TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Tel Aviv has long been a gay paradise, one of the few places in the Middle East where gays feel free to walk hand-in-hand and kiss in public.
Now, thanks to its balmy climate, vibrant nightlife and a creative government-backed branding campaign, the city has become one of the world's top gay tourist destinations.
As always in the Middle East, however, conflict is never far away, and some critics have accused Israel of using such tolerance as a way to divert attention from alleged transgressions against Palestinians.
Tel Aviv devotes about $100,000 — more than a third of its international marketing budget — to drawing gay tourists. Though no exact figures exist, officials estimate that tens of thousands of gay tourists from abroad arrive annually.
"We are trying to create a model for openness, pluralism, tolerance," Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai told The Associated Press. "Live and let live — this is the city of Tel Aviv."
The city's first openly gay-owned hotel was opened recently and numerous city-backed travel sites direct gay visitors to the hottest clubs, bars and resorts in town.
"We've long recognized the economic potential of the gay community. The gay tourist is a quality tourist, who spends money and sets trends," said Pini Shani, a Tourism Ministry official who has been involved in the campaign. "There's also no doubt that a tourist who's had a positive experience here is of PR value. If he leaves satisfied, he becomes an Israeli ambassador of good will."
That's exactly what Israel's opponents fear. They derisively call the embrace of gay culture "pinkwashing" — a conscious attempt to play down what they call violations of Palestinian human rights by Israel behind an image of tolerance.
Human rights groups accuse Israel of various violations against Palestinians, such as arresting minors, demolishing Palestinian homes built without permits, seizing Palestinian land in the West Bank, detaining Palestinians for months without charge, and failing to prosecute soldiers for wrongdoing in Palestinian areas. Israel says it respects human rights and that its practices in the Palestinian areas are solely due to security concerns.
"Increasing gay rights have caused some people of good will to mistakenly judge how advanced a country is by how it responds to homosexuality," Sarah Schulman, a lesbian activist and professor at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York, wrote in a New York Times op-ed in November.
The column drew an angry rebuke from James Kirchick, a contributing editor at The New Republic. Kirchick, who is gay, accused Schulman and her supporters of having an "ulterior agenda."
"So consumed are they by hatred of Israel that they are willing to distort the truth about the horrible repression of homosexuals in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. If there's any cleaning of dirty laundry going on here, it is Schulman's whitewashing the plight of Palestinian gays," he wrote in the online magazine Tablet.
Tel Aviv has in fact become a haven for homosexual Palestinians, who can face ostracism or persecution at home in the West Bank, as well as ultra-Orthodox Jews, who escaped their repressive homes for the freedom of the big city.
Behind its image of a society struggling with religious coercion and the constant threat of war, Israel is one of the world's most progressive countries in terms of gay rights.
Gays serve openly in Israel's military and parliament, and the Supreme Court has granted gays a variety of family rights such as inheritance and survivors' benefits.
Israel is the first country to feature a same-sex duo on its version of the television competition "Dancing with the Stars" and gays, lesbians and even a transsexual are among the country's most popular musicians and actors.
Officially, there is no gay marriage in Israel primarily because there is no civil marriage. All weddings must be done through the Jewish rabbinate, which considers homosexuality a sin and a violation of Jewish law. But the state recognizes same-sex couples who marry abroad.
Gay adoption is officially illegal but couples can get around the law and surrogacy or adopting abroad is an option for many same-sex couples. The partner of a parent can adopt the child of his or her partner.
Aeyal Gross, a law professor at Tel Aviv University, noted the huge strides made in Israeli gay rights. But he also accused the government of "co-opting" the gay community to deflect attention away from violations against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and African migrants who seek refuge in the Jewish state.
"The more Israel brands itself as a liberal democracy, the less pressure will be on it internationally," Gross said. "If you care about gay rights, then you should also care when the rights of others are abused."
Such concerns seem far from the minds of visitors in Tel Aviv. The city holds a festive annual gay parade, rainbow flags are often seen flying from apartment windows and it has a community center for gays.
The city was recently recognized by readers of the travel website GayCities and American Airlines customers as "Best Gay City of 2011," ahead of New York, Toronto and London. The competition said the "gay capital of the Middle East is exotic and welcoming with a Mediterranean c'est-la-vie attitude."
Dennis Muller, a 22-year-old tourist from Berlin, agreed.
"You enter Tel Aviv and you are in the gay dream," Muller said on a recent weeknight inside the packed Dreck nightclub. "It's like entering a bubble of peace for homosexuals or LGBT people in the Middle East."
Omer Gershon, 40, a veteran of the Tel Aviv gay club scene, said tourists are drawn to the city's "crazy" night life.
"The need for escapism is very high, so people go out every night to celebrate life," he said, adding that tourists find Israeli men "very exotic."
Things are very different just an hour away in Jerusalem, where two-thirds of the city's 800,000 residents come from the ultra-Orthodox Jewish or Arab sectors.
In 2005, an ultra-Orthodox protester stabbed three marchers at a Jerusalem gay parade. A few years ago, a lawmaker from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party suggested in parliament that earthquakes were divine punishment for homosexual activity.
Tel Aviv has not been immune to such violence. In 2009, a masked gunman opened fire at a center for gay and lesbian youth, killing a 26-year-old male counselor and a 17-year-old girl. It was the worst assault against Israel's gay community. The gunman was never caught.
Generally, though, Tel Aviv's atmosphere is so liberal that certain clubs now refer to themselves as being "straight-friendly," said Leon Avigad, who owns Brown, an urban boutique hotel that caters to international guests.
"Tel Aviv is so gay that you don't need to declare yourself as a gay institution in order to attract gays," said Avigad, 40, who is married to a man and has a young daughter. "The Western world loves this mixture of Eastern warmth and the urban life of a big metropolis and the Western finesse and fine things in life."
He said he's not concerned with the country's precarious politics.
"Because Israel is doing things that I personally may not agree with does not mean that it cannot be very interesting as a gay destination for foreign travelers. It just adds to the spice," he said.