LGBT Americans interested in learning more about building grassroots LGBT organizations in Jerusalem and throughout Israel came face-to-face with leaders of Jerusalem Openhouse at a private event last month in San Francisco.
An estimated 30 guests filled the living room at a Diamond Heights home to speak with Elinor Sidi, executive director, and Zachary “Zach” Cohen, development coordinator of JOH. JOH is a 15-year-old queer grassroots organization.
The discussion was sponsored by A Wider Bridge, an organization working to bring LGBT Israeli leaders and American queer Jews and non-Jews together to build relationships and create a better understanding of queer life in Israel.
Started as a social organization bringing Jerusalem’s LGBT community together, JOH has added on services such as rapid HIV testing and youth and anti-bullying programs, said Sidi and Cohen.
The organization might be best known for its work with the World Pride event in Jerusalem in 2006 that broke out in violence and its ongoing work creating a peaceful Pride event in Jerusalem.
Since 2006, the Jewish Orthodox community has been “toning down” its homophobic rhetoric, said Sidi.
“The protests against Pride created a difficult situation. Kids started asking questions, ‘Why are you doing this to the city?'” she said.
Orthodox leaders decided to strike a deal with LGBT leaders, Sidi said. The LGBT community doesn’t advertise or march in Orthodox neighborhoods, and the Orthodox leaders agree to keep the streets safe for the LGBT community and Pridegoers, said Sidi, who is embracing religion rather than fighting against it.
It seems to have worked. There has been a decrease in violence, she said, but she’s still unsure about the deal.
“Maybe we are not doing what we should have done,” she said. But the organization’s leaders “are obligated to the safety of our community.”
Beyond the headlines, the leadership continues to fight for its equal share of government funding and reaching out to marginalized communities, such as Orthodox and Palestinian queers.
Sidi clarified that while there is homophobia in Palestine, “it’s not like they are killing homosexuals all of the time.” Hate crimes against LGBT Palestinians do happen, but “it’s not as bad as people tend to think about it.”
Homosexuality isn’t illegal in the West Bank, one of the Palestinian territories, said Sidi, debunking some misinformation promulgated in the media. There is no asylum for LGBT Palestinians in Israel or anyone who is not Jewish, she added.
While JOH isn’t a formal political lobbying organization leaders often send individuals to keep tabs on politics, legislation, and to lobby on behalf of the LGBT community, due to their proximity to Knesset, Israel’s parliament, said Sidi.
Unlike gay-friendly Tel Aviv, where the government funds gay organizations allowing for robust staffing, JOH remains a grassroots organization. It is staffed by four full-time and four part-time employees and committed volunteers that keep the organization open daily. The organization continues to take the city to court to fund services, even after winning in the courts.
But Sidi remains upbeat.
“I just quickly want to say it’s a really happy story. I love this, how we changed Israel all together. Whatever you are doing in Jerusalem affects Israel and the Jewish world,” said Sidi. “I want to create a sustainable community, take place in public sphere, and try to create change on large scales.”
Cohen, who was born in the U.S. and found love in Israel, and Sidi are the types of LGBT Israeli leaders sponsored by A Wider Bridge. The organization has brought nearly 20 Israeli LGBT leaders to the San Francisco Bay Area and other major U.S. cities and taken a group of 20 LGBT American Jews and non-Jewish individuals on a tour of Israel, said Arthur Slepian, executive director.
“Many people came with a lot of concerns about Israel,” said Slepian, about guests on the first trip to Israel. “By the end of the trip many people said, ‘That back here in the U.S. it is black and white,'” but they left the journey seeing “how many shades of gray that need to be filled in and that’s precisely what we would hope they would see.”
Another trip to Israel is planned for October.
“We are helping people to see Israel in a different way and to relate to real Israelis and the lives of LGBT Israelis on the ground,” said Slepian, who has received positive responses from individuals who attend events.
Not everyone agrees. The organization, like others working with Israel, has come under criticism by pro-Palestinian activists accusing it of so-called pink washing, a targeted promotional campaign to improve Israel’s image in the gay community as a part of “Brand Israel.”
Public relations firms found that Israel ranked near the bottom of countries when it came to image and public perception on human rights records and other criteria, according to pro-Palestinian activists.
Pro-Palestinian protesters recently shut down a Wider Bridge event in Seattle.
“We are not trying to distract people or change people’s mind about the occupation,” said Slepian, pointing out that there are other interesting things to talk about than the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
He pointed out that many of the Israeli cultural leaders sponsored by the organization are often very critical of their government, “but that doesn’t mean that they don’t love their country.”