“Israel is the gender-neutral bathroom of my people”

By , February 22, 2012 3:14 pm

I recently spoke to a group of high school students at the synagogue I’d attended growing up, and where I had my Bar Mitzvah. The workshop went really well, and the students seemed receptive and open to what I was saying. I’m speaking next week to a group of seventh grade students, which should be fun, too.

After the workshop, I had a conversation with the friend of mine, Dinah, who runs the youth programming. We were discussing our queer identities, and how those do and don’t mesh with our Jewish identities. I brought up a conversation I’d had over the weekend, in which, while discussing Israel, someone Jewish (Sam) said, “Israel is the only place I’ve ever visited where I haven’t been a minority.”

Dinah agreed with Sam’s sentiment, and said one way she’s explained the importance of Israel to queer friends is in a context many queer people understand. As she put it, “Israel is the gender-neutral bathroom of my people.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about that concept, but I’m not sure it rings true for me.

I’ve waded into conversations about Israel before. About whether Israel is an apartheid state. (My answer: Maaaaaaybe? But I’m skeptical.) About the 1967 “borders” and how they came to be.  About how being unhappy with Israel makes me feel like a bad Jew. And I want to issue a few disclaimers before continuing with this post. First, I am not an expert on Israel. I’ve read (and reread) the Wikipedia entries about the history of Israel, Israeli-Palestinian relations, the UN partition plan for Palestine from 1947, and so on. But reading Wikipedia does not an expert make. Nor does going to Hebrew School or having a Bar Mitzvah. Second, I’ve never been to Israel. The people I know who have have done so through Birthright, not through growing up there or living there for an extended period of time. Finally, I identify as a cultural – but not really religious – Jew. Dunno if that’s relevant, but I wanted to clarify my background and identity.

With that out of the way…

What I love about the analogy Dinah used, between Israel and gender-neutral bathrooms, is how much it acknowledges the importance of having people ‘like you,’ people who understand you. The reason gender neutral bathrooms are so important is because they include people who aren’t identifying within a gender binary, are moving across genders, aren’t sure where they fit. They’re inclusive. And they’re a signal to queer folks and allies that an organization with gender neutral bathrooms probably ‘gets it,’ and has enough of an understanding of queer and gender theory to be supportive and active allies.

In that way, I see what she’s saying, and what Sam meant: It’s incredibly powerful to be surrounded by people like you, by allies, by people who share something of your history and culture and identity.

At the same time, the more I’ve thought about the analogy the more skeptical I’ve become.

First, gender neutral bathrooms are inclusive of everyone, regardless of whether or not they’re queer. Yes, they’re particularly significant to queer (and, more specifically, gender varient) populations. But not being trans doesn’t make a gender neutral bathroom any less useful or effective. Israel, on the other hand, describes itself in this way on the Israeli state website:

The Proclamation of the Establishment of the State of Israel, signed on 14 May 1948 by members of the National Council, representing the Jewish community in the country and the Zionist movement abroad, constitutes the nation’s credo. Included therein are the historical imperatives of Israel’s rebirth; the framework for a democratic Jewish state founded on liberty, justice, and peace, as envisaged by the biblical prophets; and a call for peaceful relations with the neighboring Arab states for the benefit of the entire region. (Emphasis added.)

I couldn’t find a comparable page operated by the US government describing the US, but please let me know if anyone finds something. Likewise, the Israeli national anthem, the Hatikvah, is:

As long as deep in the heart,
The soul of a Jew yearns,
And towards the East
An eye looks to Zion,
Our hope is not yet lost,
The hope of two thousand years,
To be a free people in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem.

I’m not pretending the US (or other Western countries) aren’t religious. I’d love to see US government become more secular. But it’s not (yet…) explicitly religious in the way Israel seems to be.

Second, and more broadly I’m hesitant to equate a particular LGBT organization or queer community with an entire nation. Sam was probably right when he said that Israel was his first experience being in the majority as a Jew. Likewise, my experience at the DC conference last year was my first experience being in the majority as someone who is trans. But that doesn’t mean there should be a queer nation. Putting my cards on the table, I don’t like religiously structured governments. Period. Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, whatever. I’m absolutely fine with ethnic/religious/identity groups banding together and creating community atmospheres, but I think expanding that into government leads to hierarchy of citizenship and – ultimately – to bigotry.

So I don’t think Israel is a gender-neutral bathroom. I understand its importance to certain people within the larger Jewish community, but I’m skeptical that its importance is – in the long term – healthy for Jewish identity.

But then, I’m an assimilationist and I would say that, wouldn’t I?

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