Sharon "made it hard on us because he was very charming. He was very, very nice."
Related Gully Coverage
MARCH 7, 2002. In the midst of an escalating Israeli-Palestinian butchery, and sinking popularity for Ariel Sharon, a historic first meeting between an Israeli Prime Minister, and representatives of that country's lesbian, gay, bi, and transgender community took place on February 26, 2002 in Jerusalem.
Already cancelled twice, the meeting had been pursued over several months by the Political Council of Gay Rights in Israel (PCGRI), the new kid on the gay activism block, which in a year and a half of existence has published Israel's first annual lgbt report, and scored meetings with several other politicoes.
The twelve queer activists that participated in the hour and a half session included not only members of PCGRI, but representatives from Israel's largest established groups, among them The Agudah (the Society for the Protection of Personal Rights, Israel's first lgbt group), The Jerusalem LGBT Open House, KLAF (Kehilla Lesbian Feminists), and the Haifa Community Center.
Shabi Getenyo, founding member of PCGRI, talked to The Gully about the meeting that had Rabbi Abraham Ravitz, an important religious representative in the Knesset and member of Sharon's coalition, calling the Prime Minister a mishuganah (crazy person).
The Gully: So how did it go?
Shabi Getenyo: A lot of people expected another cancellation. Not just among the gay groups. The religious groups didn't believe it would happen, either. But it went well, really well, taking by surprise a lot of people from the left, including myself. As the transgender activist Noah Greenberg said afterwards, "He made it hard on us because he was very charming. He was very, very nice." He even told jokes.
It was a lot different than the meeting with President Moshe Katsav a few months ago. He [Katsav] was frozen and didn't say anything. He acted like he was afraid.
What did you talk about with Sharon?
A lot of things. Gay marriage, health issues, adoption, and transgender issues, including the problem of defining gender, and changing names and gender on official documents. Sharon said he would like to know more about these issues, and that he hadn't been aware of all the problems.
Did you ask about the Israeli-Palestinian couple facing separation in Jerusalem?
Yes, we brought that up. That is really complicated by two separate issues. The rights of gays, but also the right of Palestinian return which is an explosive issue. He said, "No way, ever," would he allow Palestinians that right. But he did say we should take up this particular case with the Minister of Interior Affairs, and if we couldn't resolve anything there, he himself would get involved. But he didn't promise anything.
Did you get anything concrete out of the meeting?
He was very honest with us. He said his personal policy was to let people live as they wanted to live, but he said, "You know I can't promise most of these things even if I wanted to, so I won't." Every time we backed him into a corner, he said he wouldn't make us any promises that he couldn't keep. But he did say, "You should continue your fight. Change will have to come from the people. So continue lobbying, convincing other people. You have to have the people with you first."
The most important thing that we got from this meeting, besides the meeting itself, was his offer to be a connecting link, that if some ministers didn't want to meet, he would intervene. That is really important.
Wasn't the meeting criticized, and even boycotted by some gay leaders, who say that Sharon is too compromised by his stand on human rights, and Palestinian-Israeli policy? Wasn't there even supposed to be an anti-meeting demonstration?
There was. In fact, I was disappointed that there weren't any demonstrations outside Sharon's office when we were having the meeting. I myself have been involved in human rights groups that have fought Sharon all the way. And I appreciate their opinions, like what Hagai El-Ad has expressed. I have nothing but respect for him. He's doing a great job with the Jerusalem Open House. In fact, most of us who were at the meeting are from the left and have criticized Sharon.
But I do have problems with a few of those in the radical left who boycotted the meetings. They've criticized the meeting, and demonstrated at the Gay Pride Parade, but they never do anything constructive for the gay community. I know of one activist who was also at a meeting with Arafat, but he never spoke up and questioned Arafat's record on human rights. He didn't bring up gay rights for Palestinians. I don't think anyone there even knew he was gay. For me, human rights should be everywhere. We shouldn't demonstrate only against Sharon, but against all human rights violators, including Arafat.
I think that the linkage between Palestinian and gay rights that the radical left wanted to make was unfair. It's not smart to refuse to move the lgbt struggle forward because the Palestinian struggle isn't moving forward. Neither can you exclude Saudi Arabia from the peace process because they executed three gay men. Everyone in the region is violating human rights, unfortunately. You can't focus on one to the exclusion of the other. We think you shouldn't close the door, but open it and step outside.
For the Political Council of Gay Rights in Israel (PCGRI).
For Jerusalem Open House, the city's gay community center.
For a bonanza of Middle East and Israeli links from The Jerusalem Post.
For Amnesty International's report on Israel and the Occupied Territories: State Assassinations and Other Unlawful Killings.
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