Arthur Slepian, Founder and Executive Director of A Wider Bridge, a pro-Israel organization that builds bridges between LGBTQ people in North America and Israel welcomed Kristof Joseph Steiner for a chat at Tel Aviv’s Royal Beach Hotel in honor of the first ever international LGBTQ convention in Israel: '40 Years of Pride'
In his invitation to the conference, Arthur Slepian opened with this statement at an event welcoming prominent gay rights activists from all over the world: "I am a gay man, an American, and a Jew. I am passionate about Israel, devoted to its well-being, and I want to see a resolution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians that will enable both to live in peace and security.” His opening gave an opportunity for guests to get to know more about local and global issues concerning Israel, Judaism, and LGBTQ rights.
You're basically the motor of the organization founded in San Francisco five years ago. A lot has happened since then – how did it all start, and where are you heading now?
My love for Israel and my commitment to LGBT equality led me to create, A Wider Bridge. The organization is dedicated to strengthen the bonds between the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities in Israel and America. I believe LGBT Jews have been a transformative force for good in the Jewish world. By now, A Wider Bridge has grown into a global movement of LGBTQ people and allies: Jews and non-Jews, with strong interest in and commitment to Israel and its LGBTQ community.
Tell me, how did your guests react at first as you invited them for an LGBTQ conference to Tel Aviv?
The guests themselves were excited, but many people around them were not impressed with their decision of participating. And that is exactly the reason we're holding this conference in Israel: we believe the Israeli LGBTQ community has something important to add to the global conversation about gay rights.
It’s well known that Israel’s legal system does not support gay or even straight civil marriage, yet our Pride event is one of the greatest one's in the world. Do you think Israel is a leader regarding gay rights or are we lagging behind?
There are so many places in the world where LGBT people face severe oppression and cannot even be open: Russia, China, most of Africa and the Middle East, among others. Israel is a society that's open enough to have created an environment where it has been possible for an LGBTQ community to grow, develop and stand up for itself. This community deserves to be taken seriously when it comes to global conversation about LGBTQ equality.
How did you decide who are the leaders and freedom fighters who should be included in the program?
We looked for a wide range of leaders from all around the world. People who we thought they could contribute to a better understanding about how life really is around here. Some of our guests are M. Christophe Girard – Mayor of the Fourth Arrondissement of Paris, Ed Murray – Mayor of Seattle, Karine Jean-Pierre – Former White House Political Advisor, Davis Mac-Iyalla – a Nigerian LGBT activist and Maria Rachid – the past President of the Argentinian LGBT Federation, among many others.
What are some of the program features that can help the dialogue between people who rely on 'political gossip' about Israel and people who are actually a part of this society?
As a part of the conference we are taking our group to a visit in Jerusalem – to the Knesset, to Yad Vashem and of course to the Old City. Also, before the conference started, A Wider Bridge approached Palestinians in the West Bank to host us for a constructive conversation. Our goal is to have our guests seeing it for themselves, so whatever problems our society has here in Israel, we can work on it to make it better.
It sounds like you are not only supporting the rights of LGBTQ people to live peacefully, but you are looking at a much bigger picture…
True. We began as a Jewish organization but we quickly realized that people in the United States often feel they have to make a forced choice about their identity. Our mission is to make that choice disappear. They can have a LGBTQ identity, an Israeli identity and a pro-peace identity simultaneously.
Do you feel like it’s easier for Israelis to identify with this approach?
Definitely. Israelis won’t, and cannot boycott Israel even if they don't agree with the government. They know the country more deeply than jumping to hasty conclusions. Americans, on the other hand, often believe what they see on their local news channels and for many – the Israelis are just religious fundamentalists.
So, what you believe in is conversation and communication. Are you openly talking about the BDS movement and the so-called 'pink-washing?'
Absolutely. We want people to see face-to-face with the fact that no one can make progress by boycotting Israel. Meeting people face-to-face is what we trust in because, quite simply, nothing can be gained from shutting down the dialogue between the two sides.
Get Involved: A Wider Bridge
A Wider Bridge's work is founded on two basic tenets. First, the belief that Israel is a democratic Jewish homeland and that Israel not only can but must fulfill its founding commitment to democratic values and civic equality while maintaining its identity as a Jewish state.
A Wider Bridge works for LGBT rights in Israel in order to fulfill that vision. Its faith in Israel as a country worthy of more engagement, more dialogue and more exchanges of culture and travel, places a significant emphasis on all of the positive opportunities that Israel has to offer in addition to its potential to make true change and strides for good in the Middle East.
See: A Wider Bridge