Israel, trans folks, marriage, and pinkwashing

By , January 21, 2013 12:39 pm

So Israel had its “first transgender wedding.” (I should note that it’s really the first public trans wedding that received news coverage. It’s entirely possible trans folks have gotten married in Israel before, but they didn’t invite a news crew to the wedding.) While the linked article, from the Times of Israel, has a few problematic phrasings, it’s generally positive. Huzzah for Arizona and for her new husband.

The comments, on the other hand, are less complimentary. One major exception, currently at the top of the comment thread, is worth nothing:

And here I thought we Jews were supposed to be a light unto all nations? Reading some of the hateful comments here, clearly the darkness of the rest of the world is descending upon us. As a proud Jew, married to a a male to female transsexual who converted to Judaism I am intensely proud that Israel is enlightened enough to have not only sanctioned this (Arizona’s) marriage, but showing the world, that love is what is most important. Stop acting Christian, people. it’s unbecoming of you.

Right on.

But for all the positive ways in which the article discusses Arizona’s marriage, it does not once mention marriage laws in Israel, let alone same-sex marriage laws in Israel. From Wikipedia:

Same-sex marriage cannot legally be performed in Israel. Under the confessional community system that operates in Israel, each of the recognised confessional communities regulates the personal status, including marriage and divorce, of its members. The religious authority for Jewish marriages is the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and there are parallel authorities for ChristiansMuslimsDruze and nine Christian authorities, with a total of 15 religious courts. These regulate all marriages and divorces for their own communities. Currently they all oppose same-sex marriages. If the views of one of these bodies were to change, however, it would be legal for members of that religious community to enter into same-sex marriages in Israel. The exception are foreign marriages, including same-sex marriages, which do not require the sanction of religious authorities and which are recognized in Israel. Same-sex marriages performed abroad can be registered in Israel, but this registration carries no legal effect.[1]

Notwithstanding the nonavailability of same-sex marriage in Israel, unmarried same-sex and heterosexual couples in Israel have equal access to nearly all of the rights of marriage in the form of unregistered cohabitation status, akin to common-law marriage.

Israel legitimately deserves its reputation as one of the most liberal countries (probably the most liberal country) in the Middle East and Asia when it comes to LGBT rights. I’m not arguing that point. But – if Israel is going to claim to be the only Western democracy in the Middle East - I think they should be held to a higher standard. Israel’s celebration of its not-shitty-but-not-perfect treatment of LGBT people remind me of Americans who say “Well, the US is so much freer than China!” (Or Russia, or North Korea, or Iran, or wherever.) Excuse me, but I’d rather compare myself to who I want to be, not lower the bar. I’d be skeptical of a friend who said “I know I’m not treating my partner very well, but at least I’m not abusive!” I’d rather Israel compare itself to Europe when it comes to same sex marriage laws. There, Israel is more solidly middle of the pack - certainly better than many, but a far cry from “awesome.”

Honestly, news coverage like this strike me as pinkwashing – Israel attempting to show how awesome it is when it comes to LGBT people (even though “not too bad” isn’t the same as “awesome”) while distracting from legitimate human rights issues in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. In fact, lets ignore Gaza and the West Bank. Coverage like this distracts from Israel’s own internal treatment of LGBT folks. A religiously run state is mutually exclusive with a liberal democracy, and mutually exclusive with true equal rights for LGBT people. And yet, Israel likes to pretend it’s both: a “Jewish and democratic state.” In fact, you’re ineligible for election to the Knesset if you want to change that.

(NOTE: That requirement was originally put in place to avoid conservative Jews from removing the “democratic” part, so the intention of the rule is actually positive. But to say Israeli politicians must support Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state” is still massively problematic, even if the original goal was to preserve the “democracy” part.)

So what’s to be made of all this? Doesn’t Israel deserve some credit for its treatment of LGBT people? Yes. Steps forward, even small ones, deserve acknowledgement and praise. But – as I’ve said before – I think Israel tries to have its cake and eat it too. By which I mean Israel tries to get the international recognition and diplomatic/political/economic/trade/military support to which true liberal Western democracy would be entitled. But then it goes and runs its own internal politics with a decidedly religious slant. And, for all the good things that Israel has done and continues to do, I don’t think you should be able to have it both ways.

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