November 22, 2016 at 9:46 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
U.S. ambassador to Israel talks Trump, LGBT rights
Dan Shapiro, gay news, Washington Blade

U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro spoke with the Washington Blade in Tel Aviv on Nov. 18, 2016. (Photo public domain)

TEL AVIV, Israel — U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro said he expects the relationship between the U.S. and Israel will remain strong under President-elect Trump’s administration.

“Our connections between the peoples of two democracies bound by common values remain strong,” Shapiro told the Washington Blade during an interview at the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv. “There are going to be differences of emphasis by administrations in the United States and by governments in Israel, but I think those fundamental values remain very, very strong and very, very solid and very, very profoundly much in common between us.”

Shapiro spoke with the Blade as news broke that Trump had tapped former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee as his administration’s ambassador to Israel.

Huckabee — who ran against Trump in the Republican primaries — denied the report. State Department spokesperson John Kirby on Monday told reporters that members of the president-elect’s transition team are now working in the State Department.

“At such time they have interest, obviously I will certainly provide any advice or reports or assistance that I can,” Shapiro told the Blade, referring to working with Trump’s transition team.

The U.S. provided Israel with $3.68 billion in defense and other aid in fiscal year 2016. That figure does not include U.S. Agency for International Development assistance for the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

President Obama in September announced a memorandum of understanding in which the U.S. will provide Israel with $38 billion in military assistance for fiscal years 2019-2028.

The United States-Israel Free Trade Agreement —the first free trade agreement into which the U.S. entered with any country — was ratified in 1985. The two countries exchange more than $49 billion in goods and services each year.

Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have both criticized the deal the U.S. and five other countries reached with Iran — in which homosexuality remains punishable by death — last year over its nuclear program.

Advocates with whom the Blade spoke after the election have expressed concern that a Trump administration will no longer promote LGBT rights abroad as part of U.S. foreign policy.

Shapiro declined to speculate about the incoming administration. He nevertheless said he hopes President-elect Trump will continue to promote LGBT rights abroad.

“I hope very much that the progress that we’ve been talking about both at home and in terms of our advocacy overseas for LGBT equality will continue,” Shapiro told the Blade. “That’s kind of a fundamental value that I believe in and that I believe our country has a lot to be proud of, even while we have more work to do on it.”

“I very much hope that will remain a focus of our government moving forward,” he added.

Shapiro also declined to speculate on whether Trump would relocate the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

“Obviously the next administration will define its own policy on that issue,” said Shapiro.

LGBT rights ‘a central commitment’ of embassy

Shapiro spoke with the Blade after he met with more than two dozen people from the U.S. who were in Israel with A Wider Bridge, which describes itself as an “LGBTQ advocacy group building connections between the Israeli and North American LGBTQ communities.”

Shapiro noted to the Blade that he has hosted U.S. and Israeli LGBT advocates at his home.

He has marched in Tel Aviv’s annual Pride march. Other embassy staff and U.S. diplomats have also taken part in Pride events in Jerusalem, Haifa and Ashdod.

Freedom to Work President Tico Almeida, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Gender Rights Maryland Executive Director Dana Beyer are among the American advocates who have met with their Israeli counterparts.

“We have certainly made [LGBT rights] a central commitment of our embassy,” Shapiro told the Blade, noting Obama’s 2011 directive to agencies that implement U.S. foreign policy to promote LGBT rights. “We see the Israeli LGBT community has had significant successes and has made a lot of progress.”

Shapiro acknowledged the Israeli LGBT rights movement continues to face challenges.

The U.S. supports a program with Hebrew Union College that seeks to help teachers “from all of Jerusalem’s diverse communities learn tolerance education and curriculum that they can use with their students.” The initiative has the support of the family of Shira Banki, a teenager who was stabbed to death in 2015 during a Jerusalem Pride march.

“[It’s] an important way of honoring her legacy and also demonstrating that we know the work’s not done,” Shapiro told the Blade.

Shapiro noted the embassy also provides assistance to Israel’s LGBT Arab community, which “has sort of lagged behind in terms of acceptance and in terms of feeling safe and benefitting from the services that they need in challenging circumstances.” The U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, which operates independently from the embassy, also works with LGBT advocates and organizations in the West Bank.

Shapiro spoke with the Blade a day after Chief Sephardi Rabbi of Jerusalem Shlomo Amar described LGBT Israelis as a “cult of abomination.”

Israel Hayom, a center-right newspaper, reported Oded Fried, the former head of the Aguda, the Israeli National LGBT Task Force, and Shirley Kleinman, an activist and journalist, had filed formal police complaints against Amar. The heads of the Knesset’s Lobby for the LGBT Community sharply criticized the rabbi in a letter they sent to Netanyahu and Minister of Religious Services David Azoulay.

Shapiro told the Blade that he has not had any “difficult personal conversations” with anyone from the Israeli government or otherwise on the embassy’s support of LGBT issues. He conceded, however, he has seen a backlash on social media.

“Sometimes you see some comments come back in reply that are biased and prejudiced and even hateful rhetoric,” said Shapiro. “We certainly know they exist in the United States.”

“I don’t think that’s a broad indictment of Israeli society any more than it is of ours,” he added. “But it does mean that we have work to do through the education process. We think being so public and being so demonstrative about our solidarity is one way of doing that education.”

Shapiro: BDS movement ‘anti-Semitic’ in some cases

More than 200 people who contend the Israeli government promotes LGBT rights to divert attention from its controversial policies toward the Palestinians protested A Wider Bridge reception at the National LGBTQ Task Force’s Creating Change Conference in Chicago. Tom Canning and Sarah Kala-Meir of Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, an Israeli LGBT advocacy group, left the reception through a back door as protesters entered the room in which it was taking place.

The protesters demanded the National LGBTQ Task Force publicly endorse a campaign in support of a boycott, economic divestment and sanctions against Israel over its policies toward the Palestinians. They also wanted the organization to support Palestinians’ right to return to property in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip that their families lost in the 1948 war that led to the creation of the Jewish state.

Shapiro told the Blade that he has “never understood the concept or the accusation” of “pinkwashing.”

“It makes no sense to me,” he said.

Shapiro added it is “perfectly possible to advocate for a two-state solution” and to criticize the construction of settlements in the West Bank, “certain human rights realities of the occupation” and other Israeli government policies toward the Palestinians.

“If that’s done it should be done with some balance and recognizing the legitimate security challenges Israel faces and talking about some of the incitement and violence that we’ve seen from the Palestinian side,” he told the Blade. “It’s perfectly possible to advocate for that and even legitimately criticize Israel for that and also recognize the very significant and meaningful progress that Israel has made in achieving equality or at least in the direction of equality for the LGBT community here.”

“To me those can both be true and there’s no reason one in any way negates or is in conflict with the other,” he added.

Shapiro strongly criticized the so-called BDS movement and “other forms of delegitimization against Israel.”

“We believe that at its heart that’s a truly kind of anti-Israel and some cases anti-Semitic movement,” he said. “We oppose it where and whenever we can.”

Editor’s note: Michael K. Lavers participated in A Wider Bridge’s trip to Israel and the West Bank from Nov. 11-19.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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