WASHINGTON (JTA) — The Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Herzog, who represents the most right-wing government in the country’s history, called for a stand against “intolerance and bigotry” targeting the LGBTQ community in the United States and Israel.
“We must also recognize the many challenges that remain, and actively take a stand against those voices — in Israel, here in the U.S. and across the globe — who seek to spread intolerance and bigotry,” Herzog said at a Pride event Thursday at the Israeli embassy. “The struggle for LGBTQ+ rights is far from over, and there must be open cooperation between government and civil society to achieve this important goal.”
Herzog also embraced rights for transgender people, a fraught issue in the current U.S. political climate. He finished by saying, “Gay rights are human rights! Trans rights are human rights! And ultimately — love prevails.”
The embassy has for years hosted a Pride event in June, during Pride month. But rights for the LGBTQ community have drawn intensified conservative opposition in the last year or so, both in Israel and the United States. There are hundreds of proposed laws initiated by Republicans at the state and federal level that would roll back some LGBTQ rights and restrict gender-affirming health care.
Herzog’s unapologetic defense of LGBTQ rights is more notable given the fact that there are a number of self-declared “homophobes” in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition.
The headline speaker at the event was Rachel Levine, the Jewish and openly transgender assistant U.S. Secretary for Health, appearing in person, in her uniform as an admiral, the rank conferred on assistant secretaries of health. Last year Levine delivered a video message to the event.
Levine also spoke out for transgender rights. “This has been a very hard year for transgender people and trans youth in particular, across the United States,” she said, referring to the wave of anti-trans bills that have arisen over the past year.
“These ideological and politically motivated attacks in numerous states are not grounded in science, or evidence of any kind. Gender-affirming care is essential health care!” she said to applause.
The featured performer was Netta Barzilai, the Israeli winner of the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest who has become a favorite of the LGBTQ community. Accompanying herself on a looping machine, she sang four songs that she said encouraged the embrace of one’s identity, including “Toy,” the Eurovision-winning song, and “I Love My Nails.” The lyrics include: “I, I love my nails, I, I love my nails/Oh my God, I can’t stop looking at myself.”
Introducing the song, Netta, as she is known onstage, said she learned to love herself at the manicurist. “I made myself so unique and peculiar that nobody could compare me to anyone,” she said. “And after that, I became so confident, so in love with [my] physique, I’m so in love with my personality that nobody could ever take that away from me.”
The Pride event Thursday was unlike previous affairs at the embassy, which had mainly been occasions for speeches. Guests were encouraged to wear bold colors and clothing. Herzog’s wife Shirin wore a tuxedo shirt with a pink men’s tie featuring a penguin pattern. (Penguins, who occasionally pair as same sex couples, are an LGBTQ symbol.)
Cocktails flowed freely, in the colors of the Pride flag: sangria (red); whiskey sour (orange); tequila sunrise (yellow); mojito (green); blue lagoon (blue); and purple rain (purple).
Herzog’s brother is the Israeli president, Isaac Herzog, who is addressing Congress on July 19 to mark 75 years of the U.S.-Israel relationship.