The energy and enthusiasm that was in the air at the 2012 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference, held in Washington, D.C., was energizing and inspiring. Approximately 14,000 people, mostly Jews of all religious affiliations (or unaffiliations), political parties, gender identities, sexual orientations, and ages, came together for one common purpose: their love for Israel. Have you ever heard the statement "two Jews, three opinions"? You would not have questioned that at the AIPAC conference. It was most inspiring to be in a community of people who shared the same passion for Israel, regardless of the created labels we put on ourselves. I wondered: if 14,000 members of the LGBT community gathered at a convention center, what would our common passion be?
AIPAC is a lobbying group that lobbies the legislative and executive branches of the U.S. government for pro-Israel policies. While it remains a bipartisan organization, there was somewhat of an air of conservatism around me that weekend. "You'll feel like a Log Cabin Republican at a Republican National Convention," a friend of mine remarked to me upon registration. Being an election year, this AIPAC conference was surely a popular one with any politician seeking to, well, stay in politics. My friends and I attempted to have a drinking game any time "Iran" was mentioned, or the phrase "all options are on the table." We realized quickly enough when President Obama spoke during the opening plenary on Sunday morning that we'd be plastered just from his speech.
Over the last few years, I have questioned what it means to be a gay, liberal Jew and a strong supporter of the state of Israel. (I realize that many of my non-gay Jewish friends struggle with the same balance, as well.) Some of my peers question Israel's policies toward the Palestinians, and their military responses toward their neighbors, and there are gay activists who claim that Israel is pinkwashing, that is, is promoting itself as a gay destination to distract the public from the conflict in the region.
As I entered a cocktail reception for LGBT supporters of Israel, I was surprised to find a packed room of well-dressed men, some women, and many allies. "So what brought you here?" I found myself asking an African-American Presbyterian Reverend from Tennessee. "Well, I'm gay, and I support Israel," was his matter-of-fact response. These types of conversations were regular that night as I met many college students, young professionals, long-time supporters of AIPAC, and allies of the gay community who were happy to see such a gathering. There was a noticeable absence of lesbians at the event, and while this is quite common in many LGBT settings, I wondered about the gender divide in our community with regard to Middle Eastern politics.
A session on Monday afternoon titled "Diversity in Israel: Israel, Gay Rights and the Middle East" was heavily packed, with just under 200 attendees. The session was filled to capacity during the AIPAC registration period, a success in itself, but many who were interested in the topic came anyway. The speakers included Dr. Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of Equality Illinois, who told the audience that it is everyone's responsibility to share every positive aspect of Israel, including gay rights, just as we would showcase any country that progresses toward rights for its LGBT population. Dan Slyper, chair of the LGBT section of the Israeli Labor Party, talked about the advancement of gay rights in Israel, which were fought and won at the Supreme Court level. Itai Pinkas, a Tel Aviv-Jaffa City councilman, highlighted the gay rights achieved in Israel through his own life experience, journey in politics, and having a partner and twins through a surrogate in India. While all speakers expressed their love for Israel, they also mentioned that Israel is indeed not perfect, and many of her policies can be questioned, but in the area of gay rights, Israel should be celebrated.
Speaking on Monday night, Bibi Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, reminded the audience that Israel was the only nation in the Middle East where all minorities, including Arabs, have civil rights. "Gays are hanged and women are stoned" was his statement in reference to Iran, obviously appealing to the many liberals in the audience. Some people who were with me asked if Bibi talks so openly about gay rights in his own state: "Does he say this in Hebrew also?" I wondered.
Upon the end of Bibi's speech, I attended the dessert reception in tents at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. We had a choice of attending either the Democratic or Republican tent (or both), and all the gays I had met naturally went to the Democratic tent, including Daniel Hernandez, the congressional intern to Gabrielle Giffords, who helped save her life after she was shot; he was making the rounds in what appeared to be a budding political career. I did make a stop at the Republican tent to see if they had better food (they didn't).
While I came into AIPAC a bit apprehensive, I surely left with a renewed hope in my love for Israel, not only for the Western values she affords the LGBT community in the region, but also for her democratic nature. I was inspired by the strong connection between global gay political values and the democratic values that the state of Israel affords its people. Upon leaving the convention center on Monday evening, and seeing only a handful of protestors declaring "Don't bomb Iran," I still left wondering: what would 14,000 members of the LGBT community have a unified passion for?