Etai Pinkas, a social and environmental activist in Israel, came to Hofstra on Tuesday, Feb. 28 to discuss his role in LGBTQ+ issues and sustainability practices, as well as to talk about activism in an event sponsored by Hofstra Hillel and Intercultural Engagement and Inclusion.
Pinkas made the event informal; he sat in a chair at the front of Plaza Room Middle with the attending students gathered around, and talked about the struggle for LGBTQ+ equality in Israel, as well as his life and his work.
Pinkas – named one of the 100 most influential people in Israel – wanted to be involved and engaged with politics since he was a child living in Tel Aviv.
He worked to bring some light and humor to serious issues and had the audience laughing at various points during the event.
“Growing a little bit older, in my early teens – 11, 12, 13 – I realized I wasn’t going to be straight. I didn’t know exactly where I was going to end up, but I knew straight wasn’t the case, and since we’re talking about the 80s, being gay was still illegal,” he explained. At that time in Israel, being gay carried a 10-year prison sentence.
He continued, “I pretty much realized that being gay and getting a political office was not going to work together, and I gave up this idea, this dream I had to engage in leadership.”
After finishing his time in the Israeli Defense Forces, Pinkas went to law school. He then came back to his dream of leadership, and joined the National Association for LGBTQ People. With this association, Pinkas helped organize the first pride parade in Tel Aviv.
In 2003, Pinkas was elected to city council. “I served for 5 years in a variety of positions, including the mayor’s first consultant on LGBT issues. This position never existed before that in Israel,” he said.
Another one of Pinkas’ accomplishments is forming the first government-run LGBTQ+ center. “I committed to my voters, to my constituency, to form the first LGBT center, the first one that is governmental – the government actually established it. It means it is the only LGBT center in the world that is not only financed and supported by the government, but the building is not something we had to raise funds to build or renovate,” Pinkas said. “We didn’t have to raise a penny to start it. That doesn’t exist anywhere else.”
In an effort to keep the event more of a discussion than a lecture, Pinkas took questions from students throughout. He briefly discussed the current political climate in the United States, with regard to LGBTQ+ issues, after being asked what he thinks the next step in the fight for equal rights is. Pinkas said, “I think the situation is very delicate. I think right now you’re not in a position to look around and say, ‘what else can I get’ in terms of LGBTQ stuff. It’s more about protecting what you have.”
Pinkas and his husband, Yoav Arad, have challenged Israel’s legal system on two issues: same-sex marriages and surrogacy for same-sex couples. Both of these issues have reached the Israeli Supreme Court as a result of Pinkas’ appeals.
Daniel Davidson, a sophomore political science major, found the discussion engaging. “I liked his philosophical perspective, that you should question everything unless it hurts anyone else; it’s not a question of accepting unconditionally what has been before. I thought that was very interesting. Because of how I think of things, I have to say I identify with that a lot.”
In addition to his work with LGBTQ+ activism, Pinkas is also very involved with environmental issues in Israel. He is currently working on the largest ever municipal project in Israel; the plan is to create tunnels for some of the major roads and put a park on top. This makes it more environmental, as well as quieter for residents of the area.
“Certainly, all the things [Pinkas] has been involved in are really amazing. And to hear it first-hand is amazing,” said Rabbi Dave Siegel, the executive director for Hofstra Hillel. “I am encouraged, in part by the great work [Pinkas] is doing.”