In Israel, gay Arab activists forge ahead with plans for a rare public conference
JERUSALEM: A rare gathering of openly gay Arab activists is slated to be held in Israel this month, drawing the ire of religious conservatives. Headlined "Home and Exile," the March 28 meeting is meant to spark discussion of homosexuality among Israel's 1 million Arab citizens, said Roula Deeb, a prominent Arab feminist and one of the scheduled speakers. The conference is being organized by Aswat, an Arab lesbian group based in Haifa, a coastal city home to both Jews and Arabs. Around 100 to 150 people are expected to show up, Deeb said.
With homosexuality a taboo topic in much of the Arab world, the meeting is important simply because it is taking place. Israel is generally tolerant of homosexuality, and the country's secular metropolis, Tel Aviv, is home to a thriving gay community. But Israel's Arabs, who make up 20 percent of the population, live mostly in separate communities and homosexuality is still considered out of bounds. When news of the conference, which was advertised on Aswat's Web site, reached the Islamic Movement in Israel, it sparked a war of words between Arab liberals and Muslim conservatives."Lesbians ... need treatment, they don't need to spread their strange ideas in the Arab community," said Mohammed Zbidat, a spokesman for the Islamic Movement, a conservative force that has grown increasingly influential in the Arab Israeli community in recent years. Homosexuality is strictly forbidden by Islam, and an earlier statement issued by the Movement described it as a "cancer" in the Arab community.
The conference draws its supporters mostly from the ranks of secular and educated Arabs. It is sponsored by two Haifa cafes popular among Arab intellectuals and artists, and an Arab women's rap group is scheduled to perform. "This is a political issue," said Raja Zaatry, a journalist at the left-leaning Ittihad (Unity) newspaper, who condemned the Islamic Movement's stance in an editorial last week. "Today, they are attacking gays and women — tomorrow, who else?" he said in an interview. "We shouldn't compromise. We have to challenge this fundamentalist stream in our society."
In Lebanon, perhaps the Arab world's most liberal state, homosexuals have held news conferences and run a magazine called "Barra" — meaning "out" — the only publication of its kind. But nearly everywhere in the Arab world, individuals face persecution if they come out openly. Still, violence against participants in the Haifa conference is not expected."We've called on people to fight this in all legal means. We don't condone violence," said the Islamic Movement's Zbidat. The conference's organizers did not want to respond to the controversy. "We are focusing all our energies on the conference right now," a spokeswoman said.
On the Web: http://www.aswatgroup.org/english