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Some Thoughts on Queers Against Israeli Apartheid

By Ben Carr

On May 23, 2009 a group who call themselves “Queers against Israeli Apartheid” held an event in Toronto, co-sponsored by Salaam: Queer Muslim Communities and the Ontario Public Interest Research Group-Toronto.  According to their press release, the guest speakers drove home their message that there is “no pride in apartheid”. On a website promoting the event, the group claims that “Israel has now begun to frame itself as a tolerant, queer-positive democracy. This can never be reality under Occupation”. Attempts to reach the group by phone were made however in an email response they said no to an interview as their focus at the moment was on the gay and lesbian community in Toronto.

The fact that this group has chosen to identify itself as “Queers against Israeli apartheid” suggests it is taking issue not only with Israel’s “system of apartheid”, but with the treatment of gays under that system as well. Furthermore, the events calendar found on the website for the “Coalition against Israeli apartheid” reads the following: “Coming out against Israeli apartheid – 20 years of Queer resistance”. The ad goes on to invite people to “Join Queers against Israeli Apartheid…for an evening to reignite Toronto’s queer community in the fight against apartheid.”

This article would have been written regardless of what group sponsored the event. The issue is with the labeling of Israel as an apartheid state. The reason this article touches upon homosexual rights in the Middle-East is a result of this particular group’s decision to associate the fact that they are queer with the “struggle against Israeli apartheid” implying that there is a direct link between the two issues. If the two issues were not intertwined, the group would have no need to emphasize that they represent the queer community.
The labeling of Israel as an apartheid state is a tragic trend that has become all too familiar. The very word “apartheid” means “separateness”. Proponents of the “Israeli apartheid” movement have attempted to draw comparisons between the rights of blacks in South Africa under apartheid and the rights of Arabs in Israel today. Black rights were not defended by the system of apartheid in South Africa, they were trampled. Blacks under apartheid were not given an equal voice in South Africa’s elections; the same is not true concerning Israeli Arabs. Under apartheid, it was illegal to have sexual relations with someone of a different race; the same is not true concerning Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. Under apartheid, Blacks could not own or operate a business in designated “white only areas”; in Israel, Arabs are free to own and operate businesses in any Israeli city. Under apartheid in South Africa, homosexuality was punishable by up to seven years in prison; in Israel, no such laws exist.  In this context, separation would be having one set of rules for gays and another for non-gays.  Separation would be marginalizing members of a society based on their sexual orientation.
To learn more about “Queers against Israeli Apartheid”, I decided to send an email with a few questions. In response, (although no one identified themselves by name) I was told that the group works to “foster a culture of radical queer organizing”. Utter disdain for Israel has begun to blind the ability for some to look at this issue rationally. These self-admitted radicals have certainly lost that ability. If Israel is not a “tolerant, queer-positive democracy” as this group claims then how should we interpret the following? In Israel, if you are openly gay, you can serve in the military. In Israel, a homosexual couple is permitted to have a child through artificial insemination – in fact, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s daughter is a lesbian whose partner had a child this very way. In Israel, it is not illegal to be a homosexual. In fact, there is no other country in the Middle-East that comes close to protecting homosexual rights the way Israel does. In Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Oman, just to name a few, it is illegal to commit “homosexual acts”. In Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere in the region, it is a crime that is punishable by death. In other instances, those found guilty of such a “crime”, are sentenced to years in prison and are often tortured and beaten. In Gaza, male homosexuality is illegal and many gay Gazan’s have reportedly sought refuge in Israel where it is not illegal for them to be themselves. These are examples of the marginalization, or separation, of a minority group within society.

  In Israel, gay pride parades are common in many of the major cities. Not only is it legal in Israel to be gay, but you can celebrate it in the streets. Imagine the consequences of such a public display in Saudi Arabia or even Gaza. Gays and Lesbians have been fighting for equal rights in countries around the world for years. In Israel, when those rights have been challenged, the legal system, as it should be in properly functioning democracies, defends them. Take for example an issue in Jerusalem last year when right-wing religious groups and even the Mayor of Jerusalem  sent petitions to the High Court of Justice in an attempt to block a gay pride parade in the nation`s capital. The Court rejected the demands and the parade went on as scheduled. There is no separation to be found here, yet there are still some who insist that Israel is an apartheid state.

It is time that these groups put an end to their ideological attacks on Israel. As I and many others have said before, time and again, it is perfectly reasonable to criticize the state of Israel. One can disagree with its policies on a wide array of issues. Let’s be clear: just because a homosexual’s rights are better protected in Israel, does not mean that they should be restricted from criticizing Israel on any number of policies. Accusing Israel of being an apartheid state however, makes little sense, particularly coming from a group who are separated, by law, in almost every country in the Middle-East as a result of their sexual orientation. There is no question that Israel has lots of work to do in improving the standard of living for its Arab citizens. There is no question that there needs to be further advancement in efforts concerning Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, but Israel is not an apartheid state. Proof of this can be found in examining the rights that Arabs, homosexuals and other minorities hold in Israel today. When groups like “Queers against Israeli Apartheid” single out a country whose laws and institutions protect its citizens better than any other state in the region; they are doing a disservice to themselves and the very causes they seek to defend.

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