May 10, 2018 at 7:05 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
LGBTI activist from Israel visits D.C.

Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance Executive Director Ofer Erez spoke at the Jewish Community Center in Dupont Circle on May 6, 2018. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The Jewish Community Center in Dupont Circle on May 6 hosted the executive director of an LGBTI community center and advocacy group in Jerusalem.

Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance Executive Director Ofer Erez was in D.C. to speak at the Anti-Defamation League’s National Leadership Summit that took place last week.

He told the Washington Blade during an interview at the Jewish Community Center that his organization’s work currently includes promoting tolerance among Jerusalem high school students and a new initiative that caters to the city’s LGBTI elders. Erez also stressed “the key word for us is tolerance.”

“In Jerusalem it’s the key word for everything,” he said. “It’s a very diverse city.”

Erez is first openly trans IDF officer

Erez was named Jerusalem Open House’s executive director in December. He is also the first openly transgender officer in the Israel Defense Force.

Erez — who was an officer in the IDF for 5 1/2 years — last summer publicly criticized President Trump over his efforts to ban trans people from the U.S. military. Erez on May 6 described the White House’s decision to overturn the Obama-era policy as “a lesson for all of us.”

“We need to take responsibility for all of our lives,” Erez told the Blade. “We shouldn’t let someone else do our work for us.”

LGBT rights in Israel ‘not a matter of only laws’

A group of Jerusalem residents opened Jerusalem Open House in 1997.

The organization’s current annual budget is slightly less than $500,000, with the majority of it coming from private donations and foundation grants. Erez told the Blade a significant portion of this money pays the rent for Jerusalem Open House’s office, which is located near downtown Jerusalem.

“We can’t count on only the municipality,” he said. “We have to stay independent to secure our existence.”

The Israeli Supreme Court has ruled the city of Jerusalem must provide the same amount of funding to Jerusalem Open House that other local community organizations.

Jerusalem Open House in 2008 founded a clinic that offers anonymous HIV testing and counseling to anyone — LGBT and queer people, Palestinians, ultra-Orthodox Jews, sex workers and others — in the conservative city who needs access to sexual and general health care outside of the public health care system. Jerusalem Open House also remains the only non-emergency room setting in Israel that has a doctor who is authorized to prescribe post-exposure prophylaxis.

The murder of Shira Banki, a 16-year-old teenager during the 2015 Jerusalem Pride parade, is among the myriad other challenges that Jerusalem Open House and the city’s LGBT community have confronted in recent years.

“[Jerusalem Open House] is working to change and affect the lives of LGBT people in Jerusalem,” Erez told the Blade. “It’s not only a place where you can come to; it’s a place that works with the city of Jerusalem and works with organizations and schools and other organizations on all sorts of different projects.”

Erez said one of the organization’s main challenges — especially with members of Jerusalem’s LGBTI community who are older — is the fact that local residents tend to be “much more private” about their sexual orientation and/or gender identity than in Tel Aviv, which is known as one of the world’s most LGBTI-friendly cities. Erez also told the Blade that anti-LGBTI discrimination and homophobic and transphobic attitudes in Israeli schools and in the country’s health care system are also issues.

“It’s not a matter of only laws,” he said. “It’s not just the Knesset or the prime minister.”

Israel recognizes same-sex marriages that are legally performed outside the country.

Marriage in Israel nevertheless remains a religious institution. Same and opposite-sex couples who want to tie the knot outside the Orthodox Rabbinut, which is the country’s Jewish spiritual authority, cannot do so.

“We need civil marriage,” Erez told the Blade. “This is it.”

Organization is ‘an island of sanity’

Jerusalem’s Old City and East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed from Jordan in 1967 during the Six-Day War, are less than a mile from Jerusalem Open House’s office. Ramallah, the West Bank city that is the capital of the Palestinian Authority, is roughly 10 miles north of Jerusalem.

Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, gay news, Washington Blade

The rainbow flag flies outside the offices of Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance in Jerusalem on Nov. 14, 2016. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Erez spoke with the Blade two days after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas apologized for his controversial comments on the Holocaust that he made during his speech to the Palestine National Congress on April 30. Erez’s trip to D.C. also coincided with the ongoing protests along the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel that has left dozens of Palestinians dead.

Erez told the Blade the ongoing situation with the Palestinians has “affected us very much.”

“We serve the west of Jerusalem as we serve the east of Jerusalem,” he said. “We are an organization that is working for the citizens of Jerusalem, whoever you will be: Ultra-Orthodox, Palestinian, Israeli Arabs, secular, religious people.”

Erez also described Jerusalem Open House as “one of the few places in Jerusalem, maybe in Israel or even in the world where you can go” and see “two Palestinians talking to secular Jewish teenagers and an ultra-Orthodox man working on their computer.”

“It’s an island of sanity,” he added.

Erez also told the Blade that Jerusalem Open House seeks to avoid Israel’s polarized politics and remains neutral on controversial issues. He pointed out the organization made an exception earlier this year when it spoke out against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposal to deport African migrants from Israel.

“We’re doing everything that we can to actually stay away from those politics,” said Erez. “We need to be accessible to everybody.”

Erez during the interview briefly mentioned the protesters who interrupted a reception that A Wider Bridge — a group that describes itself as an “LGBTQ advocacy group building connections between the Israeli and North American LGBTQ communities” — organized at the National LGBTQ Task Force’s 2016 Creating Change Conference in Chicago that featured two former Jerusalem Open House staffers. The Blade also asked Erez about his thoughts on those who accuse the Israeli government of promoting LGBTI rights as a way to deflect attention away from its policies towards the Palestinians.

“The issue of the LGBT community is very complex,” he said. “It’s not pink at all, especially in Jerusalem, especially in the periphery of Israel.”

“The challenges that we face over there are nothing but pink,” added Erez. “Everyday I see progress. I am hopeful, but to say that we are bragging about something, I never felt like that.”

Al-Aqsa Mosque, gay news, Washington Blade

The Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

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

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