Israel announced on Tuesday that it will now allow gay and lesbian Jews to immigrate to the country with their non-Jewish same-sex spouses and then gain citizenship. In an apparently groundbreaking decision, Interior Minister Gideon Sa'ar (of the conservative Likud party) instructed immigration authorities to no longer differentiate between gay and straight married couples, granting them the same rights under the Law of Return.
"The gates of Israel will be opened before every Jew and his family without discriminating against his lifestyle," Sa'ar stated and, while I'm not sure that most queer people will be thrilled to see their sexual orientation labeled as a "lifestyle," this is an interesting decision for several reasons.
First to the basics: Under the Israeli Law of Return, Jews from anywhere in the world are entitled to Israeli citizenship, and a 1970 amendment extended this right to non-Jewish spouses, children, and grandchildren.
Until recently this right only applied to heterosexual couples, but the new directive means that a spouse of a gay or lesbian Jew will now also automatically be entitled to Israeli citizenship.
'I do not see a distinction between Jews in heterosexual marriage and those who wed in same-sex marriages abroad in accordance with the law.'
In a letter to the immigration authorities, Sa'ar wrote: "I do not see a distinction between Jews in heterosexual marriage and those who wed in same-sex marriages abroad in accordance with the law. Both fulfill the purpose of the Law of Return according to the principle that 'the children will return to their land.'"
There have already been a few cases in which same-sex couples legally married abroad immigrated to Israel under the Law of Return. In 2011, two US citizens who married in Canada — Bayardo Alvarez, who is not Jewish, and Joshua Goldberg, who is — applied for citizenship. After they threatened to sue the ministry, this was finally granted to Alvarez nearly eight months after he applied.
However, the Israeli government stressed that this was an individual case and didn't mean they it would alter its policy. This has now changed. This sounds like it's a great development for egalitarianism and anti-discrimination. But is it really?
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Israel can be regarded (and likes to regard itself) as a haven for LGBTQ in the Middle East. Compared to neighboring countries it grants its queer citizens a remarkable amount of freedom and rights. Queer Israelis serve in the military, are members of parliament, and queer couples are granted the same legal recognition as same-sex couples in financial and other business matters.
Israel doesn't grant its citizens the right to same-sex marriages — a bill that would have allowed same-sex couples to have civil unions was struck down in 2013 — but it does recognize marriages that have been legally performed elsewhere. And while Israeli society as a whole is not particularly accepting of homosexuality (a 2013 study by the Pew Research Center showed that 47 percent of Israelis believe that it shouldn't be accepted), Tel Aviv is considered to be one of the most liberal cities and the gay capital of the Middle East — with a huge LGBT community shaping the scene. The city is one of the prime destinations for queer visitors from all over the world and Israel actively uses this image to attract gay tourists.
Yet critics claim that all this is part of a larger PR campaign, with Israel trying to use LGBT rights as "pinkwashing," a term that gathered traction after a 2010 Guardian article by queer theorist Jasbir Puar decrying "Israel's gay propaganda war." A 2011 piece by queer activist Sarah Schulman in the New York Times used the same arguments and the City University of New York held an entire conference on the subject last year.
'Following this logic every positive statement about the state of Israel could be condemned as a cover-up to gloss over the conflict with the Palestinians.'
While it can be valid to criticize Israel's behavior in its conflict with Palestine, the question remains whether it's a good idea to connect the treatment of Palestinians with the rights of LGBTQ people living in Israel — or weigh up one against the other. As Austrian newspaper Der Standard has noted: "Following this logic every positive statement about the state of Israel could be condemned as a cover-up to gloss over the conflict with the Palestinians."
This kind of black and white view of the situation is not only reductionist. It also runs the risk of being anti-Semitic, as Alan Dershowitz remarked in the New York Post. The insinuation that every decision of the Israeli state is part of an elaborate and orchestrated plan to make the country look better on the international stage — that there must be a malevolent motive or a hidden agenda behind it — is brushing dangerously close to the idea of a "Jewish World Conspiracy," a classic staple of anti-Semitism.
Yotam Gonen, a queer activist and one of the founders of Black Laundry, an Israeli LGBTQ group founded after the Second Intifada and now disbanded, points to another problematic point with this development. Gonen believes the problem with the decision isn't so much pinkwashing, it's that this is a continuation of the inherent racism and nationalism already implied in the Law of Return.
"In my opinion, it's not a very impressive gesture," she told VICE News. "The minister is now trying to appeal to gays and lesbians in order to encourage Jewish immigration to Israel under a law whose sole purpose is to create two separate systems of immigration and citizenship, on the basis of religion or nationality, and under which Palestinian citizens or African refugees are an inferior group and are certainly not entitled to bring their spouses to Israel, straight or gay."
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Hence, Gonen said, this "liberal" gesture is being used to continue a flawed immigration policy that has been in effect in Israel for many years. She also points out that while this directive is "great news for the few to whom it will apply," it is primarily intended for gay and lesbian Jews from Western Europe or North America.
Liad Hussein Kantorowicz, an LGBTQ rights activist who has spent many years organizing in Tel Aviv, sees the decision as deeply inconsistent for yet another reason. "There is something very contradictory about the Israeli State giving citizenship to people who come from Western countries with a recognized marriage when it as a country doesn't allow gay marriage," she told VICE News.
"In the past there have been several cases where mixed couples of Jews and non-Jews in Israel had huge problem because of this. So it's clear how the Israeli state is using this to manipulate the discourse internationally — particularly the discourse that ties any sort of pro-gay leanings with any sort of Western enlightened ideology."
'It's absolutely ridiculous that non-Jewish people from abroad can now live in Israel based on their gay partnerships whereas straight people in Israel don't have such rights — even if they were born in this country.'
Hussein Kantorowicz also backs up the point that this decision is more about keeping an unjust system in place than about creating more equality: "If you are Palestinian living in Israel and you have an Israeli ID, you can absolutely not marry any Palestinian living in the West Bank or in Gaza without an ID, your partnership will not be recognized and you will not be allowed to live together — because you are not Jewish. So it's absolutely ridiculous that non-Jewish people from abroad can now live in Israel based on their gay partnerships whereas straight people in Israel don't have such rights — even if they were born in this country."
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