Between June 12-21 I took my first trip to Israel in 25 years. I was fortunate to be invited to join the tour of A Wider Bridge,a North American organization working through education, advocacy, relationship-building and grant-making to create equality in Israel by expanding LGBT inclusion in Israel, and equality for Israel by cultivating constructive engagement with Israel.
AWB does this by bringing LGBTA activists to Israel, both Jews and non-Jews. They also sponsor trips to the U.S. by LGBT activists from Israel, so that there is a mutual increase of understanding of the lived experience of both communities.
The last time I was in Israel there was no concept of a traffic jam. There weren’t enough cars and few major roads. Most of the buildings had been built in the 1920s, and food and housing were affordable. There were no separation walls, and even Jewish visitors to the Dome of the Rock could walk up the dirt path and tour the mosque, even being permitted to climb down the circular stair and touch the actual stone. There was a small but strong underground LGBT community, mostly meeting in each other’s homes.
Today Israel smells like roasted coffee beans and roasted sesame seeds. Even the enormous amount of development and new construction, new roads and fleets of cars can overwhelm this essential tam(taste, flavor) of the country. There is a wide diversity of folks on the streets, and who you will tend to see will depend on whether you are in the major cities of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, or Haifa, where you will see the secular and modern, or traditionally religious, or a wide mix, respectfully. Tel Aviv is Israel’s most cosmopolitan city and the most welcoming for LGBT people. The annual Pride Festival drew over 200,000 celebrants, a very public announcement that LGBT people live, work and play publicly and proudly in this seaside city that has evolved into one of the major international destinations for LGBT visitors.
I came away from my trip with two major impressions. The first was how LGBT Israelis refer to themselves as the “proud” community. They do this as a way of being inclusive of the wide range of gender identities and the general fluidity of sexual attraction that cannot easily be contained or represented by the latest iteration of LGBTQIA+. I experienced this kind of pride with the wise and brave individuals who shared their life experiences with me on this trip. We were Jewish and not Jewish, Christian, secular, cis and transgender, people of color, Hispanic, white, Zionist, non-Zionist, and those who were still deciding. Every day we shared our impressions of our visits to LGBT institutions and discussions with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. We all agreed that the Pride Parade was extraordinary, that we could feel the power of the living history of the Old City and the holy places such as the Kotel and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
The other was our visit to Ramallah and the Al Amari refugee camp. It was this visit that made clear we were not in agreement on how we understood the situation between the Israelis and Palestinians. You can see from the picture of the entrance to the refugee camp that there are no bars or gates, or police. Anyone can come and go freely. Anyone who lives there is given a subsidy to cover regular living costs, including rent and utilities. Still, it is not a pleasant place, with scattered garbage and a lack of even simple adornments of flowerpots on windowsills. The ride from Jerusalem to the airport took us on Highway 60, a new road that goes through Israel and the territories. There are places where it is lined with walls, built like the other walls to stop cars and people from being shot at or rammed. Even understood as necessary, the walls are heartbreaking.
I know that there is little agreement on how to solve the current crisis between the Israelis and Palestinians. I also know that Israel is and has been the intersection of the three Abrahamic religions and figures more in history than almost any other place in the world. Amazing and miraculous events are centered here in Jewish, Christian, and Moslem theology, which live in our imaginations alongside the images of daily life. If it will take a miracle to solve this problem, then this place with its history of miracles is where it will occur.