In a first-ever seminar organized by Project Interchange, an educational institute of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), leaders of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities from the United States and Israel met recently to explore possible collaborations and share knowledge.
“Israel has a lot to be proud of — there are a lot of LGBT community centers sponsored by the government — and the trip was about sharing and facilitating best practices,” said Myra Clark-Siegel, director of international communications at Project Interchange, which was founded in 1982 to bring leaders to Israel for a week of travel and learning.
It was a natural fit to connect members of the LGBT community through the seminar — which took place Oct. 28-Nov. 4 — given AJC’s commitment to advancing human and civil rights, she said.
The nine American delegates on the trip met with secular and Orthodox Israelis and Palestinians to explore the multiple facets of Israel that cross the political and religious spectrum. They visited with representatives of the Agudah, Israel’s national LGBT organization, and Gal Uchovsky, co-founder of the Israeli Gay Youth Association. The delegation also traveled to the West Bank.
L.A.-based delegate Jorge Valencia, executive director and CEO of Point Foundation, the nation’s largest LGBT scholarship organization, said there is much the two countries can learn from each other.
“For example, the U.S. could stand to learn from the manner in which Israel accepts LGBTQ members into its military and see this as a strength, not a weakness to its safety,” he said, using a Q for “queer” or “questioning.” “And as a young country, Israel can learn from the advancements the U.S. has taken to support its LGBTQ youth in school through certain legislative actions and publicly funded youth organizations.”
Nurturing unity between the LGBT communities in both countries is vital to the equal treatment of people around the world, Valencia added.
“Most recently, we’ve seen the importance of solidarity in our community surrounding Russia’s anti-gay propaganda and the upcoming Olympics,” he said. “We owe it to our LGBTQ brothers and sisters in Russia to raise awareness across the world of the hatred, harassment and violence that they’re suffering under the current leadership and of our disapproval of such treatment.”
Another delegate, Brad Sears, executive director of the Williams Institute, a think tank at the UCLA School of Law dedicated to conducting research on sexual orientation law and public policy, said there’s great value in learning about how countries, such as Israel, handle LGBT rights.
“Interacting with professors and lawyers engaged in LGBT rights in other countries is helpful in thinking how LGBT rights have evolved here and reflecting on U.S.-specific barriers and opportunities with regard to LGBT rights,” he said.
Future plans at the Williams Institute include inviting individuals to speak about LGBT rights in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
“The seminar allowed me to meet and talk with lawyers and scholars working on LGBT rights and consider them to come to UCLA and speak,” Sears said.
Israel’s position on gay marriage helped influence the Equality Forum, an LGBT civil rights organization that recently filed a federal marriage recognition lawsuit, according to executive director Malcolm Lazin, who attended the recent seminar.
“Most states do not recognize lawful same-sex marriages. As such, you are divorced against your will in 32 states even though legally married int California,” he said. “In 2006, Israel’s highest court decreed that lawful same-sex marriages in foreign countries would be recognized in Israel and treated with equality. As a result, there are a large number of same-sex married Israelis who were married abroad. That case helped spur our thinking about a U.S. federal marriage recognition lawsuit.”
Equality Forum also coordinates LGBT History Month in October. Lazin said his Israeli counterparts now will make use of the organization’s free, online resources as a result of their interactions at the seminar.
“We also provided our Israeli counterparts with U.S. LGBT organizations that could be of assistance to their organization and its members,” he said.
Clark-Siegel said that the program by Project Interchange, which pays for delegates’ trips and receives the majority of its funding from donors, is a great opportunity for a two-way dialogue with Israelis who are adept at getting to best practices.
“The young leadership is very encouraging in Israel,” she said.