Representatives of the forty-year-old Israeli national LGBT taskforce the Aguda returned to Chicago in February alongside leaders of A Wider Bridgea U.S.-based organization with the mission of creating understanding, connections, education and experience between Israelis and LGBTQ communities and their allies across the United States.
At a Feb. 13 roundtable discussion and breakfast held at the Chicago offices of the Consulate General of Israel to the Midwest, consulate staff welcomed A Wider Bridge Founder/Executive Director Arthur Slepian alongside his director of programs and development, Tyler Gregory, and Aguda Co-Chair Chen Arieli, who discussed their work with a cross-section of Jewish and LGBT community leaders including representatives from the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, Temple Sholom, Northwestern University and the Bungalow Group.
"When the Aguda was established it was illegal to be gay in Israel," Arieli said. "A lot has changed in forty years. We are looking forward to tolerance and acceptance of the LGBTQ community in Israel."
She added that the principal fight of the organization is one of recognition. "Every single right that I have as a Jewish lesbian woman I got by the Supreme Court or through personal fights," she said. "For the next 40 years, the Aguda [will fight] to establish once and for all for LGBT rights to be written in the [Israel] Book of Laws."
The organization's activities have been centered around each of the many issues facing the Israeli LGBTQ community even after the 1988 repeal of anti-homosexuality laws inherited from the British legal system when the country was founded forty years earlier.
The Hoshen ( Education and Change ) organization was initially started as a small group inside of The Aguda through which LGBT individuals travelled to Israel's schools to tell personal stories in order to combat pervasive stereotypes about the community. Now it has taken on a life of its own, growing exponentially with each year.
"We want to encourage entrepreneurs inside the community and to help them stand on their own two feet," Arieli said. "We have an LGBTQ youth organization called IGY [Israel Gay Youth] that have 80 groups around Israel and the Gila Project promotes transgender rights [and empowerment]all these activities happen under the Aguda roof. Now we are going to concentrate on advocacy and lobbying for our needs and rights at the Knesset [Israeli legislature]. A year ago we established an LGBT community lobby group who meet with Knesset members and ministers demanding our rights and suggesting partnership in writing and promoting those bills."
To help explain the kind of challenges LGBT people in Israel face, Arieli told the story of a gay couple who had married abroad and were seeking a divorce. "There is no civil marriage," she said. "If you want to get divorced you have to go through the Rabbinical system. So we have zero gay marriage and one gay divorce. We have to fight to separate state from religion. It's not just an LGBTQ fight, it a human rights fight. We should be granted the choice to live [a good] life. My belief is that as a minority fighting for our civil rights we have the responsibility to fight for other minorities as well."
For five years, A Wider Bridge which is now based in both San Francisco and New York has been engaged in its own fight to change perceptionsironically those held by members of the LGBTQ community in the United States towards the policies of Israel itself. "It started with three observations about the LGBT and Jewish worlds that I was a part of," Slepian recalled. "One was that in the LGBT communities that I knew about Israel was a topic that we either didn't talk about or that we just argued about. The second was that in the broader LGBT world it had become almost a badge of honor to [believe] Israel is a pariah state. The third was that going to Israel I met people and communities of activists and artists doing amazing work. I thought 'why aren't we collaborating more?'"
A Wider Bridge has since engaged itself in a kind of cross-cultural exchange. "Every year we bring 20 or 25 [LGBT] people from the US to Israel," Slepian said. "We also bring people to the U.S. to speak and talk about their work whether they're LGBT activists, filmmakers or artists representing the community who can help people here with an understanding of what life is like in Israel."
On June 9, A Wider Bridge and the Aguda will host a conference for LGBTQ leaders from nations spanning the globe. The event will mark the Aguda's 40th anniversary and culminate in Israel's Pride celebrations.
There is no doubt that A Wider Bridge faces challenges in terms of smoothing the waters between U.S. LGBTQ communities and their concerns about Israel's foreign and domestic policies. In a 2011 New York Times Op Ed author and activist Sarah Schulman used the term "pinkwashing" to describe what she called "a deliberate strategy to conceal the continuing violations of Palestinians' human rights behind an image of modernity signified by Israeli gay life."
Windy City Times asked Arieli about her thoughts regarding the accusations leveled by the LGBT community against the policies of her country. "I'm a woman, I'm a lesbian, I'm Jewish, I'm white and I'm Israeli," Arieli said. "I have criticisms about my government and I am taking action to try to change it. I am not pinkwashing anything. My visit is not funded by the government. No one is telling me what to or what not to say and I will give my opinion at every opportunity I have."
Arieli added that her work both in the Aguda and her personal political endeavors are one and the same. "I am working towards bringing peace and equality for all," she said. "Israel must proceed with the peace process [with the Palestinians] because every human being is entitled to prosperity in the essentials of economics, health and education. The government are responsible for instigating those basic things if you are gay or if you are Palestinian. My personal belief is that the LGBTQ fight [in Israel] is a left-wing fight. We need to bring everyone together even if our political views are different."