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Israel is trying to address a PR problem. A recent BBC poll ranked Israel among the most unpopular countries in the world. With the peace process stagnant, many respondents, especially in Europe, said they see Israel as a negative influence in the world. And to improve its image, Israel has launched a public relations offensive. Part of that campaign is focused on gay rights. Israel is styling itself as a haven for the gay community. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports from Tel Aviv.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: The sun is setting, gay pride flags wave next to the water, same-sex couples kiss and cuddle on the beach. This is Tel Aviv, what the government of Israel is now pushing as one of the gay friendliest cities in the world, and gay tourism is booming.
JORG GROSSKOPF: It's a place you have to go - good parties, nice people, beautiful people and just different from all the other tourist destinations you can go to.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That is Jorg Grosskopf, who's from Germany, and he's here with his partner Peter. This is the seventh time they've come to Israel on vacation. Is the scene good though? Is it fun? I mean, is it a party town?
GROSSKOPF: Tel Aviv? Of course it is, although I'm getting a little bit too old for it. But it is. Definitely, yeah.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But it's not just about the beaches and the clubs here. Israel has laws protecting the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, or LGBT, community.
ITAI PINKAS: LGBT rights in Israel are truly an achievement. It's an obligation to show to the world.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Former Tel Aviv city council member Itai Pinkas says gays can openly serve in the army. While all civil marriages in Israel are prohibited - they are the purview of religious authorities - gay marriages from other countries are respected. And the LGBT community has other protections as well. That's not the case in other parts of the Middle East, he says.
PINKAS: And people should not forget that our neighborhood is not a good one for gays as for women as for everyone that is not religious or very conservative.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But not everyone in the gay rights community here agrees that the government should be taking credit for the situation in Israel.
MIKE HAMEL: They don't have the right to claim fame on that.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mike Hamel is on the board of the national LGBT taskforce.
HAMEL: If Israel is a haven for the LGBT people it's because of the LGBT community, the organizations that are working very hard to make it a good place for LGBT people to live. It's not because of the government policies. It's in spite of the government policies.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hamel says, generally speaking, successive governments here have not been supportive of gay rights and it took legal challenges for there to be progress. And that continues today. For example, a recent bid to include a specific clause-barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in a students' right bill have been blocked by Israel's justice minister. He's a member of an ultra-religious party here. Israel's current government is a coalition that includes several conservative religious parties which control sensitive ministries like justice and the interior. Ministries which control what services and rights the gay community has, says Hamel.
HAMEL: When it comes to practical things, we still have a hard battle to fight.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Other critics accuse the government of what they term pinkwashing. Gay groups that support the Palestinian bid for independence use that phrase to describe Israel's PR strategy. They charge that the Israeli government is highlighting the rights enjoyed by the gay community in Israel to obscure the abuses of the occupation. Sari Bashi is with the Israeli human rights group Gisha, which advocates on behalf of the Palestinians.
SARI BASHI: Israel is a wonderful country in many ways. The sea is beautiful. It's a wonderful country for hi-tech and they've made a lot of progress in terms of gay rights. And that's great. It doesn't change the fact that what is going on in the occupied Palestinian territory is a severe violation of human rights that needs to be stopped.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: On June 8, Tel Aviv will be hosting its annual gay pride parade, and organizers say, and the government here has publicized, that it's expected to be the biggest one ever. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro NPR News, Tel Aviv.
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