the achievements of four activists.

But even though it was the group’s first in-person gala since before the COVID-19 pandemic, the mood on Monday night wasn’t entirely celebratory. Throughout the speeches and sideline conversations was the sense that A Wider Bridge — which advocates for the LGBTQ community in Israel, and for Israel in the U.S. LGBTQ community — was entering a new and uncertain era.

“For Israeli LGBTQ, the ground has shifted beneath their feet,” the group’s executive director, Ethan Felson, said in a speech to the crowd of about 200 attendees. Citing LGBTQ activists in Israel, he added, “Calls to crisis hotlines are up. Incidents of emotional and physical violence are up in Israel against the LGBTQ community. … You can imagine the challenges the trans community is facing — a full assault on their rights and on their lives.”

The crisis Felson depicted has materialized under a new Israeli government that includes vocal anti-LGBTQ officials in senior positions, whose signature legislation to reform the judiciary threatens the set of LGBTQ rights that Israel has long pointed to as evidence of its open society.



That new reality has complicated the work of A Wider Bridge both in the United States and Israel, and interspersed in the night’s program — speeches celebrating four honorees, some stand up comedy from Jewish comedian Judy Gold, and even a recorded video from Vice President Kamala Harris — was an acknowledgement of the challenges facing LGBTQ rights in Israel. It has also caused the group to double its donations to Israeli LGBTQ groups this year.

“I’ve been in this work for 35 years, and through very complex times, I’ve never felt a greater sense of urgency,” Felson told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency at the event. “The urgency of this moment overshadows everything I’ve certainly done in my career.”

The gala, which took place in an event space lined with golden pillars whose arched windows overlooked Manhattan’s Union Square, occurred at the same time that Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich visited the Hasidic community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Smotrich has called himself a “proud homophobe” and sits in Israel’s governing coalition alongside Avi Maoz, who heads the anti-LGBTQ party Noam. The coalition also includes haredi Orthodox parties that have long opposed LGBTQ rights.