An Inside Look at LGBTQ Rights in Israel

For someone who has been to Israel as many times as Josh Mann has, putting together a trip that impresses him is no easy feat. His most recent trip managed to do just that. Mann was the Minneapolis representative on a 26-member LGBTQ mission to Israel that was sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America. It was the first LGBTQ mission sponsored by the JFNA.

“It was incredible,” said Mann, a Minneapolis Jewish Federation board member. “I’ve been to Israel many times before, but this is the first time I’ve participated in a mission.”

Mann, the 29-year-old founder and CEO of Dining Delivered, said a lot of the mission’s programming was centered around LGBT rights in Israel, which he said are not at the same level as the U.S. From what Mann was told by an JFNA staffer, the level access to high-level officials and decision makers was unprecedented in a mission trip.Josh Mann Wall

“We met with government officials, Israeli business leaders and civic organizers who talked about what their life is like, what they are working towards and what their beliefs are for the future,” he said. “It was one important meeting after the next.”

The May 26-June 2 mission coincided with the start of Tel Aviv’s Pride Festival, and the delegation marched with U.S. Ambassador Daniel Shapiro – although Mann had to leave just before the parade started due to a commitment at home. Mann and the other delegates dined at the ambassador’s home as guests of Shapiro and his wife, Duluth native Julie Fisher.

“It was cool that the ambassador marched with our group and that they draped the Embassy in flags, Mann said. “Clearly this is a cause they care about. Hopefully, Israeli politics will get in line. But it takes a long time. And despite the fact that they aren’t where the United States is, they’re still far ahead of a lot the world, including a lot of their neighbors. I know that gay Palestinians come to Israel from the West Bank and Gaza. That’s not a two-way street.”

Mann said that gay marriage is not something that Israel presently allows, and that many of the people the group spoke with sounded discouraged about it potentially being allowed anytime soon. Mann also pointed out that he keeps his Zionism and sexuality separate.

“My personal politics are not as centered around gay politics as some of my peers are,” he said. “I’ve spent a lot of time in Israel. My father’s Israeli. I grew up in a Zionist home. I feel a connection to the place not withstanding my sexuality. But I certainly wouldn’t move there for the gay rights they have considering what we have in the U.S.

“A lot of the positive things about being gay in America were paved before I walked down that path. By the time I came out, gay marriage was legal in a lot of places. A lot has changed very quickly in the last few years.”

Kyle Levine of San Fransico, Israeli musician Ivri Lider and Josh Mann in Israel

Kyle Levine of San Fransico, Israeli musician Ivri Lider and Josh Mann in Israel

Mann was outraged over the notion of “pinkwashing”: the charge from the far left that Israel markets it’s pro-LGBT culture to cover up alleged human-rights abuses.

“I think it’s a travesty,” he said. “It’s thinly veiled anti-Semitism for the 21st century. Israel is the most progressive society in that part of the world and their progress should be celebrated. I don’t agree with all Israeli politics just like I don’t agree with all American politics. But on this issue, I have no patience. Unfortunately, anti-Semitism is going to be around forever, and this how it’s manifested right now.”

Mann said that one of the most impactful parts of the trip was seeing an Ethiopian school in Afula, which is where his father – former Minneapolis Federation interim executive director Gil Mann – was born.

“He left there nearly 60 years ago, moved to the United States, and upon retiring from business, has pretty much devoted his life to Jewish communal service,” Mann said. “I sat in this room thinking, ‘maybe there was another child from Afula who would help build the Jewish community.’ That really spoke to me.”

For all of Mann’s trips to Israel, he said this one wasn’t about recreation.

“This leaned a little closer to a policy trip. It wasn’t a trip to have fun and eat falafel and shop in the t-shirt stores,” he said. “I’ve been to Israel tons of times. To see the country they’ve built in just 70 years despite neighbors that want to kill them and the lack of natural resources, it’s incredible. They’ve built a truly western, modern civilization out of the ashes of the gas chambers. And it definitely inspires pride.”