January 08, 2007
Tel Aviv, the final gay frontier
These are the voyages of the British gay journalist in his continuing mission to explore strange new worlds
by Chas Newkey Burden
Tel Aviv resident Justin Rudzki was strolling across the city’s busy Dizengoff Square one day when he spotted an Arab man. Their eyes met and the two men approached one another. But this wasn’t to be yet another moment of conflict between Jew and Arab in the Middle East. The pair instead swapped phone numbers and arranged a date. You might not expect such an encounter to be able to occur in Israel. But then the more you look into gay life in this country, the more surprises you uncover.
When I told friends I was visiting Israel, the common response was “Be careful, make sure you don’t get killed.” In fact, such is the level of security there, I felt far, far safer in Israel than I do in London. Similarly, when I told friends I was visiting Israel to write a feature for a gay magazine, the common response was: “Be careful, I bet it’s a really homophobic country.”
It is nothing of the sort. Workplace discrimination against gay people is outlawed; the Knesset had an openly gay member; in schools, teenagers learn about the difficulties of being gay and the importance of treating all sexualities equally. The country’s army, the Israel Defence Force has many dozens of openly gay high-ranking officers who, like all gay soldiers in its ranks, are treated equally by order of the government.
The Supreme Court has ruled that gay couples are eligible for spousal and widower benefits. Nearly all mainstream television dramas in Israel regularly feature gay storylines. When transsexual Dana International won the 1998 Eurovision Song Contest as Israel’s representative, 80 per cent of polled Israelis called her “an appropriate representative of Israel.” Meanwhile, in neighbouring Arab states, laws governing homosexuality are brutal. In Lebanon, you can face a year in prison for being gay. In Saudi Arabia, homosexuality is punishable by death. In Iran they’ve managed to come up with an even worse sentence: First torture, then death. These are not just theoretical punishments; these sentences are regularly carried out.
The legal situation in the Palestinian territories is less clear-cut but gay men are routinely and brutally tortured by their families and communities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Gay Palestinians are tortured by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. So in terms of legislation, Israel is incredibly advanced by any standard, let alone that of a Middle Eastern country which is less than 60 years old.
Not that this tolerance means, however, that Israeli gay men do not face personal and religious challenges in coming to terms with their sexuality. When I met 20-year-old Yossi Herzog in Tel Aviv, those contradictions and challenges were apparent.
Slim, pretty and lively, at first sight he could be any of the boys who queue outside London’s G.A.Y. club on a Saturday night. But as we passed near one of Tel Aviv’s synagogues, he nervously clipped a skull cap on his head. When he took me for a falafel in bustling Shenkin Street, he went through a pre-meal kosher blessing.
But just minutes later, as we sat on the shoreline in the blistering afternoon heat, we were discussing what we do and don’t like doing in bed with other guys. Just like any other gay guys might. Then, I stepped away to take a phone call on my mobile and when I returned, he had put his skull cap back on and was reading Jewish prayers. I had interviewed Yossi the previous evening on Tel Aviv’s ‘Hilton beach’ – it is opposite the Hilton hotel – which is also known as the ‘Gay beach’, where men openly check each other out and pick each other up. Interestingly, it is neighboured by the city’s Religious beach which has separate bathing days for men and women. And all this is just yards from Tel Aviv’s Independence Park, which is the main gay cruising area in Tel Aviv.
Yossi says he’s never been cruising at Tel Aviv’s Independence Park. Well, the lad has hardly had a chance, he only made his aliyah four weeks prior to the interview. He grew up in the USA but had for the previous two years lived in the UK. He can therefore easily compare the UK gay scene with the Israeli one. “I much prefer the gay scene here,” he says. “For a start, the men are so much hotter,” he beams. “Here the men are tall, slim and tanned. Not like in the UK where they are more like cottage cheese – all pasty and chunky.
“Israelis are very blunt, straightforward people and that helps make gay life here much more enjoyable than it is in England. Here, if you like someone you tell them. If you don’t like someone, you tell them. There are none of the ‘playing it cool’ games you get in England, none of the whole ‘should I, shouldn’t I’ text message extravaganza.
House Of Freedom
Jerusalem is Israel’s capital city but the gay capital of the country is Tel Aviv. Bustling and modern, with a warm air of hedonism flowing through it, Tel Aviv has a fine gay scene with a number of bars, clubs, saunas and gay sex shops on its streets. At bars like Evita, a hip, young crowd converges after midnight – none of the gay nightlife gets going much before this – to party into the early hours. The city is also host to the House Of Freedom. Opened in the late 1990s, this is a shelter for gay, lesbian and transgender youngsters between the ages of 12 and 18 who have been thrown out of home after coming out to their parents.
At the House Of Freedom they are counselled by social workers who then visit the parents and attempt to bring about a reconciliation. Those attempts are often successful, each year hundreds of gay youngsters return to a better home thanks to this remarkable institution.
Gay ghetto? Not in here
However, the city’s gay scene does not represent a gay ghetto inside which gay men have to hide. Brandon, 22, moved to Tel Aviv from upstate New York to study at one of the city’s universities. He has a boyfriend back home and he told me they could never consider holding hands in public there. However, when I met Brandon, he was hoping that his boyfriend would soon visit him in Israel. “I can’t wait for him to get here so I can show him how gay-friendly this place is,” he says. “I think he’ll be surprised. I think a lot of people would be.” He has no doubts they will hold hands on the streets of Tel Aviv.
Shai Doitsh, spokesman for the National Association Of LGBT In Israel (Aguda), expands on this theme. “It is not big deal at all for a gay couple to kiss in the street in Tel Aviv,” he says. “In fact, we now have a joke that if a man and a woman are seen kissing in the street, that is more strange!” Shai is full of enthusiasm for the gay scene in Tel Aviv and is looking forward to word getting out about it. “Our gay scene must be the best kept secret in the gay world,” he says.
‘This is a lifesaver for me’
Perhaps the most surprising gay visitors to Israel are those from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Aguda organises Arabic gay evenings where gay Palestinians are invited to come and party with Israelis – and many take up the invitation. “We are their only hope,” he says. “If they came out where they live, they would be killed but they can come and party with us in Israel.” Mahmoud (not his real name) is a 19-year-old gay Israeli Arab from a small town outside Tel Aviv. He is enormously grateful to mainstream Israel for its gay-friendliness. "I cannot be open at all in the town where I live," he sighs, "because it is a predominantly Arab town." What would happen if you came out in the town you live in, I ask. "Very, very bad things," he says and refuses to elaborate.
However, the gay scene of Tel Aviv offers him a haven. "I can come here and be myself," he smiles. "This is a lifesaver for me." He insists he has never faced hostility on the Tel Aviv gay scene because of his Arab roots. So what about liaisons between the two communities? Yossi says that many Israeli Jews are attracted to Israeli Arabs. “I suppose they are the forbidden fruit for us and we probably represent similar to them. So it is an attractive prospect all round. Tourists, too, are a popular prospect among Israeli gays. Everyone wants to fuck a tourist.”
Chas Newkey Burden is a British journalist who recently visited Israel
January 30, 2007
Jerusalem registers its first gay couple
by Ruth Eglash
Jerusalem officially registered its first homosexual couple as married Monday, three months after a ruling by the High Court of Justice paved the way for same-sex couples to be listed in the Interior Ministry’s Population Registry. Binyamin and Avi Rose married on June 28 in Toronto, Canada, but immediately returned to Jerusalem to start building their life together.
"We did the civil ceremony in the hopes that we would eventually be able to make legal what we felt inside," said Avi, an informal Jewish educator for the Young Judaea youth movement. "We wanted the government of Israel to recognize that we are a couple. It was no more of a statement than [coming from] a ‘regular’ couple, but we are both committed Zionists and are hopeful that our union will bring more progress on this issue."
Binyamin, a social worker and therapist who is currently studying at a Conservative yeshiva in Jerusalem, said the registration process at the Interior Ministry had been fairly straightforward. "Once we had all the right documentation, the process was pretty positive," said Binyamin, who made aliya from Britain in 2006. The clerks at the office "were a little confused by our application but they made the necessary changes to the forms and they came through beautifully for us."
"It was wonderful to get married at the city hall in Toronto, but it was far more important for the State of Israel to recognize us as a couple," said Avi, adding that his father, a rabbi in the US, facilitated a religious Jewish ceremony for the couple prior to the civil one. He said Monday’s registration sent a strong message to other gay couples that Israel recognizes and accepts them as Jews like anyone else.
"The protests last year over the Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem really spooked us, and many of our friends here chose to leave the city," said Avi. "But we are very committed to building our lives in Jerusalem and the Interior Ministry provided us with a very positive experience today." Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabene Haddad confirmed that the Roses were the first same-sex couple to be registered at the ministry’s Jerusalem branch. "We work in accordance with the law," she said. "The ministry has no problem with registering same sex marriages and we have become very advanced in processing such requests elsewhere in the country."
In November, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) sponsored five High Court petitions by homosexual couples (not including the Roses) married abroad demanding that the Interior Ministry register them as married. A panel of seven justices, headed by now-retired Supreme Court president Aharon Barak, ruled unanimously that their marriages must be recognized by the state. None of the couples registered in Jerusalem. Yoav Loeff, spokesman for ACRI, told The Jerusalem Post Sunday he was happy November’s High Court decision had paved the way for other same sex couples to be recognized, but he said there was still a long way to go before the discrimination against such couples completely disappeared.
"There is still discrimination in Israel, and not everyone can afford or wants to go to Canada to get married," said Loeff. He said that while several other countries allowed such marriage ceremonies, Canada is a popular place for foreign couples to tie the knot because neither person is required to be a citizen. Irit Rosenblum, director of the New Family organization, which advocates for the right of Israelis to establish marriages or unions outside of the traditional system, said the registration of a gay couple in the capital was especially significant following the violent debate over the gay pride parade.
"They deserve to live their lives like anyone else," she said. "This is more than a legal victory, it is a humanitarian victory and a message for society to be more tolerant."
February 5, 2007
West Bank gays more at home in Israel West Bank gays find social life in Israel:They fear new wall will trap them where their lifestyle is taboo
by Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service
Ramallah, West Bank — In the center of town in a cafe named Stars & Bucks, a young Palestinian who likes to be known as the Diva Nawal sips a bright pink milkshake and checks out the early evening crowd. "I’m not the only gay person here, but I’m the only one who’s out," he says, exchanging silent greetings with two young Palestinian men at a nearby table. "They’re also gay, but nobody knows, and you shouldn’t approach them." When the tall, slim, delicately featured Nawal dons the blonde wig, makeup and tight skirts that transform him into a drag queen, he’s ready for his performance — at gay clubs in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa.
A 21-year-old university student with serious professional ambitions, Nawal wouldn’t dream of performing in his hometown, where homosexuality, as in the rest of the Palestinian territories, is strictly taboo, sometimes violently so. Last year, a group of gay Palestinians visiting East Jerusalem from the United States were threatened and one of them badly beaten after they announced plans to join an Israeli gay pride rally. The Web site of ASWAT, an organization of Palestinian gay women, says Palestinian society "has no mercy for sexual diversity and/or any expression of ‘otherness’ away from the societal norms and the assigned roles that were formed for women. … The Palestinian woman has no right to choose an identity other than the one enforced on her by the male figures in her family and surroundings."
So for Nawal and his friends, the only place where they can pursue a full social life is across the border in Israel. "I can’t be honest about my sexuality with my family because they wouldn’t know how to respond, and I respect them too much to want to hurt them," he says. "But the same traditional family values which oppress me in that way also protect me." Although his mannerisms sometimes attract unwelcome comment in the streets of Ramallah, he adds, "no one will attack me physically, because in our society that means my whole extended family will join together to attack them in return. It preserves a kind of balance."
He does not expect it to continue forever, and knows that after he graduates, he will probably leave the West Bank. "This is not a free life," he says. "Apart from private parties inside people’s homes, the only place where I can really behave as I wish is in Israel. Once they complete the security wall and I cannot reach Jerusalem, there will be nowhere to go. I will have to leave."
He is not alone. Saturday night is Arab night at Shushan, a gay bar in central Jerusalem, featuring a drag show that is part karaoke, part cross-cultural celebration. At the top of the bill is the Iman, also known as the Queen of Sheba, a 6-foot-plus black Palestinian with African roots — who keeps his sexuality and nighttime drag queen theatrics carefully hidden from his wife and children. The crowd of about 50 this evening is a mix of Israelis and Palestinians, with a spattering of Western expatriates. The deafening music ranges from Tina Turner and Cyndi Lauper to Arab divas Diana Haddad and Boshra.
Freddy A., a 27-year-old bisexual Arab from East Jerusalem, a regular at Shushan, is a veteran of the Palestinian gay scene. "It’s very tough being gay or bisexual because Arab behavior is still dominated by Islamic tradition, where it is forbidden," says Freddy, a hotel worker and the youngest male in a traditional Muslim family of eight children. "It’s difficult to be with another Palestinian, and because of Israeli-Palestinian politics it’s tough to see someone who isn’t part of your community.
"I have one friend in his early 20s who was beaten by his family when they discovered he was gay, and forced to marry," he says. "Now he’s not in a good situation. He has turned to drugs and drink." Of his own family, Freddy says, "One of my brothers and one of my sisters know about me. My father suspects, but I have to hide it from him. It would be too hard for my family. I respect my father. I wouldn’t want to hurt him." He, too, finds a certain degree of freedom in Israel.
"I’m in Tel Aviv every weekend. On that side, they don’t care. I have two Palestinian lesbian friends whose husbands don’t know about them. To get together, they go to a hotel in West Jerusalem," he says. In Israel, the status of gays and lesbians is more comparable with Western Europe.
As the British gay magazine Attitude approvingly reported in December: "Workplace discrimination against gay people is outlawed; the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) has many openly gay members; in schools, teenagers learn about the difficulties of being gay and the importance of treating all sexualities equally. The country’s army, the Israel Defense Force, has many dozens of openly gay high-ranking officers who, like all gay soldiers in its ranks, are treated equally by order of the government. The Supreme Court has ruled that gay couples are eligible for spousal and widower benefits.
"Nearly all mainstream television dramas in Israel regularly feature gay storylines. When transsexual Dana International won the 1998 Eurovision Song Contest as Israel’s representative, 80 percent of polled Israelis called her ‘an appropriate representative of Israel.’ " At Shushan, gay Israelis and Palestinians mix freely and go home together, although Freddy observes that the broader state of Israeli-Palestinian relations has created tensions that didn’t exist before. "Times have changed," he said. "These days I feel the hatred between both sides even in the gay community."
But compared to gay Palestinians who don’t make it to Israel, Freddy and Nawal are among the lucky ones, said Haneen Maikey, coordinator of the Palestinian Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transsexual Project at a Jerusalem gay center. "It’s actually becoming more difficult for gay Palestinians," said Maikey, 28, whose center organizes a Pride rally every year. "It’s a collective and closed community in which some parts are very religious with a small village atmosphere. Every step toward coming out will get you another step back to the closet."
But she questions the sense of belonging that gay Palestinians like Nawal and Freddy feel in the Israeli gay scene. "At some level, they face racism and discrimination because they are Palestinians," Maikey said. "There is a hidden discrimination with Israeli partners — a feeling that I can make sex with you, but I can’t be seen out with you," she said.
March 11, 2007
In Israel, gay Arab activists forge ahead with plans for a rare public conference
Jerusalem – A rare gathering of openly gay Arab activists is slated to be held in Israel this month, drawing the ire of religious conservatives. Headlined "Home and Exile," the March 28 meeting is meant to spark discussion of homosexuality among Israel’s 1 million Arab citizens, said Roula Deeb, a prominent Arab feminist and one of the scheduled speakers. The conference is being organized by Aswat, an Arab lesbian group based in Haifa, a coastal city home to both Jews and Arabs. Around 100 to 150 people are expected to show up, Deeb said. With homosexuality a taboo topic in much of the Arab world, the meeting is important simply because it is taking place.
Israel is generally tolerant of homosexuality, and the country’s secular metropolis, Tel Aviv, is home to a thriving gay community. But Israel’s Arabs, who make up 20 percent of the population, live mostly in separate communities and homosexuality is still considered out of bounds. When news of the conference, which was advertised on Aswat’s Web site, reached the Islamic Movement in Israel, it sparked a war of words between Arab liberals and Muslim conservatives.
"Lesbians … need treatment, they don’t need to spread their strange ideas in the Arab community," said Mohammed Zbidat, a spokesman for the Islamic Movement, a conservative force that has grown increasingly influential in the Arab Israeli community in recent years. Homosexuality is strictly forbidden by Islam, and an earlier statement issued by the Movement described it as a "cancer" in the Arab community. The conference draws its supporters mostly from the ranks of secular and educated Arabs. It is sponsored by two Haifa cafes popular among Arab intellectuals and artists, and an Arab women’s rap group is scheduled to perform.
"This is a political issue," said Raja Zaatry, a journalist at the left-leaning Ittihad (Unity) newspaper, who condemned the Islamic Movement’s stance in an editorial last week. "Today, they are attacking gays and women — tomorrow, who else?" he said in an interview. "We shouldn’t compromise. We have to challenge this fundamentalist stream in our society." In Lebanon, perhaps the Arab world’s most liberal state, homosexuals have held news conferences and run a magazine called "Barra" — meaning "out" — the only publication of its kind. But nearly everywhere in the Arab world, individuals face persecution if they come out openly. Still, violence against participants in the Haifa conference is not expected.
"We’ve called on people to fight this in all legal means. We don’t condone violence," said the Islamic Movement’s Zbidat. The conference’s organizers did not want to respond to the controversy. "We are focusing all our energies on the conference right now," a spokeswoman said.
Open House fights for J’lem gay parade
jpost staff and AP, THE JERUSALEM POST
The Open House requested on Sunday that the Israel Police allow them to hold a Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem. Ayelet Snur, head of Open House, said that the event, which is scheduled to take place this June, is intended as an event for the gay community and as a demonstration of human rights. Snur commented on the importance of such an event in light of the violent outbreaks related to last year’s event.
Orthodox representatives have already made their anger at the subject clear. Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, Chairman of ZAKA (Disaster Victims Identification) and one of the leading opponents of the parade, said that "There is no question that the city will ignite, it’s a shame people don’t learn the lesson from last year’s events. The struggle this year will make sure that the event organizers will not want to repeat the event ever again." The gay pride parade is normally held every June, but last year, due to the violent dispute, the event was rescheduled for November and held in a closed stadium.
In a related story, a rare gathering of openly gay Arab activists is slated to be held in Israel this month, drawing the ire of religious conservatives. Headlined "Home and Exile," the March 28 meeting is meant to spark discussion of homosexuality among Israel’s 1 million Arab citizens, said Roula Deeb, a prominent Arab feminist and one of the scheduled speakers. The conference is being organized by Aswat, an Arab lesbian group based in Haifa, a coastal city home to both Jews and Arabs.
Around 100 to 150 people are expected to show up, Deeb said. With homosexuality a taboo topic in much of the Arab world, the meeting is important simply because it is taking place. Israel is generally tolerant of homosexuality, and the country’s secular metropolis, Tel Aviv, is home to a thriving gay community. But Israel’s Arabs, who make up 20 percent of the population, live mostly in separate communities and homosexuality is still considered out of bounds. When news of the conference, which was advertised on Aswat’s Web site, reached the Islamic Movement in Israel, it sparked a war of words between Arab liberals and Muslim conservatives.
"Lesbians…need treatment, they don’t need to spread their strange ideas in the Arab community," said Mohammed Zbidat, a spokesman for the Islamic Movement, a conservative force that has grown increasingly influential in the Arab Israeli community in recent years. Homosexuality is strictly forbidden by Islam, and an earlier statement issued by the Movement described it as a "cancer" in the Arab community. The conference draws its supporters mostly from the ranks of secular and educated Arabs. It is sponsored by two Haifa cafes popular among Arab intellectuals and artists, and an Arab women’s rap group is scheduled to perform.
"This is a political issue," said Raja Zaatry, a journalist at the left-leaning Ittihad (Unity) newspaper, who condemned the Islamic Movement’s stance in an editorial last week. "Today, they are attacking gays and women – tomorrow, who else?" he said in an interview. "We shouldn’t compromise. We have to challenge this fundamentalist stream in our society." In Lebanon, perhaps the Arab world’s most liberal state, homosexuals have held news conferences and run a magazine called Barra – meaning "out" – the only publication of its kind. But nearly everywhere in the Arab world, individuals face persecution if they come out openly.
Still, violence against participants in the Haifa conference is not expected. "We’ve called on people to fight this in all legal means. We don’t condone violence," said the Islamic Movement’s Zbidat. The conference’s organizers did not want to respond to the controversy. "We are focusing all our energies on the conference right now," a spokeswoman said.
30 March 2007
Arab lesbians wary of defying gay taboo
Diaa Hadid in Haifa, Israel – ARAB lesbians gathered this week in the northern Israeli city of Haifa at a rare public event, defying protests from Islamic radicals and a taboo in their own society. So strong is the antipathy toward homosexuality in their communities that only a few of the Arab women in the crowd of about 250 openly identified themselves as gay. That was a sign of how much Arab women feared being known as lesbians, said Samira, 31, a conference organiser, who came with her Jewish Israeli girlfriend. "We’d like all women to come out of the closet. We work for them," said Samira, who battled her family when they found out she was gay.
Israel’s Jewish majority is generally tolerant of homosexuality, and the country’s secular metropolis, Tel Aviv, is home to a thriving gay community. On the other hand, Jerusalem, with its large proportion of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews, is strongly anti-gay. And among Israel’s Arab citizens, who make up 20 per cent of the country’s population, homosexuality is taboo to most. Homosexuality is strictly forbidden by Islam, and a statement by a large Muslim group in Israel described it as a "cancer" in the Arab community.
Only ten to 20 Arab lesbians attended the conference and most blended in with their Israeli counterparts without making their presence known. Poetry readings, music and rap artists entertained the conference organised by Aswat, an organisation for Arab lesbians. "We are here to say they [Arab lesbians] are not alone," said Rawda Morcos, Aswat’s spokeswoman, one of a tiny minority of openly gay Arab women. Some related painful experiences. Samira, who would give no surname, said she told a sibling she was gay two years ago. The news spread among the family, and her 70-year-old mother fell into a depression, begging her to change.
But she eventually accepted her daughter’s homosexuality "in her own way," by packing large boxes of food for Samira whenever she came to visit. Outside the conference hall, 20 women protesters in headscarves held up signs reading: "God, we ask you to guide these lesbians to the true path." Khadijeh Daher, 35, described lesbianism as a "sickness." Even rapper Nahwa Abdul Aal, who performed for the gathering, didn’t support the gays. "Being at this conference hasn’t changed my mind," she said. "I still think it’s wrong."
March 28, 2007
Arab Lesbians Hold Rare Public Meeting in Haifa, Defying Islamist Ban
Haifa, Israel – Arab lesbians gathered in the northern Israeli city of Haifa at a rare public event, quietly defying protests from Islamists and a taboo in their own society. So strong is the antipathy toward homosexuality in their communities that only few of the Arab women in the crowd of about 250 at the Wednesday meeting were gay — a sign of how much Arab women feared being identified as lesbians, said Samira, 31, a conference organizer, who came with her Jewish Israeli girlfriend.
"We’d like all women to come out of the closet — that’s our role. We work for them," said Samira, who battled her own family when they found out she was a lesbian. Israel’s Jewish majority is generally tolerant of homosexuality, and the country’s secular metropolis, Tel Aviv, is home to a thriving gay community. On the other hand, Jerusalem, with its large proportion of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews, is strongly anti-gay.
And among Israel’s Arab citizens, who make up 20 percent of the country’s population, homosexuality is taboo to most. Homosexuality is strictly forbidden by Islam, and a statement issued by a large Muslim group in Israel described it as a "cancer" in the Arab community. Driven deep underground for the most part, only 10 to 20 Arab lesbians attended the conference, organizers said, and most blended in with their Israeli counterparts and Arab backers without making their presence known. Poetry readings, music and Arab women rappers entertained the conference, called "Home and Exile in Queer Experience," organized by Aswat, an organization for Arab lesbians, with members in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"We are here to say they (Arab lesbians) are not alone," said Rawda Morcos, Aswat’s spokeswoman, one of a tiny minority of Arab women who are openly gay.
Some related painful experiences.
Samira, who has a dozen brothers and sisters, said she told a sibling she was gay two years ago. The news quickly spread among the family, and her 70-year-old mother fell into a depression, begging her daughter to change her ways. But she eventually accepted her daughter’s homosexuality "in her own way," by packing large boxes of food for Samira whenever she came to visit.
"My mother said, ‘take the food, for you and your girlfriend’," Samira recalled, agreeing to be identified only by her first name for fear of reprisals. Some of her family never came around. A pregnant sister told Samira she would "never touch her children." Morcos said she had her car smashed up regularly for months and received threatening phone calls at her family home when her village in northern Israel found out she was a lesbian. Many of the attendees said they were sad that the only place safe enough to hold a conference for gay Arab women was in a Jewish area of Haifa, which has a mixed Arab-Jewish population.
"This conference is being held, somehow, in exile, even though it’s our country … but it’s not being held in Nazareth or Umm el-Fahm (two large Israeli Arab towns)," said Yussef Abu Warda, a playwright. Outside the conference hall, 20 women protesters in headscarves and long, loose robes held up signs reading, "God, we ask you to guide these lesbians to the true path." Khadijeh Daher, 35, described lesbianism as a "sickness." Security was tight. Attendance was by invitation only, and reporters were not allowed to take photographs, use tape recorders or identify people. Even rapper Nahwa Abdul Aal, who performed for the gathering, didn’t support the gays. "Being at this conference hasn’t changed my mind," she said. "I still think it’s wrong.
May 29, 2007
Ministry of Tourism’s next target: Bringing gay and lesbian tourists to Israel. The means: A campaign featuring a same-sex couple on a camel, two men in yarmulkes kissing in Jerusalem The proudest campaign ever was launched by the Tourism Ministry in cooperation with the Association for Civil Rights and the Israeli Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Association (the “Aguda”). The goal: To encourage GLBT tourism to Jerusalem. For the past few years, Tel Aviv, along with Berlin, Barcelona, and San Francisco, has established itself as a GLBT friendly city and a popular vacation site for the community’s members.
As a result, the Tourism Ministry decided to launch a new campaign aimed at attracting "proud visitors" to the Holy Land. The campaign focuses on scenes from the Israeli gay community’s lifestyle. Representatives of Israeli travel companies will distribute thousands of brochures to participants in pride events worldwide.
The photos for the campaign was taken in many sites throughout Israel, including Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. "I chose sites that represent the country," said Eitan Tal, the campaign’s photographer, "in Jerusalem the models wore yarmulkes for the religious GLBT crowd. In the Dead Sea I shot the models floating in the water holding hands with tiny trunks on. I am happy I was able to assist in the effort to improve the country’s economy."
Campaign managers also launched an internet site with information about clubs, bars, restaurants, hotels and airlines offering service to Israel. In the future, they plan to add "Proud" travel packages especially designed to fit the needs of the gay visitors.
Pink, white and blue
"For whom should I wait late at night / When the city is sound a sleep / While I’m sitting at the temple’s wall ? For God, or for the Moroccan lad ?" Jacob Israel de Haan, known by many as Poet of The Jewish Song, was one of the most enigmatic, complex, and contradictory figures in the history of the State of Israel. A gay Orthodox Jewish poet who had published sadomasochistic and homosexual novels in Holland, de Haan immigrated to Palestine in 1919 to fight for the Zionist cause. While he was adored by the Arab press as a great Arabophile, he also served as legal defense for Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the Jewish nationalist, when he was tried for his resistance against the British occupation. And after just a few years after his arrival in Palestine on a cold January day, he aligned himself with the ultra-religious, anti-Zionist group led by Rabbi Sonnenfeld and was shortly thereafter murdered, constituting what is considered to be the first political assassination in Palestine.
De Haan’s life expresses the braid of politics, religion, and culture which has always found a tie in the issue of sexuality and, specifically, homosexuality. Today, the braid has further tightened and twisted with players from all of Israel’s religions coming from all parts of the world to engage in the battle that is now centered on the upcoming international Gay Pride Parade scheduled to take place in Jerusalem in August.
Zionist pink dream
But through all of the controversy and struggle, gay Jews from throughout the world continue to make aliya and to live, work, and study in Israel as a furtherance of the Zionist dream. Life as a gay Jew in Israel is of course not without its complications but as EJ, a gay Jew from New York who asked not to be identified, remarked, “It is surprising how many gay people there are who’ve made aliya.” Though given the atmosphere of acceptance and tolerance in Tel Aviv where, EJ notes, gays and lesbians can frequently be seen holding hands in public without attracting undue attention, the situation is not so strange.
"The community here is much smaller than New York and London,” he explains. “But I think the people here are much less pretentious and they’re also very friendly – they love travelers and tourists. They’re much more outgoing whereas in New York they’re more ’whatever’." EJ came to Israel as a new immigrant in the beginning of 2005. Being gay did not weigh heavily on his decision to emigrate from New York where he had a growing career and a comfortable life. It was, he explains, his Zionist aspirations that brought him to Israel and, so far, have kept him here. “By being here I feel like I am contributing to the Jewish people in Israel directly. Because I don’t have kids and I don’t know if I will ever have kids, I feel that at least I’m adding something, while I’m alive, to Israel in some way that I couldn’t do otherwise."
Holy-land, not Homo-land
However, not everyone agrees with this position. The prominent Brooklyn-based Rabbi Levin who is presently in Israel to help spearhead the struggle against the staging of the international Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem maintains : “Ill advised for those of the homosexual inclination or heightened libido heterosexuals who want to come to Israel. The God of the Jews abhors sexual promiscuity, immorality, licentiousness, et cetera.” Levin, during a phone interview in which he came across as energetic, charismatic, and extremely busy (he had to answer his call waiting on his cell phone five or six times) is not one to mince words about his opinion of gays, specifically, and immorality in general. Israel, he believes, is a “spiritual isolation chamber which has a higher standard of acceptable behavior.”
When asked if it Israel should make a concerted effort to bring Jews from all over the world, regardless of their moral aptitude, in order to obey the Biblical injunction to gather the world’s Jewry in the Holy Land, he responded by saying, “Absolutely not. Theoretically, if homosexuals had come here with a low key, with a low voice, I could see how they wouldn’t be hurting anybody. People like that carry spiritual and political germs into the isolation bubble – in the Holy Land. This is the Holy Land,” he adds for emphasis, “not the Homo Land.”
They came. Then what ?
Despite this sentiment, a number of groups are making efforts to bring Jews to Israel regardless of their sexual orientation and, in some cases, specifically on account of their sexuality. The Jewish Agency, as spokesman Michael Jankelowitz explained, does not discriminate on the basis of any personal feature of a potential oleh. "It’s none of our business what the sexual orientation of a person is,” he says. “We encourage aliya amongst those who are eligible, in general, under the Law of the Right of Return and there is no affirmative action for any group." Fair enough. But what about the gay immigrants who are already living in Israel in communities less tolerant than the English-speaking or Western European communities ? On this issue, the Ministry of Absorption, under Ze’ev Boim, did not respond to questions sent via email to the ministry’s spokeswoman.
But Shaul Gannon, a 12 year volunteer and former general manager of the Aguda, Israel’s only national gay advocacy group, says that in general the Ministry of Absorption turns to NGOs to address the needs of specific of special populations. The Russian and Ethiopian gay populations in Israel, he explains, are two extremely at-risk groups who face an uphill struggle not only with regard to their absorption into a new country but also in the face of virulent hostility towards gays from the Russian and Ethiopian traditions.
The Aguda offers professional services such as psychological counseling and social but, Gannon recounts, “It took us some time to understand that the word ‘psychology’ in Russian is equivalent to psychiatry, and psychiatry was used as a weapon against people who had a free will or free mind to send them to the gulag.
"The Soviet government would establish that you are crazy because of your ideas or your sexual identity and you were sent to a faraway place. So every time we would offer the Russians professional help they would jump back like we were setting them on fire."
Gays within the Ethiopian community in Israel present a situation more difficult than even that of the Russians. "We have no group, we have no connection with them,” he says. “We know that they exist, but they don’t come to us – neither young nor old. We also know that the cases of HIV are highest among the Ethiopian population."
It’s not black-and-pink situation
But despite the mountainous challenges confronted by the Aguda, which was founded by 12 Anglo immigrants in 1975, there is much to be positive about, according to Gannon. Israel, for instance, has one of the few armies where gays and transgender people can serve openly and it is possibly the only army in the world in which people with HIV can serve if they wish to. Even Gannon, an expert on the politics of homosexuality in Israel, admits he is at a loss to explain phenomena like these. Explaining much of the dynamic swirling around the issue of homosexuality is a near-impossible task. However, despite the flare of tension surrounding the approaching Pride Parade, gay Jews will, in all likelihood, continue to make aliya in an effort to realize an age-old Jewish dream.
But the many forces of this issue, which makes friends out of enemies and enemies out of friends, will have to be negotiated to find the kind of balance that is represented by the very existence of the State of Israel. In Rabbi Levin’s opinion “The whole message is self control.” In EJ’s opinion, which focuses around tolerance and the relinquishing of what he considers to be an ancient prejudice, the state of gay relations in Israel is best summed up by a comparison with his native country.
“Everyone knows the Bush Administration is not big on gays, but you would never hear anyone in the Administration say what (Minister of Industry, Trade, and Commerce) Eli Yishai said, that we’re diseased, mentally ill, immoral and corrupt and that we should be fed hormones to make us normal. How a minister in government in a country with anti-incitement laws can get away with saying something like that is amazing. It’s not right.”
But whatever the opinions might be, and however they may clash, participants in the conflict surrounding gay aliya and gay relations in Israel would be well served by the story of Jacob Israel de Haan which teaches us that when the parties in conflict cannot strike a balance, the risk is run of losing someone loved by everyone.
Gene Epstein contributed to this story
June 06, 2007
Israel Votes to Ban Gay Pride in Jerusalem
The Israeli parliament, the Knesset, yesterday voted overwhelmingly to pass two bills designed to ban the Gay Pride March in Jerusalem scheduled for June 21. Both bills were introduced by ultra-right religious parties. One bill — introduced by a deputy from the right-wing National Religious Party, a Zionist party associated with the Israeli settlers in the Occupied Territories — amends the Basic Law on Jerusalem to "enable the Jerusalem municipal council to ban parades and rallies in town for considerations of disturbance to public order, offending the public’s sensitivities or for religious considerations," the Israeli news agency YNet reports. It passed on first reading by 40-23. Jerusalem is currently led by ultra-Orthodox Mayor Uri Lupolyansky (left). The second bill, introduced by deputies from Shas — an ultra-conservative party representing hyper-Orthodox Sephardic and Misrahi Jews — "is more comprehensive and calls for a ban on pride parades throughout the country." This bill also passed on first reading by 41-21.
The left-wing Meretz party bloc in the Knesset was the only party group to vigorously oppose both bills. The head of the Meretz Knesset bloc, Zahava Gal-On (right), said in response to the vote on the two bills: "The government has revealed the extent of its ineptness by allowing the coalition members to vote freely, banning the gay parade in Jerusalem and thereby denying the gay community’s freedom of expression." She went on to add, "A double-sided sword has been turned toward the community. The Knesset is crazy, with a crazy government where the tyranny of the majority is more important than human rights," she added.
An attempt last year to hold a Gay Pride march in Jerusalem provoked two weeks of violent riots by ultra-Orthodox Jews, and the march was banned. Instead, a gay rally was held in a soccer stadium. The two bills had been denounced by Jerusalem Pride organizers. "The pride parade is an expression of our coming out of the closet. An attempt to prevent it is actually an attempt to shove us back into the closet," Noa Sattath, chairperson of the Jerusalem Open House — an LGBT organization and principal organizer of the Gay Pride march — said this past Sunday. After the bills’ passage yesterday, Sattath told the Jerusalem Post: "This is a dangerous bill, which could damage the bedrock of Israel’s democratic principles because of narrow political interests. We will continue to fight it in parliament and through the Gay Pride Parade…I feel that we and democracy in general are being harassed."
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert – who has a daughter who is openly lesbian – said that he did not believe Jerusalem was the "natural place" for the Gay Pride Parade because of the city’s "special sensitivity." But while refusing to support the banning bills, Olmert "also declined to direct the coalition on how to vote on the bill, giving all the coalition members freedom of vote. All of the presidential candidates, who are currently vying for the support of the religious MKs ahead of next week’s vote, were absent from the vote due to the sensitivity of the bill," according to the Jerusalem Post. At the end of May, Jerusalem Police gave conditional approval for a gay pride parade in the city, but said that the event was subject to restrictions based on the situation on the ground.
"It is within the district commander’s jurisdiction to determine, according to intelligence … he may have at hand, any restrictions he sees fit [for] the event, its location, and arrangements," Jerusalem District Police Chief Cmdr. Ilan Franco (left) wrote in response to the organizers’ request for a permit, according to the website Israeli Insider. Both the bills passed yesterday require two more votes for final passge, although some Israeli media say there is doubt about the two bills being passed before the scheduled June 21 Pride march in Jerusalem, given the preoccupation of the Knesset with its task of electing a new Israeli president.
14th June 2007
Gays and religious opponents to march on the same day
by PinkNews.co.uk writer
Police in the Israeli city of Jerusalem have given the go-ahead for a gay Pride march in the city next Thursday and a counter-demonstration by orthodox Jews on the same day. The gay Pride event will move through the centre of the city and finish with a party in a park. More than 7,000 police officers will be on duty to make sure that both events pass of peacefully. The religious protest will take place on the outskirts of the city. Earlier this week a group of orthodox rabbis from the Eda Haredit sect placed a curse on an upcoming gay parade.
At the 2005 Pride event in Jerusalem a member of the sect stabbed three of the participants.
"To all those involved, sinners in spirit, and whoever helps and protects them, may they feel a curse on their souls, may it plague them and may evil pursue them. They will not be requitted of their transgressions from heavenly judgment," their message read, according to The Jerusalem Post. Ultra-religious members of the Israeli parliament are attempting to bring forward new legislation to allow gay rights events in Jerusalem to be banned altogether. Last year’s Jerusalem Pride event in the streets of the city holy to all three major religions was delayed and then cancelled, with a Pride gathering held in a sports stadium instead.
The Jerusalem Post reports that three quarters of the city’s residents oppose the Pride parade. In April an explosive device detonated near Jerusalem was thought to be the work of ultra-Orthodox Jews protesting against the Pride event. The small pipe bomb exploded near the West Bank separation fence. One person suffered a minor leg injury and was taken to a hospital in Jerusalem.
Security forces investigating the scene reported the discovery of leaflets that call for the cancellation of the June 21st march.
18 June 2007
Policewoman lightly injured in anti-gay parade protests
by Yair Ettinger and Jonathan Lis, Haaretz Correspondents
A policewoman was slightly injured after being struck in the head by a stone Sunday, and property was damaged as a large police force dispersed several hundred young ultra-Orthodox demonstrators blocking Jerusalem’s Sanhedria junction, in protest against the Gay Pride Parade planned for Thursday. The incident followed Sunday afternoon’s rally in Jerusalem by thousands of ultra-Orthodox against the parade. From a stage set up on a main street, protest organizers said "he who considers himself commander of the Jerusalem police force must prevent the parade and avoid bloodshed."
During the three-hour rally, demonstrators heard speeches by rabbis, said prayers, blew shofars and lit black candles as a sign of mourning. The head of the ultra-Orthodox rabbinic court, Rabbi Mosher Sternbuch, said the participants in Thursday’s parade, as well as the police who secured it would be "cursed." The protest organizers, who expected a turnout of 100,000, were disappointed; a number of other ultra-Orthodox leaders had specifically told their followers not to attend. Open House, Jerusalem’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community center told police it wants to shorten the rally segment of the Gay Pride parade set for Thursday for security reasons.
Open House Director Noa Satat wrote to the district police commander, Major General Ilan Franco, requesting to reduce the time the Gay Pride Parade would spend on King David Street from 90 minutes to 45 minutes. She said the request had been made "to make things easier for the police and to simplify security standards Open House has to meet." The police quickly aceded to Satat’s request, but noted "the change will not effect the deployment of forces the police are fielding to secure the event."
Police have approved a 500-meter march route. Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski and senior city administrators on Sunday published a statement condemning the Gay Pride event. The statement said it was "absurd" that "democratically elected officials of the City Council have no ability to work in the name of the interests of the city and its residents." The city called on various bodies, including the police, to immediately cancel the march. Some 200 Bnei Brak residents blocked traffic on Sunday and burned traffic in the city in protest against the parade. One protester was arrested.
June 17, 2007
The Jerusalem March for Pride and Tolerance 2007: An Update for our Friends and Supporters
This week, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community and our supporters will again struggle for our freedom of expression and civil rights in Jerusalem. The Jerusalem March for Pride and Tolerance is a personal, social and community effort aimed at creating a more tolerance socialety where all people are accepted and respected for who they are. By creating a public space for members of the LGBT community and its allies, Jerusalem Pride aims to enable Jerusalemites at different stages of the coming-out process to find a meaningful existence in the Holy City.
In Jerusalem homophobia is an unquestionable fact of life in many communities. Pride questions the abuse of "religious" values used to justify discrimination and brings the struggle for univeral humanism to the most sacred front- Israel. Internationally, Pride leverages Jerusalem’s universal status to capture the attention of the world and share its message with a global audience.
Last November’s violent and intimidating events only served as proof that we must assure that our rights as citizens of Jerusalem. This summer as in past years, all Jerusalemites who value their freedom will march with us in Downtown Jerusalem. Our community will take to the streets with Pride and bring tolerance to Jerusalem. This summer’s march will put Jerusalem, Israel and our leaders to the true test of democracy and civil rights. We will not let the threats of violence silence us or challenge Israeli democracy. This historic battle on the forefront of human rights in Jerusalem has already met with considerable challenges in past year and this year has not been easier.
After submitting a formal request to hold the Jerusalem Pride and Tolerance March to the Jerusalem Police, in February 2007, the Jerusalem Open House nervously awaited the response. We received a letter from Israeli police a few weeks ago, giranting preliminary permission to hold the annual LGBT pride march in Jerusalem on June 21st, 2007. "Let there be no doubt the police department is fully obligated by the high court ruling" said Jerusalem District Police commander, Major-General Ilan Franco in the letter. Noa Sattath, Executive Director of the Jerusalem Open House said that "the letter proves that all parties have learned their lesson from last year’s events, realizing that protecting the rule of law is in everyone’s best interest"
Two weeks ago, Israel witnessed a surprising and frightening development when members of the Knesset (MKs) backed a bill that would allow the Jerusalem City Council (controlled by Ultra-Orthodox representatives) to ban any parade in Jerusalem, that they feel offends religious sensitivities. 40 members of the Knesset have backed the bill, some, unfortunately, from the Kadima party. Heads of the Labor party did not publicly oppose the bill. MKs haven’t realized, apparently, that such bill would deprive Israel’s capital of a pluralistic, democratic future.
In response to the Knesset vote on June 6th in support of the first reading of a proposed law against parades and marches in Jerusalem, the Jerusalem Open House promoted a petition against the law, and in favor of freedom of speech and democracy in Jerusalem. We received overwhelming responses from all over the world to the petition received Hundreds of people signed the peition and on Friday, June 8th, it was printed with 40 prominent signatures in Haaretz Newspaper. The signatures included professors, doctors, lawyers, rabbis, politicians and leaders of NGOs from Europe, North America and Israel. To read and sign the petition go to http://22.214.171.124/minisite/ gaava/.
Last week, leaders of the Jerusalem Ultra-Orthodox community, declared that every method of fighting the march is legitimate, thus subtly condoning violence against the LGBT community. The violence reported so far this year includes: threatening phone calls in the middle of the night to homes of board and staff members of the Jerusalem Open House, a traditional Jewish death curse (pulsa de’nura) intended to threaten the march organizers, a bomb against the march that exploded in April 2007, and now, threats of riots all over the city. To read more click here (http://www.ynetnews .com/articles/ 0,7340,L- 3410991,00. html ).
Despite the threats, we continue with the hectic preparations for the march. "We march in Jerusalem which is our city in order to voice the values of our community: equality, dignity and freedom of speech. The threats against us only highlight the importance of our struggle" said Noa Sattath, executive director of the Jerusalem Open House, "The forces working against us want us back in the closet. This is a test to the fragile Israeli democracy, specifically after the Knesset supported the outrageous bill last week, undermining freedom of expression and the right to assemble in Israel’s capital. "
Late last week the Jerusalem District Police issued a final approval of the Jerusalem March for Pride and Tolerance. We will take to the streets in just 5 days.
To read more go to: http://www.haaretz. com/hasen/ spages/870804. html
To read an article by Noa Sattath, Executive Director of the Jerusalem Open House, go to: http://www.ynetnews .com/articles/ 0,7340,L- 3409756,00. html.
What can you do to help?
Stay in touch! Send us your updated contact information to development@ joh.org.il and check out our website: www.joh.org. il Sign the petition for democracy, freedom of expression and the right to assemble in Jerusalem: http://212.199. 222.97/minisite/ gaava/ .
Support the Jerusalem March for Pride and Tolerance: www.litrom.com/ joh or contact email@example.com. il
June 21, 2007
Jewish "bomber" seized before Jerusalem gay parade
by Avida Landau
Israeli police detained an Orthodox Jewish man carrying a small homemade bomb in Jerusalem on Thursday, as thousands of Israelis marched in support of gay rights in defiance of religious protesters. "Police stopped a 32-year-old religious Jew who was carrying a homemade explosive device," police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said of the arrest before the annual Gay Pride march began.
About 7,000 police officers had deployed inside and around Jerusalem to protect the marchers — about 2,000 of them by police estimates — after threats from religious Jews, who take exception to the event being held in a city they hold sacred. At a separate event some streets away, blocked behind police barriers, religious Jewish men in traditional black and white garb held a separate rally, intoning prayers against the march. One man evaded police to approach marchers yelling: "Filth! Get out of Jerusalem!." He was escorted away by police.
In 2005, an Orthodox Jew stabbed and wounded three marchers and fears of violence caused a march to be cancelled last year. Among those walking the route under rainbow banners and balloons close to Jerusalem’s Old City, Judy Enteen, a mother from Jerusalem, held aloft a sign that read: "My gay son is a gift from God." "I want people to know that being gay is a gift," she said.
Disputes over whether to hold the parade in the city have showcased one of many divides in Israeli society and raised questions about how to ensure the religious nature of Jerusalem, sacred to three major religions, is not compromised. Many devout Jews, Muslims and Christians view homosexuality as an abomination. Most Jewish residents of Jerusalem are religious. A similar Gay Pride march in Israel’s secular metropolis Tel Aviv passed without incident earlier this month.
Noa Satat, chairwoman of Open House, the organization which fought a series of court challenges for the right to demonstrate, told Reuters: "We are thrilled to be here today, celebrating our freedom of speech in the centre of Jerusalem." A rally planned to take place at the end of the parade was cancelled, however, following a dispute between the organizers and the Jerusalem city authorities. Police have arrested more than 130 ultra-Orthodox Jews in recent days after learning of plots to disrupt the march and during protests in Jerusalem and religious Jewish towns, where officers used water cannon to battle stone-throwing protesters.
(Additional reporting by Corinne Heller and Ari Rabinovitch)
June 21, 2007
Gay Pride march in Jerusalem draws thousands of police
Jerusalem (AP) – Under heavy police guard, hundreds of gay activists marched in a Gay Pride parade in downtown Jerusalem on Thursday, sparking a noisy counter demonstration by ultra-Orthodox Jews and denunciations by Muslim and Christian leaders. There were no incidents of violence during the brief event. As the parade got underway, gay activists cheered, clapped and sang, making their way on a short trek of just a few hundred meters (yards) along a street that passes in front of the historic King David Hotel. Police said 2,500 took part. Some 7,000 police were deployed throughout the city for an annual event that highlights the deep divide between the city’s secular and religious communities, with marchers demanding to exercise their civil rights and opponents claiming the march debases the Holy City. Opposition to the march has generated violence in the past, and police far outnumbered protesters. Marchers carried multicolored balloons and posters of Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama. Three men wore matching pink T-shirts, shiny pink hats and carried pink lace umbrellas. On their shirts were written, “The Israeli Gay Party.”
"I am demanding my civil rights, including the right get married and have children,"’ said marcher Guy Frishman, 27. “I want to have rights like every other person.” A few tourists staying at the King David watched the event with curiosity, while the owners of nearby shops that sell Jewish religious items stood by silently, watching the parade with their arms folded. In one incident, a lone anti-gay protester scuffled with police and was taken away. Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said 19 anti-gay protesters were arrested trying to approach the march, but there were no violent confrontations. Organizers said they canceled a gathering in a park at the end of the truncated route because they were unable to get a permit from the fire department.
Across the city, several hundred ultra-Orthodox protesters held their demonstration, bringing traffic to a standstill at the main entrance to Jerusalem. Trash bins were set on fire, and smoke and the stench of burning garbage wafted through the air. Dozens of pedestrians wandered through the empty streets. Protest leaders chanted psalms through loudspeakers, and marchers waved banners saying "Shame"’ and "Israeli Supreme Court: Destroying the Holy City." Opponents appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court to ban the march, but the justices ruled Wednesday night that it could go ahead. Ultra-Orthodox Jews have rioted repeatedly over the past week, burning tires, assaulting policemen and damaging police cars.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said 22 policemen were injured and 130 people arrested in the runup to the parade, including a 32-year-old ultra-Orthodox man caught Thursday morning carrying a homemade explosive device. Under questioning, the man said he had planned to plant the explosive along the parade route, Rosenfeld said. At the 2005 march, an ultra-Orthodox man stabbed three marchers. Last year, the street parade was canceled because of safety concerns, and gays celebrated at a sports stadium on the edge of the city. The Gay Pride event routinely brings together the religious leaders of Jerusalem _ known for their sharp disagreements on most political issues _ in a consensus of condemnation.
On Thursday, Sheik Mohammed Hussein, mufti of Jerusalem and Palestine, denounced the march and criticized the government for permitting it. “Such a march contradicts all religions and morals and the natural human way of being, “ he said. Many main streets in the downtown area were closed hours before the march, and public transportation was routed away from the city center. A fleet of ambulances stood by in anticipation of possible violence. Israel’s Magen David Adom rescue service said in a statement it was preparing an “unprecedented operation,” readying 200 medics, 45 ambulances, 11 mobile intensive care units and a field command center. Additional medics and ambulances were on standby, the statement said. They were not needed.
“Perhaps we should thank the ultra-Orthodox community for giving us what we want, which is visibility that will lead to a kind of acceptance of our place in this city,” said Jerry Levinson, a gay activist. He estimated that 60,000 gays live in metropolitan Jerusalem. Jerusalem’s Gay Pride parade has in the past been a relatively modest affair, with none of the flamboyant costumes or nudity common at similar events elsewhere in the world, or even in the nearby Israeli city of Tel Aviv. The annual Gay Pride march in Tel Aviv usually proceeds without incident.
June 28, 2007
Jerusalem Gay Pride Bucks Riots, Hatred
The following article was written for Gay City News — New York City’s largest lesbian and gay weekly newspaper — which published it today: Defying anti-gay rioting, threats of bloodshed, opposition from Israel’s prime minister and Jerusalem’s mayor, a vote by Israel’s parliament, and rabbinical curses, some 2,000 courageous people staged a dignified Gay Pride march in central Jerusalem last Thursday, June 21. At least 130 anti-gay protesters had been arrested in the week leading up to the Pride demonstration, as homophobic rioting by the ultra-Orthodox engulfed religious neighborhoods of Israel’s capital and the nearby ultra-Orthodox suburb of Bnei Brak, according to a police spokesman. The rioters set vehicles and trashcans ablaze, blocked traffic, and threw stones at police, 24 of whom were reported wounded. Another 19 ultra-Orthodox protesters were arrested at the Pride march last Thursday, including one man who tried to bomb the parade route.
"In his bag, we discovered a homemade explosive device. He admitted he planned on planting it on the route of the parade," police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld said, the news agency Deutsche Presse-Argentur reported. And 15 more anti-gay protesters were arrested in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearun for throwing stones at police after they had blocked the streets and brought traffic to a standstill. Others arrested had tried to physically attack the Pride marchers, and one man had attempted to pour oil on the march route along King David Street, presumably to set it alight.
Last year’s attempt to hold a Pride march in November had been annulled by police after two weeks of violent anti-gay riots, and instead a Pride rally of 4,000 was confined to a heavily-guarded soccer stadium. This year’s march was significantly smaller than expected; representatives of its principal organizer, the Jerusalem Open House for Peace and Tolerance – the city’s LGBT community center – had told police to expect at least 5,000 demonstrators.
"The numerous reports of violent protests by ultra-Orthodox and far-right circles had made people think twice whether they wanted to show up for the event," prominent gay activist and journalist Yoav Sivan told me in explaining the low turnout, "especially since the violence was well demonstrated. Everybody remembers that two years ago a religious Jewish fanatic stabbed three participants in the Jerusalem Pride parade." Sivan is a board member of both Jerusalem Open House and of Aguda, Israel’s national LGBT association, and helped organize last Thursday’s Pride event.
"However," Sivan went on to say, "the gay-bashing and the strong opposition to the parade also made the event into one of the most important protests for human rights in Israel, and it triggered LGBT people and allies to come to Jerusalem from all corners of the country." The Pride marchers were vastly outnumbered by the 7,000 police guarding the parade route, which was only a third of a mile long, and a fleet of ambulances were positioned nearby in anticipation of possible violence. As the 2,000 Pride marchers slowly walked the short route, passing under arches of balloons in the colors of the gay rainbow flag and past the historic King David Hotel, their mood was sober and subdued.
"I admit I would have liked the march to be of a longer route, but don’t read too much into that because here, size doesn’t really matter," gay activist Sivan told this reporter. He added, "The street where we marched, King David Street, is known as the cultural mile – although it’s not even half a mile – and turned out as a very respectable choice for the parade. It’s downtown, central, and when you saw the rainbow flags that the municipality of Jerusalem was forced to hang, waving between the YMCA building and the King David Hotel, two of Jerusalem’s landmarks, it was really inspiring."
Sivan said that Palestinian and Arab marchers were scattered throughout the Pride contingent. "They were part of the crowd, just as they are part of the fabric of the Jerusalem Open House," Sivan told me. A group of religious teenage girls blowing whistles, insulting the marchers, and crying, "Disgrace! Disgrace!" at the Pride parade were quickly escorted away by armed police. A protester armed with eggs he intended to hurl at the parade was also removed by police, as was an ultra-Orthodox demonstrator who "disguised" himself by carrying a rainbow flag, according to Israeli radio, and began cursing the marchers.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had declared his opposition to holding a Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem – but his openly lesbian daughter, Dana Olmert (left), in an interview the day before the Pride event, compared the right to march in the Jerusalem parade to the right to vote. Speaking of the Pride parade, she said, "The question of ‘Why in Jerusalem?’ is like asking why we need to give people voting rights. The Gay Pride parade is a political event, an expression of political activism – you don’t need to ask permission to do it," the Jerusalem Post quoted her as telling Israeli Army Radio. Olmert’s daughter went on to say, "In every place that there is subjugation, resistance is created. Even if it is embryonic at this stage, it will get bigger, because even in [ultra-Orthodox] haredi society, there are gays and lesbians."
She expressed the hope that "all this ongoing controversy between the gay and lesbian community and the haredim has caused these people to feel that they are not alone, and that they can, in any number of ways, break out of this ghetto of oppression in which they live." Also last Wednesday, Israel’s High Court of Justice – the country’s supreme court – rejected three petitions to block the Pride parade from taking place. One of the petitions was filed by Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Mayor Uri Lupoliansky, and another by Israel’s minister for Trade, Eli Yishai of the ultraconservative religious Shas Party, which is a member of Prime Minister Olmert’s ruling coalition.
Minister Yishai argued in his brief that the Pride parade was a "vulgar event that offends and violates the sanctity of Jerusalem." A third petition was filed by Orthodox activists who said the Pride parade "would lead to public disturbances and riots on an unprecedented scale." Led by its president, Dorit Beinisch, the High Court of Justice wrote, in rejecting the three anti-gay petitions, "Authorizing the Gay Pride parade allows for the realization of the right to expression and demonstration… It allows the marchers to voice their message by virtue of their right to equality and social recognition. Additionally, the permit affords deserving priority to the principle of the rule of law, and to the perception that violence is not to be rewarded nor succumbed to."
The Sunday before the Pride march, ultra-Orthodox Haredi Jews held an anti-gay protest rally that drew 10,000 – far fewer than the 100,000 its organizers had predicted. Haaretz, the most respected Israeli daily newspaper, headlined its article on this rally: "ULTRA-ORTHODOX PROTESTS AGAINST GAY PARADE FALL FLAT." Seven police were injured by the anti-gay protesters at the rally. Also in the week before the Gay Pride march took place, the Orthodox Righteous Court of Law (Badatz) placed a curse on the parade’s organizers and participants, and on police officers assigned to protect the march.
Prominent Orthodox rabbis published a declaration which read: "To all those involved, sinners in spirit, and whoever helps and protects them, may they feel a curse on their souls, may it plague them and may evil pursue them; they will not be acquitted of their transgressions from heavenly judgment." On the day of the Jerusalem Pride march, Shas Party MP Nissim Ze’ev proposed the establishment of "rehabilitation centers" to suppress the sexual tendencies of gay people.
"The government should initiate this; these people are dangerous and we must keep an eye on them," Ze’ev said, adding that gay people must be made aware of "how their lifestyle is destroying our existence." Ze’ev, who said he would submit a bill that would ban gay sexual relations if he thought the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, would approve it, added that those who broke such a law would, under his proposal, be assigned to a two-year "rehabilitation period." "We must set up special teams of psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers who will help them return to a normal life, just like in a drug rehabilitation center," the MP said.
On June 6, a Shas party bill to ban any Gay Pride march anywhere in Israel passed the Knesset on its first reading by the overwhelming margin of 41-21 (see this reporter’s June 14 article, "Israel’s Sharp Right Turn on Gays," ). As the Pride marchers walked down King David Street, an anti-gay rally across town organized by ultra-Orthodox Jews drew 4,000 people. Israeli public television Channel One broadcast the Pride event and the anti-gay rally simultaneously on a split screen. A Pride rally at the end of the march was to have been addressed by the pro-gay, left-wing Meretz Party’s chairman Yossi Belin, who had been a cabinet minister in the previous governments of Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, and Ehud Barak — but the rally was canceled because a firefighters strike led police to conclude security could not be assured.
Following the Pride march, gay activist Sivan told me, "What you cannot really understand afterwards is why such a peaceful political demonstration has drawn so much fire and opposition. What’s really mind-boggling for me is that Jews constantly use anti-Semitic lingo against LGBT people without even realizing it. It seems almost like the best route for us to walk in Jerusalem would be the Via Dolorosa, and indeed many of the city’s population would have loved to see us crucified at the end." Sivan added, "You don’t really get used to hatred. There were some incidents when a few young girls – Orthodox Jews – started calling swearwords at the crowd. And you see the hatred in the eyes of a young girl and see how different people in the parade react differently. One man even told her, ‘I love you, despite your despising me.’"
Nonetheless, Sivan told this reporter, "The march provided a triumphant feeling, a shared feeling of a united community and it empowered us to continue our fight for gay rights throughout the year. In November we had a rally, a couple of days ago we had the march. Next year we’ll have a rally and a march!"
RECOMMENDED READING: Not to be missed is the three-part dissection of CIA Director Robert Gates which the always excellent Roger Morris (right) has just written for TomDispatch, the invaluable blog for The Nation Institute edited by my old friend Tom Engelhardt. Part One is "The Gates Inheritance." Part Two is "The World That Made Bob." Part Three is "The CIA and the Gates Legacy." Morris not only skewers Gates, he provides the much-needed background on fifty years of covert action and the politics which give the context for the CIA’s "Family Jewels" revelations this week. Morris is one of our smartest chroniclers of contemprary history, as I’ve said before on this blog (also, if you didn’t catch Roger’s monumental slice-and-dice on Donald Rumsfeld, which I recommended earlier this year.)…..
The first-rate e-zine Sign and Sight.com — which provides English-language translations of the best and brightest from the German press on a daily basis — has a very perceptive article today on Algeria from the Süddeutsche Zeitung . This colorful piece describes the censorship and resistance which accompany the annointing of Algiers as the "cultural capital of the Arab world" this year, a year-long festival with a budget of 51 million Euros — and, in the process, this piece captures perfectly the ambiance in an Algeria in which President Bouteflika is merely the front-man for the military brass who’ve really run the country for years. The degree to which censorious Islamist cultural standards engendering fear and self-censorship have gone hand-in-hand with Bouteflika’s "reconciliation" policy that has brought the Islamist party into government is painted clearly by the voices of the Algerian intellectuals and artists interviewed in this piece, which you can read by clicking here. And if you don’t have the Sign and Sight.com habit, you don’t know what good stuff you’re missing — visit their site and sign up for their e-mail alerts….
My friend Janet Afary , the distinguished Iranian scholar-in-exile who is president of the International Society of Iranian Scholars and a prof at Purdue University, has written a very smart review-essay of five new books on Iran together with her partner, Kevin Anderson, another Purdue prof with whom she wrote the superb book Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism. This latest review-essay lifts the veil on Iran under its fundamentalist President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad , and explains precisely why the hawkish Bush policy of sanctions and invasion threats has backfired and is helping Ahmadinejad’s effort to destroy the democratic forces in Iran. You shouldn’t miss this article from the new issue of The Nation, and you can read it by clicking here…..
The prescience of Karl Marx as a journalist is celebrated in a review for The Guardian by none other than Christopher Hitchens (right), my old friend (and lately sparring partner on Iraq and other issues, on which we shaply diverge). The occasion is the publication by Penguin Classics of "Dispatches for the New York Tribune: Selected Journalism of Karl Marx", edited by James Ledbetter, who also happens to be an old colleague and comrade of mine from our days together as columnists for the Village Voice. ‘Sieur James has done a noble service by disenterring Uncle Karl’s decade of dispatches for Horace Greeley and Charles Dana’s New York newspaper, and on everything from Lincoln (of whom Marx was practically the only supporter in England, as no less than Henry Adams pointed out) and the U..S. Civil War to the inevitable implosion of Queen Victoria’s Emprie in India, Marx was devastatingly on target. With his usual elegantly mordant style, Hitch writes in The Guardian, that "when journalists today are feeling good about themselves, and sitting through the banquets at which they give each other prizes and awards, they sometimes like to flatter one another by describing their hasty dispatches as ‘the first draft of history.’. Next time you hear that tone of self-regard, you might like to pick up Dispatches for the New York Tribune and read the only reporter of whom it was ever actually true." Read all of Hitch’s tribute to Marx’s Grub Street years by clicking here. — it will inspire you not to be tardy in buying Ledbetter’s timely reissue of the Marx dispatches.
July 2, 2007
Gay march stirs religious passions
Two years ago, on June 30, 2005, a religious Jewish man stabbed three people during clashes between the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community and the gay and lesbian community in Israel’s capital, Jerusalem. In 2006, due to a wave of extreme protest from Orthodox groups, Jerusalem’s Gay Pride street parade was cancelled, and instead people celebrated inside a sports stadium where at least their safety could be somewhat guaranteed. This year, with good reason, the security was tighter than ever in order to protect the marchers in what is arguably Jerusalem’s most controversial annual demonstration. As a former Sydney-sider, who has enjoyed many a Sydney Mardi Gras, this was a whole new experience for me. As I left my Jerusalem office, I discovered to my dismay that all the main roads leading to the city centre had been closed off to traffic and in place of the normal end of day traffic jams, there were literally thousands of police, soldiers and medics.
Hundreds of street barricades had been set up from the night before, and forced the swelling crowd of regular (and somewhat frustrated) commuters just trying to get home, parade supporters, Orthodox Yeshiva students practicing their best heckling efforts and a healthy sprinkling of curious onlookers to squeeze into a small space along the side of the road. At a cost to the Israeli taxpayer of some 13 million New Israeli Shekels (approximately $A3.6 million) some 8000 police safe-guarded the march this year, which only attracted about 2000 people, despite the hopeful parade organizers anticipation of 5000 marchers.
Included in the impenetrable security were 200 medics, 45 ambulances, 11 mobile intensive care units and a field command center with additional medics on standby. From my viewpoint on the street, I could see wall-to-wall police and army units standing guard with guns, batons and bullet-proof vests. Looking above, I could even see police on the roof of the nearby King Solomon hotel and a helicopter above surveying the crowd below.
I stood and waited patiently in the sweltering Israeli summer heat, hoping for a glimpse of this infamous parade. To see, with my own eyes, exactly what all the fuss was about. The parade itself runs a mere 500 metres down King David Street, and hardly has the opportunity to move because of the sheer number of people squashed into such a small stretch of road. Instead, the parade marchers, and a very sedate, polite group at that, patiently stood in place, waving the odd banner such as “Democracy In, Violence Out” and “Love without Boundaries” and held up high a multi-coloured archway of balloons, signifying the rainbow flag, the international symbol of gay and lesbian community pride. Safely behind barriers and a wall of policemen, stood the protesters. In stark contrast to the colourfully-clad crowd of marchers, these dour men in their signature Orthodox black and white clothes held up placards like “Get Well Soon”.
Still, to go back my comparison of Sydney’s world-famous event, there was not a float or drag queen in sight –- and the thought of a group of gay and lesbian police or military personnel marching down Jerusalem’s streets is sadly, an unimaginable vision. The man next to me on his mobile phone was obviously reporting the events to a friend. “No, no music. It’s not Tel Aviv.” Nearby a group of religious young American men discussed the parade amongst themselves. “It’s a sickness”, said one.
“Yes, but I think they can be cured,” contemplated his friend.
“You make me sick!” yelled an angry dreadlocked American girl. “Do you realise you are shitting on God’s words?”
The incensed girl and some of her friends entered into a war of words with the religious boys which soon erupted into a brief, but volatile scuffle, causing the police to intervene and scores of photographers eagerly waiting to snap up a controversial photo that would grace the pages of tomorrow’s papers. In the middle of all this chaos, a tour group of young American students got stuck in a bottleneck on the pavement. Their group leader at the front turned around and yelled to his bewildered charges: “Just push! Push your way through.” Meanwhile, a nearby Italian bistro with a birds-eye view of the action was doing a roaring trade, although I am sure the majority of the customers weren’t so hungry for the food as they were the hope of catching a piece of the action.
As I finally made my way through this nightmarish crowd, I turned back and looked behind me.
I realised all of a sudden how utterly different an environment I was now living in. I am not suggesting that Australia doesn’t have its fair share of homophobes and angry protesters, but who could imagine Sydney’s world famous Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras reduced to Fort Knox-like military protection because a bunch of crazy people who despite proclaiming their intense religious convictions believe it is perfectly acceptable to physically hurt -– even kill -– another human being because they disagree with their personal lifestyle choice. Funny, last time I checked, “Thou Shalt Not Kill” was one of the Top 10 No-no’s.
When most of the world thinks of Israel their minds turn to the Middle East conflict and no doubt conjures up images of war-torn cities with bombs going off every five minutes. Well, I can assure you that my life is not remotely like you would imagine it, and in fact, is gratifyingly normal most of the time. Some of the greatest battles being fought in this country are not between Jew and Arab, but between Jew and Jew. If only we could conjure up some compassion for one another, we might be able to start fixing some of our myriad other problems.
19 July 2007
The world’s oldest customer: Prostitution in Israel–gay, straight and in between; a narrative investigative report
by Yotam Feldman
At 2 A.M. the corner of Hagalil and Sharon Streets, in the area of the old Central Bus Station of Tel Aviv, reeks with the stench of urine and is devoid of clients. I am standing on the sidewalk with a group of transgender females. At their side is a short pimp who sees to entertainment as well as to their security and economic affairs. They have promised me that if they succeed in stopping a client, they will try to persuade him to reply to questions for an article about men who pay for sex.
Or, as they put it, "If anyone comes up already, kusamak, before the sun comes up." A car approaches, but the driver makes a sharp U-turn before the intersection and picks up Yusuf, an Israeli Arab of 19, who has been waiting at the adjacent corner with a condom in his hand. It’s not until 4 A.M. that the group’s first client of the night shows up, in an elegant white car that pulls up partially onto the sidewalk. Strange, I think: The car has stopped, but no one is approaching the driver. When I look around, I see that everyone at the intersection is staring at me. Sharon, at 40 the oldest woman there, comes over and says the driver has stopped for me. They all guffaw.
With some apprehension, I walk over to the car, bend over and discover a younger client than I had thought, in his mid-20s and quite good-looking. "How much?" he asks, and I reply automatically "80" and immediately berate myself for the low rate. "Ya’allah, get in," he says, delighted at the bargain, and hustles me in as he revs up the engine.
In the car he introduces himself: He’s 26, been married for a year and works as a delivery man. As he tries to start a DVD player that shows straight porno films on a tiny screen, he goes on answering my questions. Nimrod (all the names in the article are fictitious) is a bit taken aback by the many questions I ply him with, and even more surprised at my insistence on writing down his answers. Still, he is cooperative, although as the conversation progresses his replies become increasingly laconic and he begins to lose patience. I haven’t yet told him that I will save him 80 shekels tonight and spare myself an experience as a sex worker, or maybe I haven’t yet decided whether to be sparing.
The day before, Adam, a 21-year-old from Jerusalem who works as a prostitute, told me that most of the men who are looking for men do not think of themselves as gay but only as men who sleep with men occasionally. Nimrod is no different. He goes to the street at long intervals, he says, "once a year – okay, maybe a bit more, once every few months, but really not very much. I truly love my wife and I don’t make a regular habit of this."
Usually he looks for a young man or a transvestite, "but that means nothing: I also sleep with a lot of women besides my wife." Of course there is pleasure in having sex with a prostitute, a combination of shame and pleasure at the shame, he explains. "There is the need to sleep with women, and sometimes there is the need to sleep with a prostitute. That is something else completely." And sometimes there is the need to sleep with a guy, I add, and he chuckles with embarrassment.
When I ask if he also looks for single-gender sex that is not paid for, he takes offense. "What do you take me for, a homo?" he snaps. "I only come here once in a while, but I’m straight. One hundred percent straight. No one in the world knows I come here, no one. I have never yet met anyone I know, and if that should happen, oy vavoy. If I see you or anyone else from here in the street tomorrow, there is no way I will recognize you. I just keep walking."
<Dear grandfather, [I am in urgent need of 13 francs.] Here’s why. I so desperately needed to see a woman in order to put an end to my bad habit of masturbating that Papa gave me 10 francs to go to a brothel. But first in my agitation, I broke a chamber pot, 3 francs, and second, in this same agitated state I was unable to screw… But I dare not ask papa for money again so soon, and I hoped you will be able to come to my aid in this instance, which as you know, is not only exceptional but unique: It can’t happen twice in one lifetime that a person’s too upset to screw." (Letter from Marcel Proust to his grandfather, translation from William Carter, "Marcel Proust: A Life," Yale University Press) >
On weekend nights a small traffic jam blocks tiny Fein Street, which continues the stench of Hagalil in the prostitution zone of the old bus station. When the men get out of their cars to examine up-close the prostitutes on the street and in the sex parlors, it turns out that the population of this traffic jam is no different from that of any other bumper-to-bumper: adolescents and soldiers – some of them in uniform and with their weapons – an ultra-Orthodox man in a wheelchair who says, in Yiddish, that he is a rabbi from Jerusalem who has come "to travel a little," a high-tech man and a disabled army veteran of about 60. Milling around among the car owners are many migrant workers who have walked over from the nearby pedestrian mall on Neveh Sha’anan Street. In the meantime, a truck driver who decided to take a break on his way from Kiryat Shmona to Ashdod, apologizes to the other drivers for having blocked the road with his truck while he was being tended to by an "escort service."
The clients around the bus station, who make do with relatively inexpensive prostitutes (NIS 100-150 per trick), many of whom are drug addicts, are only a small part of the male public who are sex consumers. Most of them will prefer more expensive escort girls, whom they will invite to their home or visit in discreet apartments. The prices are significantly higher than on the street, starting at NIS 300 for routine intercourse. Some of the escort apartments offer more expensive services, such as eating feces (NIS 600) or the realization of complex private fantasies (more than NIS 1,000). As can be gleaned from the high cost of these pleasures, the clients are men from all strata of society, including law enforcement agents: 47 of 100 victims of white slavery told attorney Naomi Levenkron, from the Hotline for Migrant Workers, that they had at least one policeman as a client.
The clients of the sex industry are thus everywhere, but are almost completely absent from the public discourse. They are never mentioned in reports of police raids or in court, and in media reports about prostitution they are "present absentees." No longer. Men who do it with prostitutes are at the center of a series of meetings and an unusual exhibition taking place this summer at the Barbur Gallery in Jerusalem and at the Minshar School of Art in Tel Aviv, in conjunction with the Hotline for Migrant Workers. Among the lecturers will be the curator and cultural researcher Ariella Azoulay, the artist Roee Rosen and attorney Levenkron. The gallery has issued a call for artists to send works on the subject, which will be displayed in an exhibition in August. If the curators decide to integrate literary works on the subject into the exhibition, they will find it hard to choose.
The GFE syndrome
Daniel, a 31-year-old bachelor from the center of the country, a chef who is now doing professional retraining to enter the computer industry, goes to a prostitute every week or two. He calculates that since his first visit four years ago, he has spent about NIS 20,000 on sex services. I found him under the alias "Red Code" in an Internet forum in which clients recommend prostitutes they have been with. In an interview over a cup of coffee, Daniel relates that he prefers full-bodied and relatively older women, aged 35-50, and likes a certain degree of aggressiveness in the contact with them, "but not outright violence." He goes to independent prostitutes, "not in a sex parlor with a bunch of guys outside. For me, discretion is important, and so is the attitude. Independent girls are more personal in their approach, are not in a hurry and are patient."
He paid his first visit to a prostitute at the urging of a friend who recommended it to help him get over his difficulties interacting with women. "It’s not that I can’t have a talk with a woman; the difficulty starts the moment we get to the bedroom. It’s knowing how to touch her, what she wants, what her expectations are. Things like positions.
" Before the first visit," he continues, "I asked my friend a million questions – how to do this and that, in what positions, things I barely knew, and also personal things, like if she likes thin men, and what if I have hair on my legs, which she won’t like."
Do you think the client’s appearance is important to a prostitute?
" I may be wrong, but I am sure they prefer clients who look healthy, muscular, aesthetic, handsome. But you can’t put up a sign saying ‘No uglies need apply.’ Actually, maybe the first thing that’s important to her is for someone to be clean and smell good."
Do you prepare before visiting a prostitute?
" I shower and shave, and put on aftershave. It’s important to me that the visit be as pleasant for her as it is for me."
Do you have expectations of her beyond sex?
" I don’t expect her to become my best friend. There are those who really would like her to replace their girlfriend. I don’t need her to come on with kisses and be a real girlfriend, but at least she should show a minimal attitude. She shouldn’t be nervous and she should have a smile on her face. In the recommendations of members of the group [on the Internet], the term GFE – girlfriend experience – is important, meaning the attitude of a girlfriend on the part of the prostitute. She should not be apathetic and she should not appear to be faking everything for the money."
Are there prostitutes who provide this experience?
" For sure, in the Russian sector they treat you better than the Israeli women, because they have European culture. When you part, she gives you a goodbye kiss, she offers a cup of coffee before you get started, talks to you and asks about you. It’s not just going into the room and that’s it."
How do you find prostitutes?
" There are ads on the Internet and in the papers and in magazines like Banana. Today, with the [Internet] group, many of the prostitutes have recommendations. You call, she answers and says ‘I live on such-and-such street,’ you go to the street, she spots you from above and watches from the balcony. Some of them are afraid of the police and want to know who is entering. Afterward she greets you at the door. Some wear a bra and panties, some are half-naked. She directs you to the bedroom, asks if you want to shower. As soon as she opens the door, she smells you and takes note of what kind of person you are."
Did you ever think a prostitute wrinkled her nose, wasn’t satisfied with you?
" Never. I think they always felt good."
Do you think you were ever with a prostitute who wasn’t doing the work of her free will?
" Not of her free will is only in south Tel Aviv. There you have it under coercion – you can see it. If I were to see that it was not of her free will, it would not be appropriate."
Did you ever meet a prostitute outside the work framework?
" Yes. I was crossing the street and saw her. We exchanged glances, a kind of smile, a look of ‘What’s up?,’ but we didn’t speak. Maybe it’s not pleasant for her, but all in all we just exchanged glances and went on our way. I didn’t feel bad, I didn’t do anything bad."
Statue at the airport
Amir, a veteran of Tel Aviv nightlife, relates that in the past 17 years, since he was 30, he has slept only with prostitutes and not had a relationship with a woman. "With the money I contributed to the industry," he jokes, "there should be a statue of me at the airport in Kiev for the dozens of families whose income I helped supplement."
" When you get back from work at 3 A.M., it’s very convenient. You are spaced out and horny, and this bombshell comes to pamper you and you go to sleep dead. Is that bad? You’re emptied out, you had a good time. And the escort-service girls in Israel are top-quality. If you’re well connected, you get a high level of service, which is a tremendous advantage."
What is good service?
" I’m not talking about the technical part, of what she knows how to do, more about the feelings part. Even though you both know it’s for the money, you get something like a girlfriend or just a friend."
In the club scene they like to invite [the prostitutes] as a group, don’t they?
" Yes, even though that’s a different thing. Sometimes after going out on the town, when everyone is a little high, or as a planned part of a bachelor party, they are invited to someone’s house. That can be a terrific thing if the flow is right, if everyone is with it, including the girls. A total release."
And male bonding, too.
" Male bonding is a meaningful element, the feeling that we are together in this scene."
Can that replace a relationship with a girlfriend?
" In my case it’s more complex. After almost 17 years of bachelorhood I have a girlfriend, so I don’t go anymore. More than 90 percent of the ties I had with women since the age of 30 were with working girls. There is no doubt that there is something addictive about it. You get addicted to the convenience of it, to the notion that whenever you want, for a token price, you have a pussy of a girl who gives you a good time for a few hours. Do you think I have the energy now to start marketing myself and selling myself? Forget it. A phone call, shalom and goodbye, whoever’s available."
But is it only a substitute, or is being with a prostitute a need in its own right?
" I know people who have incredible girlfriends and they still go to escort-service girls. It’s not just a substitute."
Does it also have to do with what a prostitute will do?
" Of course, if there are girls with rich experience and openness, a lot of times you can get to situations that would be hard to reach with a regular girl, but that isn’t the thing."
Did you ever try something you weren’t accustomed to?
" I was with a transvestite once, but only for a blow job, we didn’t sleep together."
" I didn’t do that even abroad, even though they are always offering you little girls. Every place has its own thing. In Colombia, for example – maybe today it has changed a little – but it used to be that for the price you paid to get a girl for an hour you would get her here for a night."
Do you go abroad for that?
" There is no doubt that it’s part of it – it’s not the reason for the trip, but it’s a major aspect."
Do you think you were ever with a prostitute who was being employed by coercion?
" I don’t think that I was ever in my life with anyone who wasn’t doing it of her own free will. If I was, I don’t know anything about it."
What do you think of clients who see a prostitute when she is being kept behind bars?
" Allah yustour, very bad karma. It’s like screwing little girls. I am a person who has respect for people, I wouldn’t be capable of doing it with someone, even if she were a prostitute, if I don’t have basic respect for her as a human being. I wouldn’t be able to get it up, not even if the circumstances of her life brought her to a place where she has no choice."
Assaf, 40, a friend and colleague of Amir’s, who is married and the father of a child, interjects: "Usually the girls’ stories are not as sad as people think. In every business you have one dirty bunch, so there are also girls who don’t have it good. Like in any business, there are always wild weeds or people who don’t enjoy it, so here there are also women who enjoy it less. Work in general is not far from slavery, and most people want to get ahead and not stay in their work. The prostitutes want to get ahead, too."
Why do you go to prostitutes?
Assaf: "There is an age at which you want to spend an hour in the world of fantasies. Every relationship becomes boring in the end, so it makes you feel good. If you don’t want to look for a different relationship, that’s what there is."
What do you enjoy the most?
" I think that the most beautiful moments and the highest tension is before she arrives, when you are waiting for her. From the moment you call her, you are constantly imagining what kind of girl will show up. That is the true fantasy."
Amir: "Assaf wants to know that he is getting value for his money, so he always tries to come twice. He tries to come straight off, so he will still have half the time left. He wants her to curse the day she showed up. If she leaves and nothing hurts and she doesn’t feel that he tore her apart, then he didn’t get his money’s worth."
Can a prostitute enjoy the experience?
Assaf: "Apparently not. Of the 59 minutes they give, I try to spend 57 either in the mouth or the ass or the cunt, so chances are she did not enjoy it. Sometimes I tempt her with a present, which I give her at the start, so she gives me another three minutes and doesn’t pressure me. That’s lovely."
Like a virus
Sitting in a kiosk on Fein Street are Ashraf, 19, and Hadi, 23, both of them Israeli Arabs from a village in the North. Ashraf, who is studying medicine in Romania, is here for a month’s vacation, and Hadi works in vacation apartments in the Dead Sea area.
" I have a girlfriend in Romania and I missed this," Ashraf relates. "I got used to having [sex] every day. But I keep feeling guilty because of my girlfriend. I feel that it’s not good. She believes everything I tell her, and I say one thing and do something else. But it’s not of my free will, it’s for lack of self-control. I keep telling myself that if I want to, I can stop now, grab a Koran and repent. But I guess that’s not really what I want to do."
Hadi: "It happens quite a lot that I am sorry afterward and promise myself that I won’t come back, but the devil plays with us anew every time, telling us that she is gorgeous, to go for it, and you do it again and again."
How much money do you spend on prostitutes?
Hadi: "Maybe a thousand shekels a month. If you’re already going, you won’t go just to one prostitute."
What if someone you know sees you here?
Ashraf: "It’s not pleasant. It happened to me once in Be’er Sheva, and it really wasn’t pleasant. Besides Ashraf, no one knows I go to whores. Right away everyone would be talking about you: He’s a horny one, he can’t hold himself back. If you have a Jewish girlfriend, that is not shameful. What is shameful is having to pay for sex. That you don’t have any other possibility."
Do you ever talk to a prostitute?
Hadi: "There are some who tell you what brought them here. One told me that she came by way of the Egyptian border and was promised work in a hotel, but a Bedouin sold her to someone in Tel Aviv and now she gets screwed for a hundred shekels a pop, and her life is under threat if she tries to run away."
And after all that are you still able to sleep with her?
" That’s why she tells you everything at the end. If she told you at the start, it would make you depressed."
Wouldn’t it be better to start up with a girl in a bar?
Ashraf: "There are no Arab women in bars. And if you’re an Arab, there’s no way a Jewish girl will go out with you. Maybe if you’re rich and can buy her everything she wants. With a whore you pay 150 shekels and that’s that."
Hadi: "Listen, we need to have a solution. We have a problem, that we can’t go out with girls. Out of a hundred Arab guys, maybe three have a girlfriend. For example, I was in a restaurant at the Dead Sea and I saw a beautiful woman. I started talking to her, everything was fine, we spoke, until she asked me if I was an Arab. I said yes, and she said there was no way. They think we are a virus."
And the prostitutes?
" Just the opposite – they are respectful to Arabs. They know the Arabs don’t have girlfriends and that they spend money on whores. The prostitute knows he is clean for sure, because he doesn’t sleep with other women."
Not a full life
Omer, now a journalist, was for a moment a client of the sex industry about seven years ago, during his army service. "I was a soldier in a course at Zrifin [base]," he relates. "I went into the army without experience, and a year had gone by and I still had no experience, and I knew it could go on like this forever – I wasn’t even close to it. I remember that buddies in the army would say, ‘We were sitting in the room and one thing led to another.’ I don’t get it, what is ‘one thing led to another’? I sat with girls in a room and nothing led anywhere. I knew that there was some sort of breakthrough I couldn’t get to, something mystic."
" I remember that one day I was on the train and reading Proust, ‘In Search of Lost Time.’ There is a passage where Bloch explains that women are not unattainable and takes him to a brothel. That was the start of a fantasy of some kind about going with a hooker. It’s not that I fantasized about sex with a prostitute. If I could have slept with a girl, that would have been preferable, but I couldn’t even imagine that. It wasn’t going to happen."
One day he got a day off from the course. "I took a bus to Tel Aviv, took out money, bought condoms in a sex store at the Central Bus Station – I didn’t know it would be included in the price. I wandered around the Neveh Sha’anan area, and at a place called ‘Bat Hayam’ [Mermaid], I took the plunge. I walked like a regular person and crossed the road. I was in uniform, and I wasn’t wearing anything under the uniform. If you’re talking about a fantasy, that was part of it."
" I was pretty scared. There was the guy who keeps a record, and said, ‘Come on in, soldier.’ They were sitting in a row, three or four, and it looked frightening. I almost wanted to back off. I think he said ‘Don’t be afraid,’ and asked me which one I wanted. Three were pretty old and fat, and one was quite young, 30-something. I pointed at her and we went to a room. There was a kind of mini-shower there and a bed over which hung a picture of a hunt, dogs hunting, something embroidered and pretty ugly. I thought of it many times afterward.
" She asked me to pay first, so I took out 200 shekels and put it down. Then she said ‘Undress’ in a businesslike way. I made every possible mistake. I wanted to kiss her but she said no, and then I tried to do something with her breasts, which is also not done. Then we started and I got excited … in short, I couldn’t get it up. I was really uptight. This went on for half an hour. She tried really hard. ‘Nu, nu,’ she said, not impatiently, as though she were trying to encourage me. She gave me a kind of little punch to the stomach, as if to say, ‘Nu, already,’ and then she said something maybe in Russian, and that was it. I left, and I remember that she apparently laughed at me with the others. I didn’t actually feel humiliated. The thing is that I was detached, because the whole thing was a detaching experience. I got out of there and went to buy a book in a second-hand store."
Did you think you would try again?
" No, no. I felt that what was important was that I had done something in this whole field. So I felt I had done it – the fact that I failed didn’t really matter. I felt that going to a prostitute was a type of sacrifice, and because society puts pressure on us to get laid. I was able to say, lay off me, I fulfilled the imperative of living a sexual life, and I was able to go back to my static condition."
What does this imperative say?
" They try to persuade you that everyone can have the kind of sex life you see in the movies. They try to persuade you with urban myths that people meet in clubs, on the Internet. That is simply a lie, because those aren’t really options that are available to everyone. Maybe you have to ask a girl, ‘Would you be ready to sleep with everyone?’
" The question is whether anyone is ready to think about the option of annulling sex, or at least about a society where there is greater legitimacy for masturbating. Until that happens, the situation will not be fair and prostitution will flourish. After all, it is a pretty basic assumption in our society that there are people who are more attractive and less attractive. But there are people who feel that they are truly good citizens but yet they can’t get any. They tell themselves, ‘I work hard, I earn money. I’ll buy it with money.’ Why should someone else have it and me not? He’s not any better than I am. It’s not like someone is looking out to make sure that I’m getting it."
Entering the cage
Among the many clients of the sex industry are public figures and celebrities. Some of them, such as Shlomi Gavrieli, the clubber, or the local actor Henry David, have talked about it in press interviews, but the identity of others, such as soccer players or senior media people, is revealed only in hints when they are caught in police raids on brothels. Still, they are heroes.
The dubious activity of the police in the realm of prostitution does not end there, says attorney Levenkron, who goes on to paint a gloomy picture of close cooperation between police and pimps. Many hookers have told her that the pimps get an advance warning of police operations. In many cases, she adds, these are brothels where the police are themselves guests, either in uniform or after hours. "We don’t know even an iota of what is going on in Israel," she says, "and the reason is that the police internal affairs unit is one of the most flaccid and miserable bodies ever established in Israel."
But what can the police do about the clients?
" What we say is that the crime of rape can be perceived differently, that the moment the client can and should know that the woman is a victim of trafficking, he is committing a crime. There is a whole series of signs, beyond which the client cannot say he didn’t know. How can a client enter a cage and think that the women are there by choice? The moment you enter a cage, a certain responsibility devolves on you, you have to understand that there is some sort of small problem here. So if you, as a policeman, enter a cage during a raid, you have to do all you can to obtain details about the clients who were there, and if you find clients there you have to arrest them."
In response to the allegations of collaboration between police and pimps, and of policemen who get paid off by having sex with trafficking victims, the police spokesperson’s unit says that such allegations "should be addressed to the Justice Ministry (Police Investigation Department)."
A spokeswoman emphasized that "the Israel Police enforces offenses against morality in accordance with the existing legislation. Prostitution as such does not constitute an offense, but there is increased enforcement of the offenses that accompany it."
For its part, the Police Investigation Department (PID), says that responsibility for examining cases in which police make use of prostitution services is not within its purview. "Those cases are dealt with at the disciplinary level, and one has to ask the police about the implementation of this decision."
Regarding collaboration between policemen and owners of escort services, it was stated that when such cases are brought to the PID, they are dealt with strictly. In the past, a number of such cases were investigated and indictments handed down. The Tel Aviv District Court is currently hearing such a case. "Despite the inherent difficulty of exposing offenses like these, the PID is doing all it can with the aim of uncovering and dealing with the relevant cases," a statement said.
In addition to her allegations against the police, Levenkron is also furious with the clients. "They all think that the victim of trafficking is some other woman," she says. "’My private Natasha,’ they say, ‘is happy to open her legs every evening in the escort service I visit. She is not a trafficking victim.’ That is exactly the image that is cultivated in ads for sex services – she does kickboxing, she works in high-tech – that is what they have in their head. She enjoys all the clients."
Curator Ariella Azoulay suggests speaking about the clients more explicitly as rapists. "When we speak about the ‘sex industry’ and about ‘clients,’ it is impossible to recognize the rape that trafficked women testify time and again that they went through as part of the ‘examination’ of their quality as merchandise as rape. The notion that we need to enact additional legislation so that it will be possible to try the rapists – who in most cases are the traffickers of the bondswomen – is fundamentally mistaken. The problem is not the law; the law exists, and it prohibits rape. The problem is that women who are deprived of civil status cannot enjoy the protection of the law, certainly not when they are assaulted by Israeli men who possess a civil status."
What do you think of the use of the word "client" for men who go to prostitutes?
" With regard to trafficking of women, the term ‘client’ diverts our attention from the real point – the fact that this is the renewal of slavery. The women are not selling services and they do not have clients; these are women who were enslaved by coercion – and, one could say, by the light of day – to a master who keeps them as bondswomen. The term ‘client’ affords this whole business a facade of normality. At the same time, it is important to emphasize that the effort to divide attention between the prostitute and those who benefit from the enslavement of women like her is extraordinarily important. But we have to be careful not to forget that we are dealing in the first place with a social, legal and political structure that makes the phenomenon possible and preserves it. It is that structure which has to be attacked."
July 29, 2007
T.A. municipality stops funds to gay group in run-up to 2008 council vote
by Yigal Hai
The Tel Aviv municipality’s deputy treasurer, Herzl Sayag, said yesterday he is suspending annual funds approved by the city council for the Tel Aviv branch of the Aguda (the Association of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexuals and Transgenders in Israel). In a letter informing the director general of the municipality, Menachem Leiba, Sayag said his decision was prompted by the announcement by Aguda’s chair, Mike Hamel, that he plans to run for a seat on the city council in the elections to be held in about a year. Sayag said he was approached on the matter by the deputy mayor, Yael Dayan (Meretz), who gave him a list that ran in the Gay publication Hazman Havarod (Pink Times), according to which "a political list will be formed to compete in elections to local authorities and which will represent the proud community."
The deputy treasurer explained that "according to regulations, a non-profit organization that applies for financial aid is barred from passing those funds on to a political party." Sayag added that the suspension of funds will be in effect until the municipality receives clarifications from Aguda. Municipal support totaling NIS 60,000 represents a major chunk of Aguda’s annual budget of NIS 300,000. Dayan has represented the GLBT community’s interests for years, but Hamel was furious yesterday at her move to suspend the city’s support.
Hamel, who does not intend to step down as Aguda’s chair, said: "I personally intend to form and lead a proud list that will compete in city council elections. A poll I conducted found a potential for three seats for a list like this. The clarifications are very simple: The association is not involved in any political activity and is not organizing for such activity. This was also made clear to Ms. Dayan, but unfortunately she is mixing her personal political motives into the issue of funding for the activity of associations, and apparently considers such a list threatening. This is pettiness on Dayan’s part."
Dayan said in response: "On the municipal allocations committee we are scrupulous about not providing municipal support to any entity that might pass the municipal support on to some political track. If Hamel runs for office, he has to resign from the chairmanship of the Aguda. I have a life’s work to which the label ‘petty’ does not stick." A municipal spokesperson said: "The municipality is waiting for clarification that the financial aid will go to the non-profit organization and not a political faction.
November 12, 2007
From Haredim to leftists, regulars mourn end of J’lem’s only gay bar
by Jonathan Lis, Haaretz Correspondent
After four years in operation, the Shushan Pub, the only one for Jerusalem’s gay and lesbian community, has closed down. "Shushan is the only place in Israel where the Haredi [ultra-Orthodox], Arabs, religious and secular could sit together and have a good time," says pub owner Saar Netanel, who also serves on the Jerusalem city council for the left-wing party Meretz. "When they left Shushan, each returned to his own ghetto." One of the workers continues: "Haredim would come here mainly on Mondays and Fridays. There were not many of them, but it was clear that they were looking for a place for themselves and had not found it in the communities in which they live. Quite often you could find a Haredi here, all dressed in black, sitting at the bar, looking for companionship."
The bar was not always allowed to operate unhindered. Two years ago, arsonists torched the pub, and every year, with the approach of the gay pride parade, extra police patrols guarded Shushan’s clientele. On the other hand, Netanel admitted this week that despite the animosity directed at members of the gay and lesbian community regarding the parade, Shushan was generally tolerated by Jerusalem residents. But some patrons say Shushan had not managed to increase acceptance – let alone friendliness. "The fact that this place is on a side street, on the edge of the city center, prevented more serious incidents against the pub and its clientele," says one customer.
Adam Rousseau, 21, who was stabbed by an ultra-Orthodox man during the 2005 gay parade, went to Shushan last weekend for a last goodbye. "I met my partner at Shushan," he says. "Shushan is a warm, safe and friendly haven. The Jerusalem [gay and lesbian] community was surrounded on all sides by hatred, venom and vitriol, and Shushan was the only place where the community could find comfort." Apart from its sense of political mission, Shushan became an incubator for the renewal of drag shows in Israel: Kiara Duple, Talula Bonet, Gallina Port Des Bra, Diva D and The Four Jerusalem Drag Queens held gevald evenings every Monday, providing an open stage for amateurs. Following their success in Jerusalem, the queens traveled to Tel Aviv, Ashkelon and Haifa, too.
The decision to close the pub was made a few days ago. The Jerusalem local newspapers hinted that professional differences had developed between Netanel and his partner in managing the pub, Shimi Netaneli. Netanel, for his part, claims that the decision was made out of exhaustion. "At age 36, I am interested in other things. With all due respect to ideology, ideology does not pay the rent or municipal taxes," he says, adding that he is surprised there are no other places in Jerusalem for gays and lesbians. On the other hand," he concludes, "in a city like this, which lacks tolerance, where a third are Haredi and another third are Arabs, it is very difficult to come out of the closet."
November 30, 2007
Eastern promises: Gay Israeli travelers frequent Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey and Dubai
by Yotam Feldman, Amman, Jordan
At twilight, the labyrinthine paths of the ancient Roman theater in Amman begin to fill up. Men who have come alone stand in waiting postures, impatient, casting glances this way and that. Others congregate by the wall or on benches, not letting the patrolling police bother them. Occasionally a couple disappears into a clump of bushes or into one of the niches. Many tourists might be confused by the scene, but a gay tourist will get it immediately. Most of the men who approach the tourists are selling sex for money, sometimes mediated by a pimp lurking in another corner of the theater. Relations with those who are not engaged in prostitution also sometimes have a character that makes it impossible to be oblivious to economic power relations. The tourist will invite them for drinks or dinner, for example, or will pay for the hotel room to which they will go, perhaps, at the end of the evening.
There are other places, too, for those seeking cross-border relations: Thakafa Street (thakafa means "culture" in Arabic) in the Shmeisani quarter is a cruising site for a higher-level crowd. Strolling on the well-lit street, amid the ubiquitous campaign posters for the parliamentary elections, are families with children, groups of students and also gay men (mostly young) who are trying to spot a new face in the city’s small, stifling community. The searchers can be identified by their long pauses every few steps or by their many sidelong glances. Iman, a young literature student of Palestinian origin, whose family comes from Hebron, is here with friends to cruise Thakafa Street – "Not necessarily to look for anything, but if the opportunity arises, why not?" He is not ashamed to say that he’s looking mainly for foreigners. "In a small place like Amman, people we don’t know, with whom we haven’t yet slept, are a refreshing innovation. You can find tourists here from different countries – Americans and Europeans – and also many from Arab states, and occasionally also Israelis." Just that morning, Iman relates, he met, via the Internet, a Saudi student who was in the city for a short visit. "It’s been a long time since I met someone so uptight," he says. "He didn’t stop shaking until we entered the hotel room. Anyway, I won’t see him again."
In the evening, Iman and his friends hang out at Books@Cafe, a coffee shop that is considered "gay-friendly" and whose owner acts as an adviser and mentor to his clients. He tells of efforts by the young people to create a sense of community. Two of them, he says, tried recently to put out a magazine for gays, but quickly found themselves in trouble with the authorities, who threatened them with legal proceedings. They shelved the idea. We meet one of them later in the evening, together with a group of his friends, in the gay bar RGB, a relatively new establishment. It’s not very big – five wooden tables around which two groups of young men are milling. Sitting at one of the tables are two women, a couple, who have come from the lesbian bar that opened recently not far from RGB.
Marwan, a successful young Palestinian entrepreneur, originally from Jerusalem, who is at RGB almost every evening, says he is not concerned by the implications of the ties between Jordanians and tourists. "The westernization and Jordan’s economic dependence on the West are facts of life. The tourists, on the other hand, also alleviate our distress." At the same time, he regrets the fact that forging genuine relations is impossible under these conditions. "The end is more or less inevitable – the tourist will leave and we will probably never talk again. It is also unfortunate that it is impossible to find a place for meaningful encounters – all my recent encounters were in hotel rooms or in my car. Sometimes I feel a little like a prostitute."
The anti-erotic element
"They were an instance of the eastern boy and boy affection which the segregation of women made inevitable. Such friendships often led to manly loves of a depth and force beyond our flesh-steeped conceit. When innocent they were hot and unashamed." – T.E. Lawrence, "Seven Pillars of Wisdom"
Gay Israeli travelers frequent Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey and Dubai. Holders of two passports also visit Beirut, which they say can compete with Tel Aviv as the gay capital of the Middle East, and Damascus, where the gay scene is more secretive. This is not sex tourism, all the travelers who were interviewed for this article emphasized, certainly not in the narrow sense of obtaining sex in return for money. The fear of being exposed as an Israeli heightens the thrill, some of the visitors say. "It’s a state of consciousness, which allows you to overcome the usual inhibitions. The erotic yearning mobilizes additional forces," says Arnon, 35, who works for a human rights organization and makes frequent visits to Arab countries.
The fantasy that lured Western travelers to the Arab world is not new. In the 19th century, writers and other creative artists, Europeans in general and Frenchmen in particular, were drawn to the Levant under the auspices of colonialism. On their return they described places where men slept with other men without being categorized as homosexuals, as in the West.
"What connected me to the East was French literature of the 19th and 20th centuries," Arnon says. "Roland Barthes connected me to Morocco, and Flaubert to Tunisia. My image was of a place where almost every man could find himself in a sexual situation with another man, because you don’t have the Catholic prohibition on sexual contact between males. That is further intensified for a Western man, for whom all the barriers are lifted, in part by material incentives. It is not confined to a bar or a park. The horizon of possibilities is far more dynamic, and it is not just about those who declare themselves gay. It can also be a married man – anyone, really."
And were your expectations fulfilled?
"Very quickly. There are always these types who approach you. For example, in Tunis – you are sitting in a cafe and someone makes eyes at you, comes over and asks, ‘What are you looking for?’ ‘Where are you from? Are you married?’ ‘Would you like to go someplace?’ You don’t necessarily go straight to the hotel. Usually they want to go out, want you to take them drinking, to a discotheque."
And it’s at this stage that the economic dependence is created?
"In the background, there is always the question of what they will get out of it in material terms. It’s not that you are going to send them a hundred dollars a month for the rest of their lives, but relations of dependence form. Some of them told me that their dream is to leave Tunis and live in the West. They asked if I could write a letter to my consul general that will make it possible for them to get a visa. They asked that after 25 minutes of conversation."
What was your reply?
"I think I left it open. I said it’s an interesting idea, maybe I will try."
Does this put a damper on the experience?
"It is the anti-erotic element that bothers me. In Tunisia, for example, someone I met invited me to his cousin’s home. I went with him, even though I did not necessarily want sexual contact. I understood that the sexual thing was the payment I would make in order to see his house.
"We got a cab and drove out to a kind of suburb. It was a large house, what’s known in Israel as an Arab villa, made of concrete, on which construction was completed but hadn’t yet been quite whitewashed or furnished, or maybe would never be whitewashed because the money has run out. The uncle was sitting in the courtyard, holding prayer beads and smoking. We said hello, and the man introduced me in Arabic and spoke with him."
Was the uncle surprised to see a Western tourist in his courtyard?
"Not in the least. Maybe he was thinking that this was exactly what he did with the French who were there 50 years ago. He was completely at ease. Inside we met the cousin – ‘ahalan wasahalan’ – and then okay, let’s go to my room. We entered a room, which may or may not have been his, where there were two wooden beds and a poster of a Hollywood star on the wall. The small talk continued, the same conversation that is repeated on every trip. At a certain point he decides to turn off the light and starts to lean over me. After our pants are lowered the cousin opens the door and turns on the light. I thought there was going to be trouble, maybe he would be appalled, or maybe he would want to join, I don’t know, but he only asked him something, took a pack of cigarettes from him, and left."
Does the political dimension make such encounters highly charged?
"From my point of view, that dimension is critical, because if you leave only the sexual core, nothing would exist. It all comes from anthropological curiosity, political power relations, attraction to him as the representation of something, through my Israeliness and Jewishness. It is absolutely a type of conquest or operation in enemy territory and a speedy withdrawal. I came, I experienced a few things, I pulled out. The moment I have collected intelligence, withdrawal back to the hotel as quickly as possible."
Every trip is political
"The association between the Orient and sex is remarkably persistent. The Middle East is resistant, as any virgin would be, but the male scholar wins the prize by bursting open, penetrating the Gordian knot … ‘Harmony’ is the result of the conquest of maidenly coyness." – Edward Said, "Orientalism"
Lior Kay, 32, one of the founders of the gay forum called Red-Pink in the Hadash Arab-Jewish party, has paid many visits to Arab states, including Iraq. He finds a direct link between his experiences as a gay man in Tel Aviv and his adventures abroad. "There is something very international about being gay," he says. "Gays have a tool that allows them to enter deep into communities that are rooted in the local culture. When you come to someone for a one-night stand, you learn about all kinds of things. You can see the house, meet the friends, have breakfast with them. There is this very deep desire to get to know, even if it is only for one night – things that don’t necessarily happen to tourists.
"I, for example, like parks more than pubs, because there is an experience of disclosure there. You meet people who are outside the mainstream. In parks there are people who have no vested interests. We forget that there are people who do not have vested interests. That’s what I do in Jordan, for example, just talk with people who are wandering around the amphitheater." Kay entered Iraq in February 2004 on a U.S. passport, eight months after the start of the occupation. "On Friday I took a bus from Tel Aviv to Beit She’an. I hitchhiked to the border and then took a taxi to Amman, where I got a taxi to Baghdad. It was a 12-hour trip. We made a night stop in the desert and waited for the dawn, because it was dangerous to enter the Sunni triangle in the dark." There were hardly any tourists in Iraq at the time, he says. He walked around the city and talked to people, but was afraid to look for men.
Are these visits also related to your political attitudes?
"For me, all the trips are political and also social, in the sense that I see up close how people live. In many places I saw the anger at the West’s pillage of resources, and of course at the Israeli occupation.
The trips lent color to my political approach. You have to read books and studies and quotes by Brecht, but you also need color and aroma and soul to determine your political identity."
What is the negative side of being political in this context?
"There is a feeling of a stereotype that is at work on both sides. The fantasy of the West that likes what’s available and hot, and the people who live there, who hope to latch on to the tourists to get out of the disgusting cycle of poverty. Sex in these countries has a very clear economic element: a relationship of exploiter and exploited. Sometimes there is a feeling that you can go with almost anyone you meet, that they want you not because of your personality but because of these relations."
Where is that reflected?
"Everywhere, and first of all in bed. Even the active and passive thing – very often they will not agree to be passive with a Jew. There is definitely a matter of honor."
Do experiences in these countries challenge some of the images of homosexuality?
"Yes. We know the Western definition of the gay person – someone like Oscar Wilde – but in the Arab countries it is formulated in different codes of their culture. There is also liberation from the usual image of the body – less of the Western worship of youth. Many of the normative rules of the West do not apply there. Here we have the gyms, the hair removal; there it is a little less orderly, there are more possibilities."
Legislation is now being formulated that will strip Israelis of their citizenship if they visit Arab countries with which Israel does not have an agreement. Is it possible that you will no longer be able to travel there?
From Egyptian writer Constantin Cafavy "In the Tavernas": "I am a law-abiding citizen, but I don’t know how far my instinct for adventure will be repressed by that. Especially when it’s a flagrantly undemocratic law which is aimed, I think, less at people like me than at Knesset members whose activity might create a chance for peace." Assad watches the men: "I wallow in the tavernas and brothels of Beirut. I live a vile life, devoted to cheap debauchery. The one thing that saves me, like durable beauty, like perfume that goes on clinging to my flesh, is this: Tamides, most exquisite of young men, was mine for two years, and mine not for a house or a villa on the Nile." (translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard)
Russell, an American who immigrated to Israel in 1982, first visited Syria in 1993, entering the country on an American passport. His first encounter with the gay community of Damascus was a chance one. "I went into a pizzeria in Damascus. There was only one empty seat. The young Syrian who was sitting next to me asked where I was from, and we got into a conversation. It turned out that he was in charge of renovating the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Damascus.
"Even though the norms are very different in Syria – for example, it is routine for men to walk hand in hand in the street, and usually it doesn’t mean a thing – he somehow tuned me in and quickly started to pour out his heart. I asked him what was happening and where it was happening. He said it was done with a very low profile, a very traditional approach. The fear is less of the authorities, who monitor everything that goes on in the country, including gays, than of family and friends. He told me that people got together in homes, that there was a kind of group of gays who met every so often, and that there was sometimes sex with married men, too, but that there was no true gay life."
And besides the homes, are there other meeting places?
"In contrast to other Arab states, nothing happens in the hamams [public baths], but there are parks."
Russell’s host took him to a park. "He told me it was the cruising park of Damascus and that everyone went there, of all ages, for money and not for money. In the middle of the park there is a huge statue of Assad, who seems to be watching all the men. We walked around a little, said hello to a few people, and left."
What was the atmosphere like?
"Dark and not very pleasant, not friendly. I didn’t feel that I could have hooked up with someone if I had found anyone. I also drew a lot of attention – suddenly there was this new face, white with blue eyes. A tourist in Independence Park [in Jerusalem] might be an attraction, but not a big deal."
Did you get an unpleasant economic feeling from your encounters with men in Arab countries?
"Not necessarily. I’ve been to Jordan 200 times. If you go to Book@Cafe and want to meet someone, you can put out feelers immediately. If it is someone who speaks English and is well dressed, you know he is not after your money. People who are after money will go to the theater area, where the refugees hang out and where there are more needy people. Of course, it differs from one country to another – Dubai is one big brothel, filled with foreign workers, most of the population is not Arabic, and you don’t walk three meters without someone stopping you, whether it’s in a mall or in Starbucks, it makes no difference."
No consideration for Edward Said
From: Gustave Flaubert, "Flaubert in Egypt": "Here it’s quite well accepted. One admits one’s sodomy and talks about it at the dinner table. Sometimes one denies it a bit, then everyone yells at you and it ends up getting admitted. Traveling for our learning experience and charged with a mission by the government, we see it as our duty to give in to this mode of ejaculation." (translated by Francis
Yair Kedar, who was the editor of the travel magazine Masa Aher from 2003 to 2005, first visited Egypt in 1991, when he was 22. "I went with a gay French friend and an Italian-speaking Korean clergyman who joined us through a travel agency," he says. Kedar started to look for the gay scene where he had been told it was happening: hotel lobbies.
"You are in a very large hotel lobby, in the Hilton, say, and you sit down on a sofa and scan the place. Someone sits down next to you and you start to talk about the weather – ‘It’s really hot today.’ ‘Where are you from?’ ‘What do you do?’ ‘Have you been to the pyramids?’ And then he asks you if you would like to have a cup of coffee, and adds, ‘Just the two of us.’ And from there things develop.
"There is also the boardwalk along the Nile, which is a good catching place, these liminal places along the water, where culture ends. You wander around in the evening, there are groups of two-three guys and they start to talk to you, and suggest that they go with you and visit the room."
Do you feel guilty because gay tourism is also sex tourism, in the negative sense?
"That is a moral dilemma, because the visits also derive from good reasons. Is there a conflict between what they are selling and the regimes in these countries, and the economic dimension that permeates the sexual relations? There is a big contradiction.
But I see these contradictions in other places, too. There were travelers whom I spoke to as editor of Masa Aher, and at first they would tell me, ‘I was at the volcano, I was on a trek, I was here and there,’ and then, when things warmed up, they would tell me what they did at night: 12-year-old girls in Colombia and Thailand."
Is there something distinctive about the gay experience in places like this?
"There is a similarity between gay cruising and tourism: you are sold something that looks terrific from the outside by hiding the moral problem it entails – in that something is promised that cannot be fulfilled. In both cases there is a large dimension of guilt. On the other hand, I always thought that homosexuality is a great treasure that enables you to meet people and embark on new voyages with them. It’s intriguing, and you acquire experiences, until at a certain age you discover that you are becoming less patient and less inquisitive."
Benny Ziffer, the editor of the weekly Culture and Literature supplement of Haaretz (Hebrew edition), has written a great deal, in books and articles, about his erotic experiences in Arab countries. He says he chooses to ignore the feeling of guilt that accrues to the economic relations.
"You walk in Alexandria and people offer themselves to you in return for shawarma. If I were political and Marxist, I would not do anything. If someone offers you something like that, you have to cry out to the high heavens. I am doing something bad: I am fulfilling a desire at the expense of these unfortunates. These relations of power are ancient, you know, it was the pattern in the colonial period. People who were nothing in France became great lords in these countries, because they could control the people."
How do you justify it to yourself?
"Maybe in my writing I purify myself, maybe by saying it now. I always travel in order to write, and I have always written; I can’t bring myself to travel just like that – and I am not original in this, I did not invent it. I go to Egypt with the official goal of writing about bookstores, but the real inner goal is for something to happen from the erotic point of view, otherwise I will be very disappointed."
Don’t political relations interfere, in a period when there is critical talk about the East that was created by the writers you read?
"I immerse myself in the erotic and literary East alike, without taking account of orientalism and without taking account of Edward Said. I have my life and my experiences and my things
10th December 2007
Israel must recognise same-sex adoptive couples
by Tony Grew
The Interior Ministry of Israel was ordered by the country’s Supreme Court yesterday to register overseas adoptions by same-sex parents. An American-Israeli lesbian couple who weren’t registered as dual mothers of their son despite a Court’s ruling took their case to the Supreme Court. Nicole and Ruti Berner Kadish’s case was heard before a panel of nine High Court judges. The judiciary ordered the Interior Ministry to continue executing a 2000 ruling, which had endorsed the registration of the couple as dual mothers of their child Matan, Ruti’s biological son, adopted by Nicole under California law.
Following the 2000 ruling, the Interior Ministry submitted a petition claiming that clerks could not be forced to register an adoption in contrast with Israeli values and norms, but the Court dismissed the request, allowing Nicole to adopt Matan. But since then the Ministry has challenged the order and numerous same-sex couples have been left without any legal relation to their partners’ children.
"The court is being asked to censure the state, which is doing all it can to obstruct gays and lesbians from establishing a family," Mike Hamel of the Israeli Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Association told haaretz.com Nicole and Ruti have had two more children who haven’t been registered as children of both women. Religious groups were unhappy about the ruling. "There is no choice but to propose a legislation amendment that will clearly determine that a family is built by a man and a woman," said National Religious Party chairman, MK Zevulun Orlev, according to Ynet News. "The court’s ruling goes against the Jewish faith and undermines the foundation of the State of Israel as a Jewish nation."