The audience in Bausch and Lomb 106 is split almost perfectly down the middle. protesters with masks, keffiyehs, and signs pack the seats on the left. The seats on the right are taken by non-protesters — many of them members of Students for Israel, the club sponsoring the talk.

Everyone is there to see Shai DeLuca, a Canadian interior designer who immigrated to Israel as a teenager to serve in the Israeli army. He is set to speak about his experience as a gay man in the Israeli army and about LGBTQ+ rights in Israel more broadly. The Feb. 6 event is co-sponsored by Alpha Epsilon Pi, CAMERA on Campus, UR Center for Jewish Studies, and UR Hillel.

About 6,000 miles away is the latest war in Gaza, which has been thundering on since October to immense international controversy. Whether to even call it the “latest war in Gaza” is a matter of contention. Many detractors, including the protesters in the room, allege it to be a genocide against Palestinians rather than a war. Supporters and the press alike prefer the term “Israel-Hamas War,” which centers more on the Israeli government’s stated goal of wiping out Hamas militants in response to the Oct. 7 attacks.

The talk, on its face, has little to do with the war, but it is inevitably and knowingly framed by it. 

The protesters had been silently holding signs in the hallways before  forming a line, having their CCC QR codes scanned, and marching into the room. They sit down. DeLuca is introduced. Half the room claps.

DeLuca starts by recounting his experience as an 18-year-old heading to basic training in Jerusalem. After getting directions from his host family, DeLuca says he ran to the bus station, narrowly missing the bus he was supposed to catch. He then says he watched as that bus exploded in the Feb. 25, 1996 Jaffa Road bus bombing carried out by Hamas.

“I watched the possibility of my life flash before my eyes — the smell of burnt flesh, the screams of parents and children, the screams of mothers. It was something I won’t soon forget,” he says.

The experience prompted him to reflect on his identity. He knew he was gay, but he hadn’t come out, and no one would have known who he was if he had died on the bus. At the time, the Israeli army had only recently opened service up to out homosexuals, and homosexual service members still faced many unofficial pressures. DeLuca says the Israeli army still, in effect, had a policy akin to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 1996.

DeLuca says he grappled with this dilemma during a week-long vacation the army gave him after the bombing. After weighing who to come out to first — his family, his coworkers, his brigade — he decided to first tell his fellow army unit members.

Upon getting to his base the following Sunday, everybody, as usual, went around telling stories about what they did that weekend and whatnot. It was DeLuca’s chance to speak, and he took the opportunity to come out.

DeLuca says his friends all kind of already knew, and were accepting.

“I built this whole story up in my head that I was going to have this whole — like, I didn’t know what was going to happen,” DeLuca says. “But here we go. 1996, I came out in the Middle East, in the army, and the only thing they had to say was ‘are you ok?’ and ‘I have a guy to introduce you to.’”

The talk then shifts from the personal anecdote to Israel as a whole. DeLuca says the story is meant to highlight how in 1996 Israel was “the most progressive country in the Middle East, certainly when it comes to LGBT rights.” As he makes the claim, protesters laugh and cough loudly.

After coming out, DeLuca says he felt that he needed to help shape LGBTQ+ identity in Israel. He helped organize Israel’s first official Pride Parade in Tel Aviv in 1998, though the parade wasn’t Israel’s first large-scale public LGBTQ+ gathering — a protest in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square during a 1979 conference of international gay Jewish organizations holds that title. He says the parade’s attendance highlighted how Israel stood apart from surrounding countries on LGBTQ+ acceptance.

He says that Israel was “the only place in the Middle East, certainly at that time, that if you’re gay you’re not getting thrown off a roof, you’re not getting dragged behind a motorcycle, you’re not getting thrown off a building, hung from a crane,” most likely referring to documented instances of ISIS throwing gay men off roofs in Iraq and Syria, and the Iranian government hanging some gay people using cranes

The mention of motorcycle-dragging is likely a misleading reference to the 2012 killing of Ribhi Badawi in Gaza. Badawi was killed because he said under torture that he was working for Israel, not because he was gay. A senior Hamas official condemned the execution. Images of his body being dragged were made into memes about LGBTQ+ treatment in Palestine after the Oct. 7 attacks.

Discussing Israeli policies, DeLuca centers on same-sex marriage,  adoption, and surrogacy.

In Israel, DeLuca says, there is no civil marriage — there is only religious marriage. Same-sex marriages cannot be performed in Israel, but the government has recognized same-sex marriages performed abroad since 2006. DeLuca got married in 2010. He says most people used to fly to Cyprus to get married, but online marriages became more accessible during the COVID-19 pandemic and have stuck around since. DeLuca says legalizing domestic civil unions in Israel is still a needed area of improvement.

Adoption and surrogacy, DeLuca says, have “always been a challenge for us.” Israel’s Supreme Court just ruled in December that adoptions by same-sex couples ought to be treated equally under the country’s 1981 adoption law. In the past, DeLuca says Israelis in same-sex relationships were able to adopt abroad and then have their children recognized as citizens, but the process was costly and hard to navigate. He ends his point with a provocative remark that drew dissent from the crowd.

“Again, none of the other countries around us have those rights. Israel is that island within a sea of problems,” he says. One of the crowd members calls him a “bitch,” which he highlights.

His talk shifts to Israel’s provision of asylum for Palestinian LGBTQ+ people. Since 2022, Israel has granted work permits to LGBTQ+ Palestinians granted asylum in Israel. Palestinians are generally not eligible for asylum status in Israel, but, just before DeLuca’s talk, a Tel Aviv District Court judge ruled LGBTQ+ Palestinians threatened due to their sexual orientation could apply for asylum, Ha’aretz reported — though Moshe Arbel, Israel’s interior minister, denounced the ruling and intends to appeal it. 

DeLuca highlights this recent case. He then stamps his point with another provocative question.

“Why would a Palestinian gay man request asylum in a country that is allegedly committing genocide against his own people?” he asks. Protesters in the crowd interject, dissenting to his use of the term “allegedly” and citing the tens of thousands of Palestinians killed by Israel since Oct. 7. He tells them to hold their questions until the end. He asks the question two more times and shuts down an audience member who wants to give an answer.

He then proceeds to his last slide — titled “The Myth of Pinkwashing” — before a protester in the crowd again feigns a loud cough.

“Who wants to define pinkwashing for me?” he asks the crowd.

The coughing protester offers an answer: “It’s the use of gay rights as sort of a crux to justify Western imperialism and colonization. For example, if you get up while 30,000 Palestinians have been bombed and talk about gay rights in Israel—”

“Nope, that’s not the definition,” DeLuca interjects. Another protester accuses him of shifting his definition of pinkwashing. DeLuca asks for the Google definition, and a non-protester provides it.

“Pinkwashing, also known as rainbow-washing, is the strategy of promoting LGBT rights protections as evidence of liberalism and democracy, especially to distract from or legitimize violence against others,” the attendee says, reading from Wikipedia. The protesters start talking in chorus, mostly accusing him of doing what the definition says.

Everyone quiets down, and DeLuca says accusations of pinkwashing are homophobic and, in cases in which it is ascribed solely to Israel, antisemitic.

“We’re talking about LGBT rights for all peoples in Israel, but when you… put Israel aside or to a different standard — that, my friend, is antisemitism,” DeLuca says.

He then says pinkwashing is a reduction of the fight for LGBTQ+ rights in Israel to being a “smokescreen for what’s happening with the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.” He calls pinkwashing, in Israel’s case, a fictitious claim. The protesters laugh.

He then opens the talk to questions, at which point the whole event becomes quite chaotic.

One attendee, a non-protester, asks if his reference to gay men being thrown off buildings is about “how Hamas throws gay people off roofs.”

DeLuca says yes and that the Palestinian Authority (PA) does the same thing. These claims have become widespread recently on social media, accompanied by a 2015 video, but fact-checkers have noted that the video is of the Islamic State committing the atrocity, not Hamas. There are no newspaper-verified cases of Hamas or the PA throwing gay people off roofs.

A protester asks him for a verified source. DeLuca says there are “a ton of videos.” He then again mentions Hamas “dragging gay people behind their motorcycles,” a reference to the aforementioned murder of Ribhi Badawi, who was not gay and whose killing was condemned by a senior Hamas official. There are no newspaper-verified cases of gay people being dragged behind motorcycles in Palestine.

His statements trigger an eruption of simultaneous counter-claims from the crowd before a break in the unintelligible exchange allows a protester to ask a question, which is met with claps from fellow protesters.

“I grew up in a Zionist household, and I’ve heard all of this before. But since I’ve been involved in anti-Zionist organizing for years, I’ve noticed that a lot of the Jewish people in this organizing are also queer, overwhelmingly queer, and I’ve always found that the reason for that is because these people see that the same systems of patriarchy, colonialism, capitalism that perpetuate homophobia also perpetuate Zionism, and they want to fight those systems together. So why do you think it is that anti-Zionist Jewish spaces are overwhelmingly queer spaces?” the protester asks.

“I don’t think that that’s true,” he responds. “That’s what you have claimed, and I’m here to hear your experience. My experience is not that actually.”

The protester asks how much time he had spent in anti-Zionist spaces, and DeLuca says he works with progressive Palestinian organizations that help LGBTQ+ Palestinians come to Israel. 

The exchange then devolves when they can’t come to an agreement on the definition of Zionism, and DeLuca moves on to another question about Israel’s reception of U.S. military and economic aid, to which he erroneously says Israel doesn’t receive billions of dollars of military aid because the terms of these deals require Israel to purchase from U.S. military sources.

U.S. aid accounts for roughly 15% of Israel’s defense budget. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, most of this aid comes in the form of grants, under which Israel must buy U.S. material and services. Thus, the grant money cycles back to the U.S., but Israel does receive, in effect, free military equipment in exchange.

Another protester asks a question: “If you’re having a nuanced discussion on pinkwashing, shouldn’t you add historic, colonial, you know, cultural phenomena, processes on why those governments in the Middle East are the way they are?”

DeLuca says it is not his duty to add this nuance, as he is there talking about LGBTQ+ rights in Israel, though he commented several times on the homophobia across the entire Middle Eastern region.

For several minutes, the interchange between DeLuca and the protesters becomes almost entirely unproductive, starting and stopping, bouncing between topics, questions, yelling, and interruptions.

At one point, DeLuca denies that Israel had sterilized Ethiopian Jewish women on the grounds that the story had been retracted, which is untrue.

The claim originated from a report by Israeli journalist Gal Gabai featuring interviews with 35 Ethiopian immigrants who said they were “sometimes intimidated or threatened” into taking the shots, Ha’aretz reported. The reporting prompted an investigation by former Israeli Comptroller Yosef Shapira, who said the investigation found no evidence of the claims. The investigation didn’t include speaking with the women from Gabai’s program and didn’t refute their allegations, Ha’aretz also reported

Ha’aretz has retracted only one element of their reporting — the claim that the Israeli government has acknowledged the alleged sterilization practice. Gabai’s initial report hasn’t been retracted.

After more yelling, the conversation shifts to the definition of genocide, and the interchange heightens in intensity. On his way out, a protester begins a call-and-response chant and then gives a short speech.

“He’s dancing around these questions without answering them,” the protester says.

“I came here to listen to him, not you,” a non-protesting attendee responds.

Another interchange becomes heated when a protester with Palestinian roots expresses his frustration that his grandmother had been denied medical aid by an Israeli soldier. He reads an excerpt from “Brothers and Others in Arms” by Danny Kaplan, featuring an interview with an Israeli soldier recounting shooting two Palestinian “terrorists” — in the soldier’s words — who were engaged in gay sex during the 1982 Lebanon War.

The protester questions DeLuca about the attitudes expressed by the soldiers, and DeLuca notes repeatedly that he served in the late 1990s, not in the 1980s. The protester then claims that he has been to Nablus, a city in the West Bank, and seen pride flags flying from the houses. DeLuca asks for photos with deep skepticism, but the protester says his phone isn’t charged. DeLuca offers a charger. Non-protesting attendees start laughing.

“What the fuck are you laughing about? My people are being massacred! I cover my face because I’m afraid that my family will be massacred by you monsters! That’s what the IDF is to me. How can you not understand the people here are grieving for this purpose? I have lost so much of my family! Sir, my nephew is five years old!” he exclaims while tearing off his keffiyeh.

The talk comes to a fizzled-out end shortly thereafter. DeLuca turned the lattermost exchange into an Instagram reel, filmed by a woman sitting in a chair who flanked him to his left during the whole event. 

Four days later, UR’s Jewish Voice for Peace chapter issued a statement rejecting the talk for being pinkwashing.

“Throughout the event, DeLuca appealed to Twitter and Google as reliable news sources when they fit his narrative, but belittled students for finding information online when it contradicted him,” the statement said in part. “He engaged in certain extended political conversations that had nothing to do with LGBTQ+ rights, but when students asked him questions he did not want to answer, he said they were too political and off topic.”

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