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Openly gay Captain Even-Zohar addresses CHAI

By Jules Szanton | March 7, 2013

The Coalition of Hopkins Activists for Israel (CHAI) hosted Avner Even-Zohar, a Captain in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) who spoke with Hopkins students on Friday about Israel, the Arab Spring and the importance of a foreign policy that promotes human rights.

Currently retired from the IDF, Even-Zohar teaches Hebrew and Middle Eastern Studies at the Defense Language Institute in Monterrey, California. Even-Zohar is openly gay and spent much of his talk discussing gay rights in Israel, the Arab world and the United States.

Even-Zohar argued that while the issue of human rights for Palestinians in the West Bank receives significant international attention, other human rights issues in the Middle East are too often forgotten.

“When we think about human rights, we have to remember that that includes the rights of women, of queer people, of Muslims, Jews, and of Christians,” Even-Zohar said. “There is no country in the Middle East that is even close to Israel in respecting these human rights.”

He acknowledged that the role of the United States in shaping new social policy in the Middle East is limited, but certain steps can be taken to encourage progress.

“One thing the United States can do is lead by example,” Even-Zohar said. He noted that there is still no federal law in the United States protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans from workplace discrimination. Israel has such a law, and Even-Zohar believes Israel’s law should be a model for the U.S.

Even-Zohar also suggested that the United States offers diplomatic attention and moral support to the liberal reformers in authoritarian Middle Eastern countries.

The connection between human rights and economic success was a message highlighted by Even-Zohar. He cited the list of technological innovations and hi-tech startups emerging from Israel, and argued that these emerge directly from Israel’s respect for political and cultural diversity.

“It is not morally acceptable to ignore the lack of democracy and the persecution of minorities, of women and of queer people in Saudi Arabia simply because Saudi Arabia has oil,” Even-Zohar said.

Rebecca Rubenstein, a senior and the Co-President of CHAI, said that Even-Zohar’s message is important to understanding what makes Israel economically and technologically successful.

“Israel’s technological, environmental, medical and political contributions to the world are only the result of Israel's diversity and democracy,” Rubenstein said.

Even-Zohar continued to speak about the effects that this policy could potentially have.

“Authoritarian countries in the Middle East want to match Israel’s success on a technological level, but you can’t have a political policy which encourages people not to think for themselves, and then expect people to have creative ideas in the workplace,” Even-Zohar said.

Another important topic of discussion was pro-Israel advocacy on college campuses.

He argued that pro-Israel students don’t need to be anti-Arab or anti-Palestinian, because Israel supports the creation of a Palestinian state in the context of a peace agreement, and wants to live in peace with its neighbors.

This point particularly resonated with junior Arie Gruenberg, the other Co-President of CHAI.

“Israel groups on campus around the world, do not go around chanting anti-Palestinian or anti-Muslim or anti-Christian slogans,” Gruenberg said. Gruenberg added that unfortunately, on some college campuses in North America, pro-Palestinian student groups “have an agenda that is entirely composed of hatred and anti-Israel rhetoric.”

Laura Scavo, a freshman member of the CHAI board, said that while she appreciated hearing Even-Zohar’s views on the Middle East, she found his advice on pro-Israel advocacy to be the most helpful.

“We ended up spending more time discussing how to better advocate for Israel on a campus where people are relatively inactive in political issues and current events. The discussion was very helpful and we have a lot of new ideas for how to better engage our peers,” Scavo said.

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