July 26, 2000
Two Books on Gay Israel
Review by Wayne Hoffman
Managing editor of the New York Blade
BETWEEN SODOM AND EDEN A Gay Journey Through Today’s Changing Israel
by Lee Walzer Columbia University Press.
INDEPENDENCE PARK The Lives of Gay Men in Israel
by Amir Sumaka’i Fink and Jacob Press Stanford University Press
When transsexual Israeli singer Dana International won the 1998 Eurovision song contest–pop music’s World Cup–she was condemned in the Knesset by Deputy Health Minister Shlomo Benizri as "an abomination . . . worse than Sodom and Gomorrah."
This conservative legislator’s statement wasn’t shocking in itself. The surprise was that Benizri stood largely alone. Throngs filled Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square after the victory, waving gay rainbow flags alongside Israeli flags. Polls found those who were "proud" of International outnumbered her detractors 3 to 1. International represented a new Israel, whose secular values and sexual mores she summed up succinctly: "We should be seen as a liberal, free country."
Such a vision is recent in Israel, but it has taken root quickly. The status of gay Israelis, in particular, is changing with remarkable speed. As Lee Walzer explains in "Between Sodom and Eden," "In a period of ten years, lesbian and gay Israelis have attained rights that remain distant dreams for their counterparts in some Western countries."
Israel’s sodomy laws were repealed in 1988, and since then the government has banned workplace discrimination, recognized extensive legal rights for same-sex couples, instituted progressive sex education curricula and fully integrated gays into the military. A lesbian now sits on Tel Aviv’s City Council–the country’s first openly gay elected official.
Cultural changes have been equally dramatic. Three years ago, "Florentin"–Israel Television’s answer to "Melrose Place"–brought gay characters to prime time. Last year, a multicultural gay community center opened in Jerusalem. Long home to most of Israel’s gay bars and cafes, Tel Aviv now hosts an annual Pride parade.
After interviewing more than 100 people–from activists to rabbis to legislators across the political spectrum–about this societal sea change, Walzer has crafted the definitive resource on gay Israel, and an essential glimpse into the country’s broader social wars. Growing acceptance of gays is part of a movement more concerned with democratic integration and individual rights than with nationalistic separatism and collective responsibilities, he writes. As this consensus gains power, legal discrimination and cultural heterosexism wither.
Declaring Israel’s gay movement "largely a success story," Walzer–a Washington-based lawyer and activist–finds good news in unexpected places. Orthodox rabbis explain why homosexuals vex them less than Sabbath-breakers. A drag queen describes what a supportive environment the military can be. High school students report a gay-positive atmosphere fostered by educators and parents alike.
While presenting ample cause for celebration, Walzer justly criticizes the largely individualistic, assimilationist Israeli movement for its lack of attention to AIDS, feminism and sexual liberation. And the most significant problem, pernicious discrimination against the Israeli Arab minority, has left a rift in the gay community. While gay Arabs "may want to fit into Israel’s gay community by downplaying their Arab identities . . . the feeling is not necessarily reciprocated by gay Israeli Jews," Walzer writes.
Blending journalistic techniques with sociological methodology, "Between Sodom and Eden" is a rigorous investigation of Israel’s gay scene, both politically and culturally. Perhaps the only element lacking is a sense of how individuals integrate this changing political situation into their personal lives.
Filling this gap is "Independence Park," comprising a dozen interviews with Israeli gay men from diverse backgrounds. After brief introductions, authors Amir Sumaka’i Fink and Jacob Press–an Israeli and an American, respectively–let their subjects speak for themselves, each telling of his childhood, sexual awakening, coming out and current situation.
These stories are revealing and often moving. A closeted Jerusalemite explains his shame at being unable to reconcile his sexual desires with his religious obligations to his wife of 23 years, while a divorced newspaper columnist in Haifa describes his transformation into one of Israel’s most visible radical activists. A young kibbutznik tells how a sensitive military commander saved him from suicide, while an elderly community organizer in Tel Aviv recounts fleeing Hitler’s Germany to help build both a new movement and a new country in Israel.
Fink and Press’s technique has shortcomings. While the stories’ common elements are intriguing–dating women, networking through personal ads, cruising the urban parks that lend the book its title–these recurring motifs become repetitive.
And although the book was published a few months ago, the interviews date from 1993; the seismic shifts in Israel’s political terrain were only beginning then, so it already seems like ancient history.
Still, reading the books together, it becomes evident how quickly Israel’s culture wars are progressing. Walzer is "cautiously optimistic" but acknowledges that the struggle is not over. Israel’s Eurovision entry this year was titled "Sameach"–meaning "happy"–by a band called Ping Pong. The video shows Ping Pong’s two male members kissing, followed by their two female band mates doing the same.
Two years after Dana International stirred up the Knesset, Deputy Education Minister Shaul Yahalom denounced Israel’s latest Eurovision submission for promoting "sexual perversions." "An Israeli entry to a contest," he said, "must present our national values."
Despite all the progress gays have made in recent years, who will ultimately determine Israel’s national values is still an open question.
March 21, 2001
Coalition MKs stay away from gay Knesset gathering
by Nina Gilbert
Labor MK [Member of the Knesset] Yael Dayan was the only coalition MK to attend yesterday’s 25th-anniversary gathering of the Association of Homosexuals and Lesbians, held at the Knesset. The United Torah Judaism faction stayed away in protest. Dayan, chairwoman of the Knesset Committee for the Advancement of the Status of Women which hosted the event, said recent attacks on the community by singer Ariel Zilber and MK Nissim Ze’ev only reflected the two’s ignorance. Ze’ev this week called homosexuals perverts who need treatment. Michal Eden, an association activist and Tel Aviv city council member, said Ze’ev’s comments are dangerous, because they can cause homosexual youths to become depressed, even to the point of committing suicide. She added that his ideas were better suited to Iran.
Meretz MK Zehava Gal-On said that those who attack the gay community are "unenlightened," and are apparently afraid to breathe the same air as homosexuals. However, she said she hadn’t expected an attack to come from a singer. Shinui MK Eliezer Sandberg expressed disappointment that he was the only right-leaning MK who attended the gathering, and said that the Right needs to do some rethinking. He said he was sure that if there weren’t a national unity government, more MKs would have attended the gathering.
Last year’s gathering was attended by MKs from centrist to Left parties, as well as Likud MKs. All MKs attending this year were from either Meretz or Shinui. Dayan warned Education Minister Limor Livnat not to eliminate homosexuality issues from school curricula, as she is eliminating the works of Palestinian poet Mohammed Darwish. Shinui leader Yosef Lapid encouraged the group to continue its struggle for rights, so as to help transform Israel into freer, more liberal state.
However, Meretz MK Mossy Raz questioned Lapid’s commitment to the cause, noting that when he was head of the Israel Broadcasting Authority he had blocked an interview with a homosexual.
March 20, 2001
High Court overturns rabbinical court ruling in lesbian case
by Dan Izenberg
Jerusalem – The High Court of Justice yesterday ruled that the rabbinical courts were unauthorized to decide on a request by a man to prohibit his ex-wife from letting their children spend time with her lesbian partner. Justices Theodore Or, Yitzchak Zamir, and Ayala Procaccia overturned the ruling, originally handed down by Haifa District Rabbinical Court and upheld by the Chief Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem, banning the woman from letting her children spend time with her partner.
The decision paved the way for the two divorced women and their children, who live in a communal settlement in the North, to meet as a family legally for the first time since May 12, 1999. The petitioners were represented by a private lawyer, Ayelet Golan-Tabori and sponsored by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. The women, whose names are banned for publication so as not to reveal the identity of their minor children, were noticeably moved by the court’s decision.
"I feel that I am beginning to live my life freely, the way everyone is supposed to live in this country, without anyone interfering in my private affairs," said one of them. "We went through very hard times and times that were less difficult. The hardest thing was the knowledge that someone can interfere with your most private affairs, especially when you know that you are living a good life and are happy with the choice you made."
The women appealed to the High Court in January 2000. Two years earlier, the husband of one of them filed a request in Haifa District Rabbinical Court to lower his child support payments because she was seeing a woman. He also asked the court to prohibit the woman from allowing their children to spend time with her lover. During the hearing, the court acknowledged that it was not empowered to hear the request for reduced child support, since the matter no longer involved a divorce case, but ruled that the women were setting a bad example and upheld the ex-husband’s second request. When the women appealed, the Chief Rabbinical Court upheld the lower court.
In overturning the decisions, the High Court ruled that once the rabbinical court had decided it was not authorized to rule on the main request, it automatically should have disqualified itself from dealing with his secondary request. It also ruled that the court had not conducted a serious examination of the husband’s claims. For example, it had not asked for statements from social workers. Golan-Tabori said she is currently handling another case in the Ariel Rabbinical Court which goes to the heart of the same issue. In this case, a woman left her husband and moved in with another woman. The husband requested and was granted an injunction barring her from seeing their child. Mother and child have been separated for six months.
MK [Member of the Knesset] Haim Druckman (National Religious Party) said the High Court is apparently so eager to undermine the rabbinical courts that it was not willing to consider the great harm to the child that the father wanted to prevent. He called the decision a "great injustice." A spokesman for Rabbi Eliahu Ben-Dahan, director-general of the rabbinical courts said yesterday that the rabbinical courts do not respond to High Court decisions. . Haim Shapiro and Nina Gilbert contributed to this report.
June 5, 2001
Gay community center reaching out to gay Arabs
by Joshua Ronen
In an effort to reach out to the Palestinian homosexual population, a Jerusalem gay community center is advertising its Jerusalem Pride 2001 events in Arabic. As part of its month-long celebration, the Jerusalem Open House is, according to a statement, inviting "all Jerusalemites to celebrate gay pride in Jerusalem: Arabs and Jews, Palestinians and Israelis, religious and secular." Open House, which opens its series of events tonight with MK Yael Dayan (Labor) and Jerusalem city council member Anat Hoffman, is offering opportunities for dialogue with Palestinian gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals.
"At this time of conflict in Jerusalem and the region, we see special importance in bringing out different voices, voices from a different time when Islamic and Jewish traditions had a shared view of male-male affection," said Hagai El-Ad, executive director of Open House. "We hope that by expressing these voices from the past in a contemporary context, we will be able to hope for an open life, freedom and happiness in this city which we all love so much."
Although Open House has worked with the Muslim community — its library has a Koran donated by the international Muslim gay and lesbian organization Al Fatiha — this marks the first time in this country that information about homosexuality is being disseminated in Arabic. "This is the most challenging aspect of Open House’s mission," El-Ad said, pointing out that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not helped in bringing the homosexual populations of the two communities together. According to Dayan, the homosexuality community, which numbers globally about 10 percent of any population, has faced considerable opposition in this part of the world.
She drew a comparison between the Orthodox Jewish community and the Palestinian community, which frequently oppresses those who live a homosexual lifestyle. "Our religious community is as closed and backward as the Palestinians," said Dayan, who just recently sponsored legislation to allow same-sex marriages. "You [not only] have to open up your own society, but in a city like Jerusalem, you have to give support to members of other religions."
But despite the similarities, Palestinian society has been a lot less accepting of the homosexual lifestyle. Open House believes it can help change that. "Even with more and more ties between Israelis and Palestinians being slashed, Palestinians still come to the center here," El-Ad said. "In Palestinian society, there’s no such thing as open homosexuality," said Daniel Weishut, chair of the Gay and Lesbian Network of Amnesty International, who works closely with Open House. "There are no clubs or bars or meeting places." Along the same lines as Open House, Amnesty is currently involved in a project to offer educational information about homosexuality in Arabic. "Arabic [speaking] homosexuals suffer from a lot of discrimination and usually live in hiding," Weishut said.
June 10, 2001
Israeli Army Weekly ordered closed after cover story on gay colonel.
by Tracy Wilkinson, Times Staff Writer
Jerusalem – As if the Israeli military didn’t have enough to worry about these days, a scandal is brewing in the offices of the army’s weekly magazine. Senior officers ordered the Bamahane newsmagazine closed after a cover story showcased a now-retired gay colonel who had come out of the closet during his military service and went on to become an activist in the gay-rights movement.
The shutdown is part of a tug of war over how the publication can best reflect the identity of Israel’s fighting forces. In the backdrop is the conflict between the seemingly mutually exclusive worlds of press freedom and the military. Until about a year ago, Bamahane (which means "In the Camp") had to submit all of its stories to the army spokesman’s office for screening and "editing" before publication. Since then, pressure to toe a certain line remains, but the editors have been given more license and they have been eagerly testing the limits, with varying degrees of success.
In Israel, almost all Jewish citizens are drafted and obliged to perform reserve duty for many years after their mandatory service is completed. Consequently, this "people’s army" expects publications that are more relevant and grass-roots than institutional. Many of the country’s professional journalists fulfill their reserve duty at Bamahane or other army media. In addition to the gay colonel feature, articles published in Bamahane have recently addressed alcoholism among the troops; dissent over controversial operations in Lebanon; the repeated blunders of state intelligence; and the neglect of female soldiers injured in the line of duty, in contrast to the preferential treatment afforded their male colleagues.
Another recent cover featured the photograph of a shirtless paratrooper-turned-male-model, complete with chiseled body and come-hither pose. To boot, he was a former ultra-Orthodox yeshiva boy who had defected from the religious life. He was quoted as saying that he’d rather be starring on the catwalk than patrolling Arab villages. This is not your father’s Stars and Stripes. Bamahane won praise in many circles for having broken out of the staid, officious world of army-speak and for addressing sensitive, once-taboo topics. But the stories irritated some officers in the army’s upper echelon who believed that the more titillating reports simply went too far. And the gay colonel, one army insider said, was "the last straw."
Brig. Gen. Elazar Stern, the chief education officer who oversees military publications, ordered the weekly closed until further notice because of material that "depicts the army in a negative light." Neither Stern nor anyone else in the army public information office would comment for the record on this case, and Bamahane’s editor, Rami Keidar, was forbidden to talk to the media. Past writers at the paper blame Stern for continuing to try to impose censorship. Stern has earned attention in the mainstream press, mostly for several less-than-progressive statements. He was quoted in March, for example, as suggesting that non-Jews make inferior soldiers.
Others put forward that Bamahane had indeed gone a little overboard, reflecting a yuppie, Tel Aviv-centric personality seen as elitist and out of touch with many of the troops. Bamahane will probably be allowed to resume publication in a matter of weeks or months, officials said. But its tone then is anyone’s guess. "It will bid farewell to an editor or two, and then will revert to what it has always been," complained political activist Orna Oshri, writing last month in the Haaretz newspaper. "A boring, polite and squeaky-clean rag, the Pravda of a scared, heterosexual, narrow-minded army. It will then be necessary to find out who needs such a wretched product anyway."
June 20, 2001
Tel Aviv gay parade seeks equal love
by Maia Ridberg
Friday’s Gay Pride Parade in Tel Aviv celebrates and protests the rights of Israel’s homosexual community with a march, concerts, singing and dancing all dedicated to this year’s theme: Equal love. "We are entitled to a day dedicated to us; a day to feel proud and happy about who we are," says Etai Pinkas, head of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Association, which is sponsoring the event in coalition with the City of Tel-Aviv-Yaffo.
Tel Aviv is a city known for its supportive atmosphere for the homosexual community. "It is part of the attitude in Tel Aviv to support groups that are different. It is a unique, open city," agrees Adir Steiner, an assistant to the Mayor and another of the event organizers. The yearly event attracts many people from outside the community too, who want to show their support for friends and simply join in the celebrations. As far as the city council is concerned, the mayor has made it his priority to take an active role in helping the homosexual community in Tel Aviv. This is the third year the city is co-sponsoring the event, said Steiner.
Besides those living in Tel Aviv, event organizers hope the parade will assist those in more conservative communities who are still ashamed or fearful of homosexuals. According to Pinkas, this day is a good opportunity to expose the community to groups that shun homosexuality. The media coverage shows we are "just a normal part of every population," said Pinkas, who identified Arab, immigrant and religious communities as among the more conservative in their attitudes toward homosexuals.
Last year 50,000 gathered for the event after the parade in Park Hayarkon, and this year even more people are expected. The parade begins at 12 p.m. in Beit Ariela, and stops in Kikar Rabin before culminating with a rich array of concerts, dancing and partying in the park’s Gan Yehoshua.
Some of Israel’s top musicians, including Gali Atari, Shlomi Shaban and Sharon Haziz, will perform along with many other top singers and hip DJs at the after-parade celebration. Organizers are doing "everything possible" to ensure security at the event. The day’s theme, equal love, is to "put a focus on the demands for equal rights for homosexuals," says Pinkas. "We demand that the state give us the natural rights that other couples have to establish legal partnerships" and benefit from lower taxes and mortgages granted to married couples. Opposition to the annual event from homophobic voices here has decreased every year as the gay community has strengthened in both numbers and power. "The potential for people to come out of the closet is not even beginning to be fulfilled," and many people join the community every year on this day, explains Pinkas.
The timing of Friday’s parade at the end of June coincides with gay pride events around the world. They commemorate the June 1969 riots in New York City that marked the beginning of the equal rights and pride movement for homosexuals. Besides the parade this Friday, members of the gay movement have been commemorating the week with film screenings, drag queen parties, and political lobbying at the Knesset.
June 27, 2001
Transgender Israeli export Dana International courts fans and controversy around the globe
by Neva Chonin, Chronicle Pop Music Writer
In Europe and her Israeli homeland, Dana International is a teen idol. She has five hit albums behind her and has won a panoply of awards. Her singles go platinum; school kids sing her songs. She’s played the Kremlin and been courted by the president of Ukraine. Saturday at Gay Pride Weekend’s "ReUnion @ City Hall," International descended the staircase for her U.S. debut to the beat of "Diva," the song that won her the 1998 European Song Contest. The crowd cheered, danced madly and sang along. Ravishing in a flowing gown that left little of her perfect form to the imagination, the petite, sensual dance-floor diva was every inch the superstar belle of the ball.
But International isn’t just another gorgeous face with a voice and body to match. Depending on where one sits, she’s either a controversy incarnate or a legend in process. She’s been called an "inspiration" by gay and straight fans around the world and an "abomination" by Orthodox rabbis in her own country — not for flaunting her magnificent breasts and singing transcultural pop music, but for flaunting her magnificent breasts and celebrating her transgender identity. When International, a.k.a. Sharon Cohen, released her first record, she was a young man named Yaron Cohen. Not exactly the stereotype of an earthy, traditional Israeli folksinger — nor the wholesome pop confection usually associated with Eurovision’s European Song Contest, where ABBA got its start.
"When I won, everyone was shocked," International admits, laughing. "It was like, ‘She’s from Israel? A transsexual from Israel?’ " Back home her success delighted most, but raised the hackles of religious conservatives, for whom a Europop-singing transsexual was anathema. International shrugs her shoulders when asked about the controversy. "I don’t like extreme religious orthodoxy, whether it’s Jewish or Christian or Muslim," she says after her Saturday performance. "It doesn’t matter to me if they accept or don’t accept me. They don’t buy my records, they don’t listen to the radio and I don’t sing for them. . . . When I sing, it’s not to those who don’t understand me, but to those who are capable of listening."
There are many who are listening. Still a cult figure in the United States, International’s visit to San Francisco is being documented by the Israeli television show "Passport," and an MTV microphone and camera are waiting for her the moment she exits the dressing room. After leaving San Francisco, she’ll go on to performances in Miami, Chicago and New York, where she’ll appear in Wigstock 2001.
International has worked hard to reach this point. Born in 1972, she began singing in the school lion bootleg tapes, circulated by fans in Egypt and other countries where her music was banned. At the same time, Cohen began gender-reassignment surgery in London. It just made sense, International recalls: "I could have lived my life as a gay man and been a singer, but I felt uncomfortable with the way I looked. And they didn’t like me as much as a boy! I went to clubs in Tel Aviv and no one paid attention to me. But when I was walking down the street and people thought I was a woman, it was ‘Honk-honk! Hey, baby!’ "
Feeling more comfortable as a girl wasn’t a new thing for Sharon/Yaron. "Even in high school, whenever I called out in class, my teachers always thought it was a girl’s voice," she says. "People were calling me a transsexual when I was 13 years old. But it was OK, because I had many friends and a family who loved and supported me. If you accept yourself, others will, too."
Accept her they did, and in a big way. Cohen’s first album went gold after she re-emerged as Dana International in 1993. A second album in 1994 went platinum, and International was named Israel’s best female artist of the year. By the time "Diva" made her a European celebrity, International had released a handful of hit albums and inspired an estimated 4 million bootleg tapes, circulated by fans in Egypt and other countries where her music was banned.
International’s life as a luminously gorgeous transsexual of Yemeni descent hasn’t been all accolades and awards, of course. Being part of a small and frequently misunderstood minority has led to a number of bizarre incidents. On the downside, there were the American soldiers who met her at a nightclub and flirted madly until she revealed her past. They responded by spitting on her. On a lighter note, there was the time the Israeli army was determined to draft her regardless of her transsexuality — until she lifted her shirt to show them her budding breasts. "They wanted big, strong boys who could fight," she recalls with a chuckle. "Which I wasn’t."
Her celebrity has naturally made her a beacon for the transgender community, a role International proudly accepts. But she draws the line at doling out wisdom to the many fans who approach her for advice on their own fluctuating sexual identities. "I never give my opinion, because I have my mind and my mind drives me to do what I want to do," says International firmly. "I can’t tell someone I don’t know what to do with his or her life. I’m not a professor who’s trained to answer these kinds of questions."
She pauses to peek in the mirror and fluff her wild mane. "This is just me. I can’t escape it," she says. "I look in the mirror and I know what I am. And I thank God for what I have." .
E-mail Neva Chonin at email@example.com.
November 27, 2001
President Katsav to meet with gay rights delegation (2 stories)
by Greer Fay Cashman
Jerusalem – President Moshe Katsav is to meet today with representatives of the Political Council for Gay Rights. He is the first president to invite members of the group to a meeting. Although Katsav’s predecessor, Ezer Weizman, was forced as an outcome of disparaging remarks against gays to meet with a delegation of gay representatives accompanied by outraged MKs [Members of the Knesset]–and later with Ha’asiron Ha’aher, the gay, lesbian and bisexual students union–the PCGR regards Katsav as the first president to meet voluntarily with representatives of the group.
"He is the first president who actually invited us," Shavi Gatenio, a PCGR board member, told The Jerusalem Post. In December 1996, Meretz MK Naomi Chazan called on Weizman to resign following disparaging remarks which he had made about homosexuals to students at the Reali School in Haifa. "I like a man who wants to be a man and a woman who wants to be a woman, but not a man who wants to be a woman," Weizman had told the students, adding, "It is hard for me to regard [homosexuality and lesbianism] as normal."
Katsav, who made history earlier this year when he became the first president to have a synagogue in the grounds of Beit Hanassi, may draw fire from the very people who came to the consecration ceremony and applauded him at the time. Today’s meeting was initiated by lawyer Menachem Shizaf, who is one of the PCGR founders and the editor of Keshet (Rainbow) one of two gay media organs. The other is Zman Varod. Shizaf will head today’s PCGR delegation, which will include Gatenio, PCGR lawyer Eran Lev, Noa Greenberg, representing the trans-gender community, Karen Gutterman of Klaf, and Michal Eden, a Tel Aviv city council member, and chairman of the city’s committee for homosexuals, lesbians and bi-sexuals.
Eden has also initiated workshops for educators on homosexual-lesbian tolerance in the city’s school system. PCGR, which is striving to obtain at all levels the same rights which are granted to heterosexuals, will present Katsav with its special report for 2000-2001 and will raise issues such as health, gay marriages and pension and inheritance rights for gay spouses or common law companions. Gatenio conceded that there is not much that Katsav can do towards improving the situation with regard to gay rights, "but the fact that he has invited us is a sign of official recognition, and we’re eager to hear what he has to say about our struggle." Conventional wisdom estimates that the ratio of gays in most populations is somewhere between 7 percent and 10 percent, said Gatenio, "but in Tel Aviv, it’s at least double that."
Jerusalem Post ( http://www.jpost.co.il )
November 28, 2001
Katsav receives gay rights delegation at Beit Hanassi
by Greer Fay Cashman
Members of the Political Council for Gay Rights were visibly excited last night as they waited for what their leader Menahem Shizaf called "an historic meeting" with President Moshe Katsav. Shizaf, a lawyer, PCGR board member, and editor of Keshet, a monthly newspaper for gays, had initiated the meeting, and Katsav had readily issued an invitation. But if they thought that they had found an ever open door at the pinnacle of the establishment, they were mistaken.
At the end of the meeting, Katsav told them, "I thought it was important to meet you and hear what you have to say – though I don’t see how I can help you." Earlier he had said that the meeting should not be interpreted as either encouragement or criticism. Nonetheless, he was sensitive to their grievances and declared that if there was anything he could do in the future, he would be happy to help.
But there was a clear implication that he did not want to be bothered by a bevy of gay groups or individuals. Any future approaches will have to be via Shizaf. Michal Eden, a Meretz representative on the Tel Aviv City Council, complained that leading political figures, such as Education Minister Limor Livnat, say that they accept gays as equals, but then decline to attend their functions, and invited Katsav to the 2002 Gay Pride Day festivities. "When you’re mayor of Tel Aviv and you issue the invitation again, I’ll be happy to accept," he told her. "You’ve given me a challenge," replied Eden.
Other members of the delegation spoke of the difficulties gays face when they want to adopt. Karen Gutterman, a lesbian whose long time companion is pregnant, spoke passionately about her fear of losing the child should anything happen to the birth mother. In a heterosexual relationship the father, no matter what kind of a person he might be, has rights to the child if the mother dies or becomes incapacitated, she noted. But in a lesbian relationship, the mother’s significant other has no rights where the child is concerned.
Noa Greenberg, representing the cross-gender community, told of one of its members, "now a woman in every sense of the word," who applied to adopt a child and was rejected on the basis that she was born a man and as such could not possibily give a child the kind of love it would get from a woman. Shizaf said Israel is one of the most progressive countries in the world regarding legislation concerning gays, lagging just slightly behind Denmark and Holland, but ahead of England and the US. However, he noted, no country yet recognizes same sex marriages, though Holland recognizes couples registration.
December 9, 2001
Documentary film ‘Trembling Before G_d’ inspires discussions of spiritual and sexual identity
by Loren King, Globe Correspondent
Dr. Marc Kramer, native of Sharon and graduate of Brandeis University, stood outside the Film Forum in New York City between screenings of the documentary ”Trembling Before G-d.” He watched as a man in a yarmulke strolled past, paused in front of the poster for the film, then peered closer at its image of two Hasidic men, heads pressed together in an intimate moment. Realizing the film was about Orthodox Jewish homosexuals, he turned to Kramer. ”This exists?” the man asked.
Kramer, who coordinates the film’s post-screening discussions at the Film Forum and will do the same when ”Trembling Before G-d” opens Friday at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, nodded. Then the two men began talking. ”He bought a ticket and returned that night with his wife,” Kramer recalls. ”I saw him again after the show. He was surprised to realize that not only does it exist, but it exists right in his own neighborhood.” For Kramer and his close friend, ”Trembling Before G-d” director Sandi Simcha DuBowski, such eye-opening moments represent the film’s larger purpose.
It introduces audiences to the personal stories of gay and lesbian Hasidic and Orthodox Jews – and the profound dilemma they face of how to reconcile their love of Judaism with the prohibitions on homosexuality espoused even by sympathetic rabbis interviewed in the film. Kramer and DuBowksi, both gay and both Orthodox, although neither was raised in Jewish Orthodoxy, describe ”Trembling Before G-d” as ”more than a movie.” Ever since the film opened in New York, where it quickly broke the Film Forum’s box-office record for a documentary (previously held by Jennie Livingston’s ”Paris Is Burning”), intense discussions have followed the screenings. ”At every intellectual level, this is a film that doesn’t just leave the issues at the table.
The point is to go into the community,” says Kramer, an education specialist who took on outreach duties for the film as a labor of love and now handles screening and discussion requests ”24/7, minus the Sabbath.” Because the film is gradually opening worldwide – DuBowski was interviewed by telephone in Amsterdam en route to Tel Aviv for the film’s Israeli premiere – neither Kramer nor DuBowski is certain whether other cities will respond to post-screening discussions as enthusiastically as New York, with its large Jewish and gay populations. But Kramer says he has already fielded dozens of calls from Boston-area synagogues and community groups.
The film had one sold-out local showing in September as part of the Boston Jewish Film Festival. DuBowski, 31, who was raised in a conservative Jewish family in Brooklyn and educated at Harvard, says ”Trembling Before G-d” is a project that ”chose me.” From its beginnings six years ago, the film kept transforming as DuBowski traveled to London, Tel Aviv, Los Angeles, Miami, and through his native New York to find and meet lesbians and gay men struggling to reconcile two vital parts of themselves, their religious and gay identities. Though DuBowski knew he’d ripped the shroud off a taboo subject, he was unprepared for how the film triggered passionate discussions, starting when it hit the film-festival circuit earlier this year. ”We had the first-ever Shabbat dinner in Sundance, Utah.
Everyone from Tilda Swinton to Rabbi Steve Greenberg [the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, who is featured in the film] to local gays in Salt Lake City participated. At the Berlin Film Festival, we koshered the kitchen and had Holocaust survivors breaking bread with Generation X.” Since the film opened in New York in October, DuBowski says ”stories are just pouring out of the theaters.” On the Film Forum’s opening night he stood outside and watched the crowd exit. ”I spotted two Hasidic women, and I chased them down the street. ‘How did you hear about the film?’ I asked. One of the women answered, ‘The group.’ I replied, ‘The group? Do you mean Orthodykes?’ And she said yes. It turned out one of the women was a Hasidic lesbian with children trying to separate from her husband.” DuBowski’s journey began when he left Brooklyn for Harvard in the late 1980s. A social studies major, he quickly took on a leadership role with Harvard’s gay and lesbian student alliance. ”I came out at 18. I was not exploring Judaism in college, just my homosexuality,” he says.
Only after he graduated in 1992 and returned to Brooklyn did DuBowski, at age 24, begin exploring Jewish Orthodoxy, searching, he speculates, for the same galvanizing sense of community he’d discovered when he came out. He also ”stole the family camcorder” and made his first film, a short video, ”Tomboychik,” about his 88-year-old grandmother. ”Trembling Before G-d” began as a personal chronicle inspired by DuBowski’s friendship with Mark, one of the film’s subjects. The son of an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, Mark was thrown out of yeshivas (religious schools) in London and Israel for being gay. DuBowski began to seek out other Orthodox and formerly Orthodox gay men and lesbians with similar experiences as Mark. Some had been expelled from yeshivas, some had been disowned by their families. Some had been forced into heterosexual marriages.
Others lived in secret and in silence. Until now. ”It is a mystery to me why I was drawn to this. In the beginning it was a pilgrimage, a return,” says DuBowski. ”Over the next few years, the film took a new form as I included the interviews with rabbis. It mutated over time to something much deeper and richer.” The meetings with rabbis – Orthodox, conservative, and liberal – was at first a daunting task for DuBowski. ”I was scared for many years; most Orthodox gays are scared to speak to rabbis, so they remain silent. I could not go before an Orthodox rabbi until I was a credible witness to the spectrum of the gay and lesbian experience,” he says.
After his interview requests were rejected by many Orthodox rabbis, DuBowski waited for seven hours in a line to gain a two-minute meeting with a prominent rabbi in Israel. ”When I finally stood before him, I said, ‘I am coming to you with the pain of so many people who have been kicked out of yeshivas, who endure bad marriages.”’ The rabbi replied that homosexuality was ”animalistic and an abomination,” says DuBowksi, and advised the filmmaker that gay and lesbian Jews ”should recite the first 10 chapters of the psalms as a remedy.” ”That was hard,” says DuBowski. ”But Orthodox rabbis often don’t know anything about the gay and lesbian experience. For them, it’s very black and white. What the film does is put a human face on the abstract.”
That human face has inspired dialogue and reflection about a subject many had never before considered, says Kramer, who attributes the post-film discussion phenomenon to DuBowski. ”Sandi is a visionary person who does not understand limits. … He’s a real community builder.” For DuBowski, the six years he spent traveling in search of lesbians and gay men, documenting their stories, all came down to one night on a New York street outside the Film Forum. A screening of ”Trembling Before G-d” had just let out, he says, and an impromptu discussion erupted among a group of strangers who mingled on the sidewalk outside the theater.
”We stood in a circle. We were gay, lesbian, and straight; Jewish and gentile; Orthodox and liberal; black and white,” DuBowski recalls. ”We shared stories about our lives for over two hours. At one point, someone turned to me and said, ‘When [God] created the world, this is what he intended.”’
February 21, 2002
Queer in the Land of Sodom
by Lee Walzer
Although the idea of a vibrant queer community in Israel, reputed birthplace of the biblical condemnation of same-sex relations, may seem far-fetched, Israel today is one of the world’s most progressive countries in terms of equality for sexual minorities. Politically, legally, and culturally, the community has moved from life at the margins of Israeli society to visibility and growing acceptance.
In the Beginning
There is no magic mythical beginning to Israel’s lgbt community, like the 1969 Stonewall riots that spurred American queers into action. Instead, changes in the values and politics of Israeli society over the past twenty years or so created the space in which a gay and lesbian community could coalesce. The first gay organization was established in 1975, thanks largely to the work of immigrants from the United States and other English-speaking countries influenced by the development of gay liberation and the counterculture of the 1960’s.
The very name of this first organization, the Society for the Protection of Personal Rights (then, as today, known as the Agudah, in Hebrew), reflected the difficulty of organizing sexual minorities at a time when the existence of a sodomy law was thought by many to make homosexuality itself illegal. In its early years, the Agudah functioned more as a support and social group rather than as a political organization. Lesbians began organizing within the Israeli women’s movement, which provided some space for the discussion of lesbian issues and radical feminism. But for many years, Israeli lesbians funneled most of their energies into feminism, rather than the struggle for gay and lesbian equality.
The development of a gay identity was difficult for many at a time when Israeli society was still in the midst of its Zionist revolution. Zionism, the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, sought to create a "New Jew" as part of the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty. The New Jew would work the land or engage in blue collar jobs, rather than in the "bourgeois" professions taken up by Jews in the Diaspora (the early Zionists were resolute socialists).
The security problems facing the Jewish state also precluded for many years discussion of a variety of social issues and problems. Pleading more pressing issues, the public agenda did not include the place of Mizrachim (Jews who immigrated to Israel from the Arab countries) in a society dominated by European-born Jews, women’s liberation, equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel, or gay rights. Moreover, the collective values preached by the early founders of the Jewish state likewise left little room for exploration of personal identity.
By the early 1980’s, the values of Israeli society began to evolve, and with them, the scope of public discourse. The socialist certainties of Israel’s founders gave way to a consumer society. The certainties of Zionism gave way to a multitude of political and cultural identities: ultra-orthodox Judaism, growing assertion of a Palestinian identity among Israel’s Arab citizens, nationalism, and yearnings for a more Western, liberal society competed for the allegiance of Israelis.
Yet, gay identity and politics still did not go public. The close-knit nature of Israeli society made coming out exceedingly difficult, as did Israeli society’s emphasis on family and reproduction. So it fell on non-gay supporters of gay rights to move things forward.
By the late 1980’s, these efforts began to pay off, laying a road map for future gay political success. As part of a broader reform of Israel’s penal code, liberal Knesset members decided to try to repeal the sodomy law. In 1988, they literally called a vote to repeal the sodomy law in the middle of the night, when it was prearranged that religious Knesset members would not be present, promising not to draw too much attention to the effort. The next day, following repeal, religious politicians screamed to the heavens on the radio and in the press, but it was largely for show. This pattern of doing things quietly, even under the table, would repeat itself.
The next few years marked the golden age of gay political success in Israel. By 1992, lesbian and gay activists had succeeded in getting the Knesset to amend Israel’s Equal Workplace Opportunities Law to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In 1993, the Israeli military rescinded its few regulations discriminating against gays and lesbians. And in 1994, the Israeli Supreme Court ordered El Al Israel Airlines to grant a free plane ticket to the partner of a gay flight attendant, as the airline had long done for heterosexual partners of employees.
Since then, there has been steady progress, especially in the courts. As the victories mounted, so, too, did the number of people prepared to be open about their sexual orientation.
The reasons for gay and lesbian political success during this period from 1988 through the mid-1990s were many. Chief among them was the fact that gay activists pursued a very mainstream strategy, seeking to convince the wider public that gay Israelis were good patriotic citizens who just happened to be attracted to the same sex. This strategy, pursued until recently, reinforced the perception that gay rights was a non-partisan issue, unconnected to the major fissure in Israeli politics, the Arab-Israeli conflict and how to resolve it. Embracing gay rights enabled Israelis to pat themselves on the back for being open-minded, even as Israeli society wrestled less successfully with other social inequalities.
Another reason for success was that the only source of real opposition to gay rights in Israel stems from the country’s religious parties. This may seem contradictory, but it is not. While religious parties have played a role in every Israeli government since the establishment of the state in 1948, in recent years, as their power has grown, so has the resentment of secular Israelis. Thus, the opposition of religious parties to gay rights has engendered the opposite reaction among non-religious Israelis.
The Revolution Begins
The mainstream path started to grate on some gay and lesbian Israelis in the late 1990s. The fuse of disaffection was finally lit at what became known as "the Wigstock Riots." Wigstock is an annual drag festival in Tel Aviv that raises money for AIDS services in Israel. In 1998, a boisterous demonstration broke out when the police attempted to shut down the event as the Jewish Sabbath was beginning. Protesters spilled onto the adjacent Hayarkon Street and blocked traffic for a few hours. Lesbian and gay activists denounced what they saw as police coercion. Sounds like the Stonewall riots, right?
Well, not quite. The police came only because of a bureaucratic mix-up. Organizers had gotten a permit from City Hall allowing the event to continue until 8 pm, but the police permit ran only until 7 pm. While queer media immediately labeled the event "the Israeli Stonewall," it was perhaps the only Stonewall to result from confusion over a festival permit.
1998 was a banner year for a more in-your-face agenda. A few weeks before Wigstock, Dana International, a popular transgender singer, brought home first place for Israel in the Eurovision Song Contest. Dana’s victory enabled the Israeli gay and lesbian movement to add the "t-word" to its name. Previously, the Israeli gay movement had shunned transgendered people, fearing what their inclusion would do to its public image, but with Dana receiving congratulatory telegrams from the Prime Minister and being made an honorary ambassador by the Knesset, it was now "safe" for the movement to expand its focus.
In November of that year, Michal Eden won a seat in the Tel Aviv City Council, becoming Israel’s first openly lesbian elected official. Her victory was made possible by the growth of "sectoral" parties in Israeli politics, be they religious, Palestinian, or economic. In such a political environment, gays and lesbians could have their own elected political voice as well, although such representation does not yet exist at the national level. That year constituted a watershed in how the community viewed itself, and how its politics would develop.
But the radical critique has not been all-encompassing. The Israeli LGBT movement has not embraced feminism (in fact, sexism and tensions between gay men and lesbians are both quite prevalent), and until recently, the place of gay Arabs in the community was neglected, reflecting the wider society’s indifference to Israel’s Arab minority (some 20 percent of Israel’s population).
Lee Walzer is the author of "Between Sodom and Eden: A Gay Journey Through Today’s Changing Israel" (Columbia University Press, 2000) and "Gay Rights on Trial" (ABC-CLIO, 2002), available at Amazon.com. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
February 24, 2002
Gay and Jewish: ‘Trembling Before G-d’ gives voice to reconciling sexuality and religion
by Carla Meyer, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sandi Simcha DuBowski exemplifies the filmmaker as multitasker. Not only did he painstakingly research and then direct "Trembling Before G-d," a documentary about gay Orthodox and Hasidic Jews, but he started an international dialogue on the topic. In his spare time, he plays matchmaker. DuBowski set up Steve Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, with his partner of three years.
Now he’s working on David, a tall, handsome and gay Orthodox man featured prominently in "Trembling." "Every time I show the film, I get e-mails," says DuBowski, a slight, 31-year-old fount of energy who sits on his heels atop a chair during a visit to San Francisco. "They say, ‘Hello, I’m 6-5 and observant. Could you please introduce me to David?’" The tone is lighter than you’d expect from a man who has chronicled the often wrenching sagas of gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews and Hasidim.
"Trembling Before G-d" ("the dash is about how God is infinite," DuBowski says), which opens Friday at the Castro, shows gays from Brooklyn to Tel Aviv who’ve had to choose between their sexuality and their passionate religious beliefs. "I had to talk to hundreds and hundreds of people in order to find people willing to tell their story, and I could count on two hands the people who could be open," DuBowski says. Most of those who appear on camera are filmed in shadow or otherwise partially obscured. "To be Orthodox and gay, you either had to leave your community, or you got married and deceived your husband or wife."
Notice that he’s using the past tense. DuBowski says that since he made the movie, or really, because he made it, inroads have been made toward greater acceptance of Orthodox gay people. "Already, 10 Orthodox synagogues have invited the film to be shown there," he marvels. He even sneaked a television and VCR into a home in the Hasidic enclave of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for a screening. "They were grappling and arguing until 2:30 in the morning," DuBowski says. Arguing he can handle. What DuBowski can’t abide is what often happens instead – Orthodox Jews reflexively dismissing the idea that faith and homosexuality can coexist. DuBowski views any movement toward discussion as progress.
"Orthodox people want to be compassionate and capable of change," he says. Even those rabbis in the film who condemn gays "don’t want to demonize or dehumanize," he says. Still, some of those clergymen have written off the documentary. "They didn’t like that I didn’t treat (homosexuality) as a mental illness," DuBowski says. But "Trembling" has yielded happier postscripts. One of the film’s most poignant subjects is Michelle, an isolated, severely overweight Hasidic lesbian who’s been banished by her family. Since the filming, Michelle has had her stomach surgically stapled, shed 130 pounds and, thanks to DuBowski, hooked up with a group of lesbians who cheekily call themselves the Orthodykes.
"When we were filming, she thought she was the only Hasidic lesbian in the world," DuBowski says. "But (now) she has community, and she’s in love." During its run on the festival circuit, "Trembling Before G-d" has allowed Jewish gays and lesbians to see themselves reflected onscreen. When the film played San Francisco’s Jewish Film Festival in July, cheers erupted as Malka, half of a lesbian Orthodox couple from Miami, braided the challah for the Sabbath. "She should get an Olympic gold medal for fastest lesbian challah braiding, "
DuBowski jokes. The scenes also inspired Malka’s ultra-Orthodox brother, from whom she had been estranged, to call her and commend her religious commitment. DuBowski sees his personal attachment to his subjects as inseparable from his role as filmmaker. "I am a witness and a catalyst," DuBowski says. "They knew when I was filming they were making themselves incredibly vulnerable, and they needed to know that I wasn’t going to ditch them when the camera went off." Raised in a Conservative Jewish home in Brooklyn, DuBowski says his immersion in the Orthodox world has strengthened his commitment to Judaism.
"It’s in my blood, in my ancient blood," he says. Buoyed by the positive reception to his film and gains made by "the movement," DuBowski now has greater goals in mind. Not surprisingly, they don’t involve Hollywood agents or a prestigious follow-up film. "I hope that within a year’s time we can gather all the compassionate rabbis for a rabbinic retreat and we can generate a statement of inclusion," he says. "I want the film to generate safe havens, so Orthodox parents can say to their gay children that they don’t have to leave (the faith)." o ‘Trembling Before G-d’: The movie opens Friday at the Castro Theatre. o E-mail Carla Meyer at email@example.com.
March 30, 2002
Women in love: It happens to women who’ve gone the usual route – married, had children, established a family. Suddenly, at midlife they feel the usual route isn’t meeting their needs.
by Dorit Abramovitch
Gila Amsalem discovered the love of her life was a woman. She is 42, a project director in computers and systems analysis, with two children, aged 17 and 19. She had been married at 20 and divorced seven years later, in 1987. At the time she did not yet know that her next love was going to be a woman – only that she couldn’t go on as she was. "I was terribly deprived of love and appreciation that weren’t forthcoming in marriage and motherhood," she says. "Now I know that, for me, marrying him was running away, because I wanted to be the good little woman and I wanted the social acceptance.
I was divorced not because he wasn’t okay, but because I felt that my needs weren’t being met within the relationship." In 1994, Amsalem first met the woman who would become her partner. "I’d always felt drawn to women," she says, "not just sexually, but in the way a relationship between women creates an ability to listen, understand one another, feel the shared emotional rhythm common to all women. Every woman knows the sense of security and ease one can have with another woman, whether a partner or a close friend." She doesn’t think it’s coincidental that when she met her partner, she weighed 130 kilograms. "It was a statement of rebellion against straight norms that demand that you look and act in a certain way and no other. My weight was the ultimate break with the established order. In exactly that same way, I had a breakthrough in creative terms that I hadn’t made space for until then." Her creativity is evident now in her paintings, which are to be exhibited soon.
"I paint on canvas with all parts of my body," she says, explaining her technique; "with the chest, the belly and all the rest, and it’s one way I can feel my sexuality, repressed for all those years. Both in painting and in my relationship with a woman, I allow myself to choose and to do what is right for me and only me." Amsalem is not alone. The phenomenon of women molting their straight skins to live as lesbians is growing, says Simi Mizrahi, a psychotherapist who works with the gay and lesbian community and describes herself as a member of it. Though no study has been done to provide absolute numbers, she says, there has been a perceptible increase in the number of such women in the community. "The social exposure to the existence of alternatives to the straight, normative model, through the media and the Internet, amplifies among many women feelings they’ve chosen to ignore for a long time," explains Mizrahi. "These are generally women who began their adult lives in conformity with prevailing norms, who married and had children and did everything society expected of them.
Then one day in midlife somewhere, they make an accounting and begin to take another look at questions of identity and orientation. Or, more accurately, at the social price versus the individual price they have paid thus far and will need to pay now. In my experience as a therapist, these women come from all segments of society; their only shared characteristic is that they are giving themselves a chance to live." Epiphany American author Carren Strock describes, in her book "Married Women Who Love Women," coming out of the closet at the age of 50 and her decision to remain with her husband nonetheless. The book, first published in 1998, tells the stories of 100 married women who discovered at a certain point in their lives that they were attracted to women. Fifty-nine percent of the women interviewed were unaware of their lesbian identity prior to marriage. Seventy-five percent of those interviewed now identify themselves as lesbians and 12 percent, as bisexual. Although all the women in the book are discovering the same thing, each one decides to cope with her new identity in a different way.
Some decide to tell their husband and others not to tell; some continue living with their husband and lead a double life; and some introduce their husband to their friend/lover. In one case, a woman’s lover became part of the family. Some women leave their straight relationship for a lesbian partnership; others seek a divorce and only after a certain interlude begin a relationship with another woman as a couple. In Tel Aviv during the last year, a support group has been formed for married lesbians. Dozens of women who have participated in this group, and numerous others seeking counseling and support during their process of self-discovery and identity shift, have been turning to KLAF, the organized voice of lesbian feminism in Israel. The phenomenon seems to be of fairly broad dimensions. "KLAF gets at least one phone call a day from a married woman who wants to know what to do with these new feelings she’s having," says Karine Guterman, KLAF coordinator. "[She wants to know] how to meet other women in the same situation, and what activities exist that are suitable for someone her age.
The women who call come from all age groups; some have children, and they want our assistance in taking their first steps into the family of women." "The range of possibilities is enormous," says Naomi Raz, a psychotherapist who has worked with the gay and lesbian community for many years. "It’s unfortunate that so many women are unaware of this variety of options at an earlier age. There may be cases when a lesbian woman decides to marry a man despite her identity, but I’m sorry to say that most women don’t really ask themselves these questions and they start out by going ahead and doing what society expects of them." Hila (not her real name), 38, went through this tremendous conflict of a married woman who after many years discovers her lesbian identity. "I have always had relationships with men," she says, "some even very passionate. I remember asking myself many times about the lesbian alternative, but I always told myself no, because I felt sure that if I were really attracted to women, I would never have married. I always saw myself as someone who rebels against society and its patterns, so I never thought of myself as being a victim of repression all those years. I remember having a close woman friend when I was 21. We used to sleep in the same bed sometimes, and one night she began stroking me. I got really tense and jumped out of bed.
"We didn’t talk about what had happened, and went on being close friends, but something inside me was stuck and I didn’t understand it. When I was 26, I helped another woman friend to fix up the apartment she was moving into. After we were done, we lay down on the bed and decided to make love. I preferred to view it as a one-time game, and afterward we both continued our relationships with men. I think it was actually because of those experiments that I was so convinced that I wasn’t a lesbian." She met her husband when they were students, "and after four years we decided to get married, when I was 30. I felt good with him and I loved him."
A year after their marriage, they had their first child, a girl, and a year and a half later they had a son. "In the first four years of our marriage, I was completely occupied with my role as a mother, and in that sense my life was very quiet. It’s hard to fix the exact point in time at which something started to change inwardly. Suddenly I felt that something in me had died and that there were a lot of facets inside me that I wasn’t actualizing. So I started therapy to try to discover the cause of this new pain in my life. After six years of marriage, I met a lesbian for the first time ever. "Right around that time, a close woman friend who was also married told me that she had fallen in love with a woman. Something about the way she was talking about her love created this tremendous emotional epiphany.
Suddenly I realized that I’d never felt that way and that until then, I’d never believed that something like that could happen to me. For a few months, this lesbian woman and I were very close friends. The friendship became very intense, to the point that I would wake up in the morning wanting to see her or hear her voice. One day she told me that she’d had an erotic dream about me. She was very tense because she knew that I was straight and was worried about how I would respond. Not long after that we became intimate. "It took me a year and a half to tell my husband about her. Until then, I was persuaded that it was a passing thing. I didn’t want to admit that I was completely in love with her and I didn’t want to admit to myself that I was cheating on him.
I knew that the moment I told him, I might end up facing separation and divorce, and I was afraid. When I told him, he took it very hard and was terribly hurt. He asked me how something like that could happen all of a sudden. He also asked me whether I was a lesbian and I didn’t answer him. He pressured me to stop seeing her, and in the beginning I went along with that. But of course after a couple of weeks, I couldn’t go on that way, and I went back to seeing her. After that he didn’t ask anymore, and although I’m sure he knows that I have another relationship, he prefers not to ask and not to hear what I would say.
Our intimate relationship ended a long time ago, and although I still feel love for him, we live in the same house like two strangers. The fact that I spend long hours on the Internet, talking with lesbians, hasn’t forced him to wonder openly about what’s happening. "Although I think of myself now as a lesbian, I’m still afraid to take the actual physical step of getting divorced from my husband. I’m afraid of what a separation like that is going to cost in terms of my children. I’m afraid that their world will fall apart, and although I’m sure they know what’s going on with me, I haven’t yet dared to talk with them openly about my identity and about what I want. I remember that after the last gay pride parade, my daughter asked me why there is a parade like that. I told her that after many years when lesbians and gays were oppressed by society and were ashamed of their identity, they decided to struggle for visibility and that the parade was how they chose to do that. She asked me, ‘Mom, if you were a lesbian, would you go to the parade?’ and I said yes. "I know that time is working against everyone in the family, but I still have this fear of dealing with it and living with the results of my choice. I’m also very afraid financially; although I work, I know the financial cost of divorce.
Maybe if I knew a lesbian who was willing to raise my kids with me, I’d have the courage to do that." What about the husband? A therapist working with the gay and lesbian community, who prefers to remain anonymous, claims that most of the married lesbians she has known in recent years did not have bad relationships with their husband. Most, she says, describe a sensitive husband who respects them and a stable family life. The fact that such women are drawn to a relationship with another woman is not evidence, she says, of a flight from a problematic marriage, but of the need to examine their identity, usually after having fulfilled society’s expectations and become mothers. "The confusion that characterizes these women comes precisely because they feel that the family is okay and that it’s because of them that it might crash. What they mainly fear is the impact their choice will have on their children, and the fear that the kids will be taunted by their friends at school or in the neighborhood.
They usually come to me after a long process of ambivalence. When they’re ready to come out of the closet and accept their identity, they generally decide to tell their husband and children. At that point, the woman wants to start living her new life, whereas her husband is now going to need his own lengthy process of adjustment. This gap sometimes creates a serious crisis between them. Some women decide to stay with their family and give up on actualizing part of their identity for the sake of keeping what exists intact." For Gila Amsalem, divorce brought the obverse outcome, and her relationship with her husband became a supportive one between close friends. "After we divorced, we became closer; that might have been the first time we became a happy family.
He also has a very good relationship with my partner and comes to see us often. His behavior proved to me that when you accept yourself and your choices, everyone around you, whether close to you or otherwise, accepts you, too." Yael (not her real name), 34, likewise describes a good relationship with her husband after she revealed her new identity to him. "I was married for eight years, and I have two children, eight and five years old. I remember that there were always signs and events in my life that showed my orientation, like women who fell in love with me or women I fell in love with, but I chose to ignore all that. I had a tremendous need for children and a fear of how others would respond, so I didn’t look too closely at the signs until I met someone through a chat room, while I was still married. I remember telling my husband that I was interested in trying out a relationship with a woman and that I wanted to see whether it was only a fantasy or a real desire, and he agreed.
"For a year, I led a double life, with his knowledge. His hope that it would pass turned into real pain and hurt on his part, but I couldn’t stop, because for the first time in my life I felt this great intimacy. He and I separated two years ago, and since then we’ve gotten along really well. We decided not to divorce and to go on raising our kids together, via joint custody. We live near one another, and we spent the most recent Family Day all together. He met my second partner and really liked her. "The kids know everything and I am always exposing them to information about various family alternatives, so that they’ll understand that there are other possibilities aside from the established model of dad, mom and kids in one house. He and I have complete trust in one another and I don’t feel that I have to protect myself from him or close him out of my life.
I still love him, and I married him for all the right reasons, but all my concerted efforts back then to overcome the lack of adequate intimacy, for me, didn’t get anywhere. Even now I don’t negate the possibility that one day I could fall in love with him again." "If there’s a motivation to keep the family framework going, there are a lot of ways to do that," says Naomi Raz. "It depends, of course, on the willingness of both partners to rewrite their agreement as a couple, and for that there has to be a lot of openness and creativity." Another support group for married lesbians, led by Raz, will soon begin meeting in Jerusalem; there has been a support group for married gay men there for the last seven years. During that time, more than 500 requests were logged from men wishing to participate in the support group. Raz also led a group of 10 straight women married to gay men. "Today it has become legitimate to open up the traditional marriage contract for discussion and to consider new lifestyles," she says. You’ll get over it Many women ask themselves the reason for their sexual orientation.
For Liora (not her real name), 42, who as a child was sexually and physically abused by her father, the reason is unclear. "Some people think I’m a lesbian because of the trauma from my childhood, but I have no idea. In my opinion, I was always a lesbian, but the male culture in which we live didn’t allow me to find my identity at an earlier point in my life." Liora says that her difficult childhood was behind her decision to marry, and that her choice of a husband was based on his ostensibly being so different from her father. "In contrast to my father, who was ignorant, my husband was an educated man; compared with my father, who was poor, he offered me wealth. From Bat Yam, I moved to North Tel Aviv, and I remember believing that I loved him and that he was perfect. Even when he started being violent toward me, I denied it because he didn’t fit my image of the stereotypical abusive husband.
"I remember that after two and a half years of marriage, a married woman with two children moved in next door to us. We quickly became close friends and aside from sleeping together, we did everything together. After a few years of this close relationship, I went to her one day and said that I was in love with her and felt attracted to her. She told me, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll get over it,’ which wiped out my feelings for another few years. In hindsight, I know that the relationship with that woman and my love for her helped me to survive my marriage. My suffering took the form of body weight, and I decided to join a self-help group for compulsive overeaters. There, I met a woman who later became my partner. "I remember being surprised when I found out that I was in love with her, because she didn’t fit any of the familiar stereotypes. She was fat, she didn’t wear nice clothes in the normative feminine style, and I thought at first that I was mistaken about what I was feeling.
Not very long after that, at one of the meetings, I turned around to her and said: ‘I love you.’" During the early part of their relationship, Liora refused to get a divorce. "I remember crying and telling her that I couldn’t get divorced because only whores get divorced. I really didn’t think there was life after marriage. Meanwhile, I was still denying being a lesbian, and this made me go on living a double life for another few months. When I finally decided to get divorced, it wasn’t as a result of loving my woman partner, but because I had to put an end to the presence of violence in my life. "I’ve now been divorced five and a half years.
I went through a long, exhausting process of rehabilitation during which I discovered my selfhood and my hidden strengths. After many years of living inside the prison of a family, and a couple, one day I had the strength to get up and live with the woman I love. I remember that when I told my children, who today are 20 and 14 years old, about my new life, not only were they not surprised, but it turned out that to them, my identity had been clear for a long time. The reason I’m giving this interview anonymously is because I’m afraid my daughter will suffer ostracism at school if her mother’s lifestyle becomes known. I don’t want my daughter to be punished on my account."
April 1, 2002
Call me Rabbi: Interview withIsraeli lesbian Rabbi Sue Levy Elwell
by Aviva Lori
Twice during the conversation Rabbi Sue Levy Elwell’s eyes misted over. Once, when she spoke about Judaism, the second time when she talked about her partner, Nurit Shine. She is not embarrassed when she mentions the two things she holds most precious. "How can I hide the fact that I am a lesbian, when all I want is for everyone to know about my beautiful Nurit."
Nurit lowers her eyes and smiles, and Levy Elwell, who insists that she is a "rav" and not a "rabbanit" ("A rabbanit is a rabbi’s wife, and in my case, that is Nurit"), strokes her hand. Levy Elwell was in Jerusalem last week with 300 Reform rabbis for the convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which is held in a different venue every year, and every seventh year in Jerusalem. Levy Elwell’s outward appearance does not correspond to any stereotype. "What should a rabbi look like? Must there be a beard and sidelocks? And what is a lesbian supposed to look like?" she asks in the lobby of the Inbal Hotel, where the rabbis were staying.
The question sounds almost rhetorical, as Levy Elwell points gleefully to some of the Reform rabbis who are also in the lobby. "There’s another one and there’s one more," she says, referring to a gay or lesbian rabbi. "According to the statistics, about 10 percent of the population is gay and lesbian, and in the Reform community, the proportion is even a bit higher." Doesn’t that fact play into the hands of the Orthodox establishment in its criticism of the Reform movement, I ask. Levy Elwell’s tone becomes sharp: "I am a rabbi, the fourth generation of Reform Jews, and I don’t have to receive my ordination from the Orthodox."
She is 54, the daughter of a Reform family from Buffalo, New York, who are descendants of the German Emancipation movement, which established and consolidated the World Union for Progressive Judaism – as the Reform movement is officially known – in New England and Philadelphia. A few months ago, a book that was the first of its kind was published: "Lesbian Rabbis: The First Generation," edited by Levy Elwell and two other women rabbis. The book is a collection of articles written by 18 lesbians who hold rabbinical posts, who describe the complexities and conflicts in the life they have chosen to live.
Levy Elwell has just published a book of her own, a modern Passover Haggadah in Hebrew and English, which offers alternative interpretations of the traditional text and, in the spirit of the holiday, invites to the seder guests whom the traditional did not consider. There is a special prayer for the safety of youngsters who are traveling in India and are unable to get home in time for the seder. She is very proud of the Haggadah, explaining that it embodies the essence of Reform Judaism, which has a human, loving and changing face. One of five children in the well-to-do Levy family, Levy Elwell attended a private girls’ high school and was active in the youth movement of Progressive Judaism, following which she studied at a small college in Michigan.
The curriculum included studies in another country. She chose Israel. It was a period of social ferment in the United States, she notes, and the choice of Israel derived from questions that arose about her identity as a Jewish American woman. Her first visit to Israel took place in 1968. She spent nine months at Brandeis University’s Hiatt Institute in Jerusalem and fell in love with the country, which was still riding high in the wake of the Six-Day War. The icing on the cake was the leader of her group: Yonatan Netanyahu. "He was divine," Levy Elwell recalls. "He went on trips with us and showed us the country. Naturally, all the girls fell in love with him. We learned Hebrew at an ulpan [language program] and we heard lectures from professors at the university. I lived in Rehavia with an elderly widow and I had wonderful experiences. I was on a high and was certain that I would go home, complete my studies and immigrate here.
"But life turned out to be more complicated than that. I met my Steven Elwell and fell in love with him, and a year after we graduated, he converted to Judaism and we were married. Then we immersed ourselves in life and in studies. I took an M.A. in Jewish Studies at Brandeis, but my constant wish was to go back to Israel. After my husband got his degree, we came to live in Israel." The romantic dream of immigration shattered against the hard rock of reality. After half a year at Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael on the Mediterranean Sea – even though Steven also loved the country – they returned to the United States for their doctoral studies. "While working on my doctorate in adult education at the University of Indiana, I understood that I didn’t know enough about Judaism. Completely by chance, the archive in which I was doing the research for my Ph.D. was at Hebrew Union College [HUC], a rabbinical institute in Cincinnati, Ohio. That was my first encounter with the idea of becoming an ordained rabbi."
After finishing her doctoral thesis, Levy Elwell completed five years of rabbinical studies at HUC. She had a five-year-old daughter, Hannah, and a newborn infant, Mira, but her seemingly perfect marriage was on the rocks: "I suddenly understood that I had actually been trying for all those years to be someone I wasn’t, and I didn’t want to go on living under a false identity."
Where were you until then?
Levy Elwell: "I married out of love – he is a wonderful person, we wanted to raise a family, and the thought that I was a lesbian never entered my mind. The difficulty was that I had no role model. For everything we do in life there is someone who serves us as a mirror. If you are born a Jew, you have Jewish parents. Lesbians and gays don’t have a mentor whom they can take as an example, because lesbians don’t have lesbian parents."
How do you explain why you were married for so many years?
"There are many women who know for certain that they will never live with a man, and there are many women who know for certain that they will never live with a woman. But there are many more women and men in the middle, who lived with women or with men and afterward felt that what they really wanted was to come out of the closet. My case was a classic example. I was young and inexperienced, and for a woman at that time, there were no options. Today it’s different. My daughters can choose. They can be with a woman or with a man and then decide what their preferences are and how they want to fulfill themselves." Living ‘in denial’ After graduating from HUC, Levy Elwell found work as the deputy rabbi in a Los Angeles congregation, but she was inwardly tormented. "I was 38.
My daughters were 10 and five and I felt so happy in my work, but also miserable in my marriage. I lived in denial. I knew there was something wrong, that something was happening inside me. But I still wasn’t ready to give it a name. I knew that I was about to experience a change in my life." The change was dramatic. "I already knew that if I ever lived with anyone, it would be with a woman. My attraction to women began at the intellectual level, during my studies, and my awareness of my feminism and their distress. I talked it over with my husband and we even went to therapy. For a long time we tried to live without sex. I told myself he was such a good guy, and it was important for me to try because of the children, but it didn’t work.
He left and I went for the second time in my life to the mikveh [ritual bath]. The first time was when I was ordained a rabbi and now again when Steven left the house. I knew that was it. It was like a sign of being cut off from men and an official, emotional declaration of our separation. I knew that I would never be with a man again." Nurit Shine, who came to the conference in Israel with Levy Elwell, says that it is impossible to choose to be a lesbian, because it is a genetic trait. It is possible, though, to choose to lead a lesbian life, she notes. Levy Elwell agrees. "I am fortunate that the culture I live in allows me to choose to lead my true life. I could just as easily choose to crawl into some small lair and hide there, but I chose not to live in hiding."
When Levy Elwell recognized that she was a lesbian, her husband moved to Philadelphia. She was left with explaining to her daughters and parents that the perfect family had suddenly fallen apart, and who Nurit Shine was. "I met Nurit in Los Angeles very soon after Steven left. She was still a lieutenant colonel in the IDF who was ‘on loan’ to the Jewish Agency as an emissary. She had come out of the closet while still in the army and until we met, had never thought of staying in America. My daughters were angry at me and angry at Nurit, but they were too polite to be rude. They took out their anger on her poor dog. "My younger daughter said she wanted to live with her father and my older daughter told me, ‘Mom, if she comes to live with us, I am leaving.’ It was her senior year in high school and I told her that I would stay with her and Nurit would live in her own place.
It was one year and I wanted her to be able to bring home friends and feel comfortable." Levy Elwell wrote a long letter to her parents: "I thought that in a letter, it would be possible to express feelings and say things in an orderly way. The letter was written in longhand to show them how serious the matter was from my point of view. As a religious person, those words, through which I told the truth, were very meaningful for me. I wrote to my parents about how the Jewish tradition requires us to be honest. "After receiving the letter, they called and said they loved me very much and that I would always be their daughter and that we would learn and work on it together. I had a brother who died of cancer at 37 and that, unfortunately, helped my parents understand that there are greater calamities in life than being a lesbian.
They appreciated the importance of truthful relations between people. My mother told me afterward that she had suspected and had even asked me, but that I denied it … They actually accepted me when they met Nurit. It’s impossible not to like her. She is very realistic and serious. The Israeli part in her was a bit hard at first, but when they saw how happy I was, and [how] free and relaxed, they accepted me completely."
Levy Elwell explains the high proportion of lesbians and gays in the Reform movement by noting the great openness of the movement. As for the total prohibition in Orthodox Jewry on homosexuality, she has her own interpretation. "Religious law is a human invention and therefore it can be reinvented.
That is what the rabbis did over the generations and that is my understanding of Judaism. The halakha [Jewish religious law] … has to do with power and control. It forbids a man to dominate another man by force through homosexuality, and it is not a matter of love or of sexual relations. Besides that, we are not a halakha movement. We respect it, it has a voice, but it does not have a veto over Judaism. "For example, not all of us keep kosher. Some of us travel on Shabbat. Some women wear pants. There are people who attend synagogue and people who don’t. Before I became a vegetarian, we ate pork at home. On Shabbat, I don’t use the phone, I don’t shop and I don’t do any kind of work. We have a very rich Jewish life. I conduct the Jewish ceremonies with a head-covering and a tallit [prayer shawl] as a symbol.
The text itself is traditional and egalitarian between man and woman."In the marriage ceremony, both the groom and the bride [and not just the groom] say, ‘You are consecrated unto me,’ both of them break the glass if they want. The ketubah [marriage contract] is drawn up together, and I suggest that they say a few personal words to each other if they want, and draw up a partnership and financial agreement." Levy Elwell and Shine, who live in Philadelphia, were married in a Reform ceremony in 1998, in the presence of four rabbis – two women and two men – in their backyard. "Nurit’s father came from Israel and my parents and my two daughters were there. We received the wedding rings from my father. They belonged to his grandparents, who were married in 1880."
In her rabbinical career, Levy Elwell has almost reached the top of the pyramid. She is a regional director and responsible for 60 synagogues of the Reform Movement on the East Coast. She cannot recall encountering discrimination either because of her profession or because she is a woman and a lesbian. "In the job interview, the vice-president of the Reform movement asked me how Nurit felt about my many trips. That was the only question I was asked: how that would affect my family life. People are always complaining about their rabbi – he’s never around when you need him, he’s too intellectual, he’s not intellectual enough. Is it worse toward women? I don’t know. We are the first generation."
To be a rabbi, Levy Elwell says, is not a profession, it is a way of life. "That is why I am so angry with the Orthodox. According to their laws, everything I did and everything I achieved does not belong to me. My ex-husband converted to Judaism, and when he remarried his new wife also converted, and their daughter, who is now five, also converted because she was born before they were married, and they are all good Jews. Why should the Orthodox come and say that they are not Jewish enough? We are all one big family. I want to respect those who wear a streimel [the round fur hat worn by Hasidic male Jews], but they should respect me, too."
Is God a woman?
"No. And I don’t think God is a man. For me, God is like Martin Buber said, existing wherever two people meet in honesty and integrity. I believe that God gives me strength when I feel weakness.
In prayer we say, ‘God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,’ and I add ‘God of Sarah, Rivka, Leah and Rachel.’ Apparently, each of them had their own conception of God, and I feel part of that chain." Levy Elwell does not take seriously the dire predictions of the end of American Jewry because of the high rate of assimilation. "With all the assimilation, there are a great many new converts. People … want to become Jews. They are looking for spiritual meaning. Many times it’s instead of going to the Far East or after they come back from there and discover that in Judaism, there are generations of spiritual culture. I see the new students at HUC, the next generation of rabbis, who are burning with a desire to serve the community."
What do you say to the Orthodox approach that by vigilantly upholding the commandments, they will preserve Judaism?
"That is their interpretation. There are other ways of looking at it." Levy Elwell believes that the Western Wall belongs to everyone: "The Wall cannot be divided between men and women. It has to be shared by everyone. I have to have the possibility of praying … together with my brother and my son or with another rabbi who happens to be a male. This separation is silly." What will happen if Jews will not be able to pray at the holy places after a political agreement with the Palestinians? "I believe in a compromise and I look forward with hope to the day when we Jews have a true partner with whom we will be able to sit and discuss the issue … What does it mean to be born in God’s image? Is it only me? Not them? You will not find advocates of Greater Israel among the Reform Jews."
April 25, 2002
Jerusalem Open House (JOH), the city’s GLBT center
by Peter Cassels
In the heart of Jerusalem, the holy city torn by age-old animosities, the rainbow flag is sending a powerful message, according to those who placed it there. Flying over a pedestrian mall that’s been the target of terrorist bombs, the international symbol of Gay Pride shows that Jews, Christians and Muslims can live together in harmony. The flag hangs from a window at Jerusalem Open House (JOH), the city’s GLBT center that opened three years ago on the third floor of a building on Ben-Yehuda Street, where 11 young people were killed and 188 injured last Dec. 1 by two suicide bombers.
The terrorist group Hamas claimed responsibility for the explosions, one at a pizzeria, the other in a car parked at a nearby street corner. The attack was part of the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, that has killed hundreds of Israelis and injured many others since it began more than 18 months ago to protest the nation’s occupation of territory won in the 1967 Six Day War. The terrorism prompted Israel to mount a counteroffensive that sent armed troops into the West Bank and virtually imprisoned Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat. The military action has resulted in more casualties on both sides.
Thus far, the crisis has eluded resolution, even by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who a week ago returned from a Mideast peace mission empty-handed. Yet in Jerusalem, an icon for three of the world’s great religions, the gay and lesbian community center stands as a beacon of hope where Jewish and Palestinian gays participate in activities together, united by their sexuality. JOH offers diverse programs and promotes dialogue between the city’s various communities, religious and secular, gay and straight. Although 99 percent of its 200 members are Jewish, many Palestinian Israelis also visit.
The JOH in December added an outreach coordinator for them to its staff of five, one of many firsts for a gay organization in the region. "The [center] remains one of the few places that reflects the possibility that still exists for normality in Jerusalem, for life, for people to be able to live together," JOH Executive Director Hagai El-Ad told Bay Windows April 19 during a visit to Boston. "That’s a statement that echoes way beyond the gay community." El-Ad is in the United States to promote the JOH and solicit funding.
He shared a speaking platform at the offices of Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston (CJP) April 21 with Congressman Barney Frank, D-Mass., who reported on his visit to the center in January. Frank was in Israel with a congressional delegation attending an international conference of Jewish government officials and also met with Israeli leaders. The American Friends of the Jerusalem Open House, a recently formed fundraising group, and the CJP’s GLBT team sponsored the event. Other stops on El-Ad’s tour before he returns home in early May include Philadelphia, New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles. First Gay Pride March
The latest challenge to the gay community center’s standing as a symbol of hope for peace is its decision to sponsor Jerusalem’s first Gay Pride parade June 7, the centerpiece of Pride Month events in the city. Others include a gay Arabic writing competition, parties and concerts. Some government officials and religious groups have vowed to prevent the march. "This parade will not happen in Jerusalem," Deputy Mayor Shmuel Shkedi has said. "We will not let any sickness and deviance take place in the city. The very existence of these people is a provocation, their existence is uncivilized, and especially in my capacity as [being] responsible for education I say, ‘All diseases must be clearly fought against, so everyone understands what is sick and what is normal in our society.’ This thing must be condemned."
Orthodox Jews, too, have spoken out against the event: "Naturally, we strongly condemn this idea. The way these people chose isn’t the way of the world, isn’t natural, and we see it as utterly wrong and shameful. Everything they do is repulsive." It is not the city’s political or religious leaders who must okay the parade, but the police, El-Ad points out: "They’ve been dragging their feet over the last weeks. They are trying to pass on the hot potato, as you say, to the municipality, but the municipality has no say on who is allowed to march where."
So far, the JOH has the support of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (the nation’s counterpart to the American Civil Liberties Union) among others. Asked whether the march would provoke further terrorism, threatening the safety of participants and spectators, El-Ad says demonstrations have continued throughout the country during the intifada and none has been interrupted by violence. "They could easily use the excuse of security, but that would be complete hypocrisy because demonstrations are held by the extreme Right or extreme Left and everyone in between and they get approval," he explains. Besides, the parade wouldn’t be political: "Obviously Gay Pride isn’t associated with any specific view. It’s a chance to celebrate the humanity and diversity of Jerusalem."
Public demonstrations like a Pride parade are actually encouraged in the only nation in the region that has total freedom of speech. Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Ulmert recently expressed the need for a massive march in the center of the city to show its citizens and the world that life goes on, El-Ad mentions. "It’s difficult for me to think of a more appropriate event than Gay Pride to celebrate life in Jerusalem and to do it in a way that is relevant and meaningful to the current situation." Approval could come as late as the day before the event, so the JOH is operating as if it will proceed. "We have no other choice," El-Ad asserts. He adds that organizers chose "Love Without Borders" as the parade slogan: "In the most direct way, it expresses what the [JOH] is. We hope that there will be gays and lesbians coming to the parade from religious and orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem in the same way that they come to the Open House. This is our honest and natural attempt to bring what we are doing on a daily basis even in the current carnage."
Marketing the event is already under way. The first advertisement ran in the April 19 edition of the city’s Hebrew weekly newspaper. El-Ad acknowledges that the crowd attending the Jerusalem event is expected to be smaller than the 50,000 to 100,000 that attended last year’s Gay Pride parade in Tel Aviv. "My expectations are [that] between 100 and 1,000 will march. We expect many thousands to watch."
Like anywhere, building attendance is a slow process, he explains. "Tel Aviv is much more secular, yet when its Pride celebration started five years ago organizers expected 500 people and 2,000 came." The Israeli capital will hold its sixth parade June 28. As an example of its policy of inclusivity, the JOH has placed on its Pride calendar another first for Jerusalem’s gay community – a half-day conference on June 6 conducted completely in Arabic. It follows the center’s first meeting of Palestinian gays and lesbians in early May. Palestinian outreach coordinator Haneen Maikey is getting the word out through a gay Palestinian e-mail list, one of the ways to reach members of that community who don’t visit the center. "Obviously we are doing our best to make them aware," El-Ad says. "And if they cannot participate they hopefully will express their support. We’re looking for a location. We thought it would be more symbolic in a place on the line between East and West Jerusalem, but there’s difficulty in getting a venue. People are careful when they decline. They have a hesitation, a fear, about being associated with the gay community or an event that includes the gay Palestinians."
There’s a reason why only a tiny percentage of JOH members are Palestinian, El-Ad explains: "We’re a registered nonprofit in Israel. We need to abide by rules and regulations. According to Israeli law, you need to submit your name and address to become a member. Obviously, these lists never leave the center, but for people who are closeted, especially those that come from communities where one is outed against one’s will, reaction is very extreme. We certainly want to get people to join our membership ranks, but it is very clear that everyone can use our services without regard."
He reports that thousands of people, many of them Arab, visit the center or read its monthly magazine. Among them is a gay couple – Ezra, an Israeli Jew, and Selim, a Palestinian Muslim – featured in a Feb. 21 Salon.com article. "They are very involved with the community and we are very involved in trying to help them," El-Ad says. "Their situation is that they can’t legally be together. They attended our three-year anniversary party. We’re happy that they came."
One of the few businesses to advertise in the center’s magazine was the Moment Cafe, where 12 were killed and more than 50 wounded by a suicide bomber March 9. The attack was particularly symbolic because it was around the corner from the residence of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who was not at home at the time. "The owner is a good friend of ours," El-Ad reports. "He wanted it to be even more gay friendly." The cafe was completely destroyed. "The owner has vowed that he will reopen. He decided for emotional reasons to raze it and start from scratch." El-Ad notes two additional JOH milestones for the gay Palestinian community: Its magazine contains Arabic material and it operates a hotline in the language: "People can now pick up the phone and talk with someone about growing up gay in a Palestinian refugee camp. I don’t think we were quite ready for this to happen, but this is exactly what happened. There already was a gay support line in Hebrew, but what would someone from Nablus or Bethlehem or Ramallah do?
Now they have someone they can call and talk with." Outreach is important, El-Ad adds, because the security situation makes it very difficult for Palestinians to come to the center of Jerusalem. They fear the roadblocks staffed by the Israeli police and army: "They come for peaceful reasons, but nevertheless the encounter can be unfriendly. So we’ve shifted the focus to try to be able to reach these communities regardless of geographical obstacles. We’re doing more through the Internet or through the phone or with written publications." Imagine living every day as if it were Sept. 11, add the homophobia that characterizes a heavily religious nation and one begins to understand what it’s like living as a gay Jew or Arab in Israel at this time, despite the government’s generally supportive policies. It’s probably like being in the American Bible Belt, only an order of magnitude worse. "It is very stressful for us, a very tense situation," El-Ad, 32 and single, acknowledges. A native of Haifa, El-Ad became JOH executive director on Oct. 1, 2000, after living in Boston for three years as a pre-doctoral fellow at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. He’s earning his doctorate at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. "I moved back to Israel exactly when the intifada began, so I know of no other reality.
Obviously there have been more peaceful days, especially in the period after the signing of the Oslo Accords in the mid-90s, but the situation has deteriorated in a very extreme way." His parents, a brother and a sister still live in Haifa, a Jewish-Arab city with much more of a heritage of coexistence than Jerusalem that has seen some terrible bombings after a long period of being spared. The center of Jerusalem has seen by far the worst series of bombings, both in terms of frequency and the devastation they have caused, El-Ad reports: "It’s very scary. You can ask any of our staff, volunteers, board members, how many times they have already heard an explosion going on – up the block, down the block, the shop where you buy coffee on the way to work." To his knowledge, no one associated with JOH has been a victim of the attacks thus far. The crisis, he says, "forces us as an organization and human beings to look at what we’re doing. We better give ourselves good answers to how and why our job is relevant to current reality. I didn’t expect to have to come up with these answers when I took over. … That we’ve managed to sustain a thriving and successful gay community center with all this happening around us, I hope, is intended to show that we have come up with relevant answers.
One is the fact that at this time people need more of a sense of community and family than in peaceful times, [something] the Open House provides." Since the intifada began, the city center often empties out on Jewish holidays and other occasions, "but at the Open House we were celebrating Passover, doing a gay karaoke show or other events that succeeded in bringing the community together even under these circumstances." Although many at the community center have experienced near misses – "Someone leaves the office. Two minutes after that, you hear an explosion going on in the street."
El-Ad continues his daily routine: "I’ve not changed a thing. That’s my resistance to the situation. I live in the city, take the bus to work, stop and pick up a coffee. This is my life. This is my job. I believe in what I do. I know of no better answer to the insanity around me than what the Open House is doing."
(For more information on Jerusalem Open House, visit its Web site at http://www.gay.org.il/joh/eng/home_eng.htm. The address for donations is American Friends of the Jerusalem Open House, P.O. Box 1851, New York, NY 10185-1851. For more information or to get involved in the local chapter, e-mail Dr. Jack Gilad at firstname.lastname@example.org.) .
Peter Cassels is the Associate Editor at Bay Windows. His e-mail address is email@example.com. . Comments, criticism or praise regarding this article or writer — or just about any other subject of interest to the lesbian and gay community — are always welcome. Send comments for publication to firstname.lastname@example.org. Send comments not for publication to email@example.com.
June 7, 2002
Gay pride’02 parade ends peacefully
by Etgar Lefkovits
Jerusalem police were on high alert today for possible violence during this afternoon’s controversial homosexual and lesbian parade. The unprecedented "gay pride" gathering has sent shock-waves through the city’s haredi community, which has threatened to use "all means" to disrupt what it sees as a sacrilegious and abhorrent event in Israel’s holiest city. "Beyond the injury to the holiness of Jerusalem, which is the eternal capital of the Jewish people, and beyond the injury to the morals and the sacred values of the people of Israel, from generation to generation, which safeguarded the concept of family life," Shas MK Nissim Ze’ev, a former deputy mayor, told Israel Radio earlier this week, "we are also liable to find ourselves in danger perhaps parallel to that of African nations infested with the AIDS virus."
Comparing the practice of homosexuality to "a pig or an idol in the Temple," Ze’ev said, "We must uproot this filth from our midst." Haredi sources and former Kach members vowed to disrupt the event, which began at noon at Kikar Zion and culminates in a gala happening in Independence Park. "Get out of our camp. Go to Holland, Germany, and Switzerland," a Kach flier distributed yesterday read. It ended with a pledge to meet the "members of abomination" with "eggs, tomatoes, and other fruits of the season." Jerusalem police spokesman Kobi Zrihan said earlier that hundreds of police will maintain public order and the security of the parade.
The police force, which has been on full alert over the past week, will now focus its attention on keeping the peace at the rally as well, he said. Protesters rallied in Zion square but were separted by Police. Hagai Elad, director of the Jerusalem gay-lesbian community’s Open House, said the parade will bring the city honor rather than shame, and that the haredi community has still not internalized the fact that the homosexual community is an integral part of the city. "Like all other communities in the city, we have the full right to express ourselves publicly and in a proper manner, certainly in view of the decades during which homosexuals and lesbians in Jerusalem were kept erased from the public eye," he said.
Elad noted that a number of religious gays and lesbians will participate, marching under a banner reading: ‘Blessed art Thou, God, who created us in His image." Mayor Ehud Olmert, who unsuccessfully tried to convince organizers to hold the event in Tel Aviv, as in years past, said this week that he had no choice but to allow the parade to take place, according to the rules of a democracy. Citing budgetary limitations due to financial difficulties, however, Olmert refused to fund the event, which spurred the organizers to petition the High Court. On Monday, the court decided to delay its ruling by three months, and ordered representatives of the Justice and Interior ministries to prepare a document showing the municipality’s level of participation in other organizations’ marches and parades. The justice said if their ruling favors the gay and lesbian community, it will receive retroactive funding for the parade.
July 9, 2002
Gay congress draws proud Jews from around the globe
by Daphna Berman
Depleted in numbers but not in spirit, gay and lesbian Jews from around the globe converged on Israel this week for the biennial convention of the World Congress of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Jews, at Kibbutz Givat Haviva.
Nothing short of regional warfare, declared congress president Scott Gansl, would have convinced him to alter his plans to hold the event in Israel. A featured guest and speaker at last week’s Gay Pride parade in Tel Aviv, American-born Gansl says he has always seen Israel as a "a light unto the nations," and claims that it is far more advanced than the United States in its pro-gay legislation.
Generally, he says, there is a "very high" rate of interest and participation among American Jewish gays and lesbians in Israeli affairs, although this is not reflected in the number of participants in the convention. Just 65 participants arrived for the four-day event, which began Wednesday. But, says Gansl, "it’s better than we expected." Gansl has been planning the 2002 meeting (the last was held in Germany) for more than 18 months and has had to cope with mounting security concerns, opposition and even threats, which he dismisses as "typical rhetoric."
Some participants begged him to reconsider. Others hoped for a compromise, but Gansl, for example, scoffed at a request to move the event to Eilat. After every bombing, he says, people would call in with cancelations – while he became only more determined to have the conference here. He insists that it is safer in Israel than in New York, Chicago or any other major U.S. city. He decided that he would reconsider only in the case of a major war – and he’s quick to point out that he doesn’t see Israel’s recent incursions into the West Bank and Gaza as an act of war: "It’s Israel’s right to defend herself," he says. "If this is war, it looks pretty peaceful to me." The Congress board meetings, which convened in Jerusalem this past Wednesday and Thursday, attracted only a "quorum," he reports, instead of the usual 50 or 60 people.
Still, Gansl is satisfied with the group’s diversity: Participants hail from South Africa, Australia, Europe, Mexico and the United States. Some 20 Israelis had [at press time] already registered for the weekend program, and Gansl expected more to sign up. The majority of the international contingent is American: 12 gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) synagogues from major U.S. cities sent representatives here. Some participants arrived early to take part in Israeli Pride Week and in Tel Aviv’s Gay Pride parade last Friday, where, on behalf of the congress, Gansl addressed the crowd, echoing comments by MKs Yossi Sarid (Meretz) and Yael Dayan (Labor) in support of the local gay-lesbian community.
Marching along the streets of Tel Aviv, he said, it was almost impossible not to be impressed by the turnout, estimated to have been tens of thousands of people. He saw people swept from sidewalks and descending from balconies – "everybody loves a parade," he says. He was not surprised that the parade is one of the largest held in the city every year. Israel, he explains, has long stood out for its democracy and pluralism.
The Jewish character of the state does not infringe on his personal freedom, he believes, adding that he is excited by a recent Israeli Supreme Court anti-discrimination ruling with respect to the work place. Unlike the U.S., Israel also has an "open policy" for gays and lesbians serving in the military. The Jewish GLBT community in the States has fought hard to gain acceptance and tolerance, however, and Gansl is proud that it has, for the most part, achieved its goals. Synagogues now often accept same-sex couples, and many even try to anchor tolerance in their by-laws, he notes. The executive director of Jewish Federation in Philadelphia is gay, and even the American Orthodox community has begun to "confront the issue."
Gansl sees substantial differences between American and Israeli GLBT activists. American Jews are not familiar with the "type of Jew that exists in Israel." Israelis, he explains, have never experienced discrimination as Jews. He also finds it difficult to understand Israelis who are so secular that they don’t identify themselves as being Jewish. When they travel outside the cotntry, he remarks, "they don’t ‘come out’ as Jews." A self-proclaimed "traditional" as opposed to "religious" Jew, Gansl sees a culture gap between him and his Israeli co-activists, even on a personal level.
He himself has become more affiliated as a Jew since coming out, and is very active in his local GLBT synagogue. As for the social aspects of gay-lesbian culture, Gansl sees Tel Aviv as the GLBT capital of Israel and says it’s a definite hot spot with a nightlife for gays and lesbians that rivals that of the Greek Islands and Amsterdam. The city’s weather is a little too hot for his taste, but the "bold, brash, and secular" culture of Tel Aviv is exciting and inviting, if unfamiliar. He noted that the Tel Aviv GLBT office recently hosted an Israeli-Palestinian pride party.
Despite the political situation, over 180 guests arrived – half from the West Bank and Gaza. Gansl added that he feels at home here: "I don’t see [just] tolerance. I see acceptance." Still, he admits, he usually wears a skullcap, but has kept it in his backpack during his trip. Because he doesn’t speak Hebrew, he feels people may be suspicious if he wears it. Gansl stayed with members of the local GLBT community in Be’er Sheva last week. He attended Shabbat evening services and several members couldn’t understand why he wanted to go. They naturally assumed that participating in services would be oppressive and antagonistic, he explained. He tried to convince them his Jewish experience was anything but that – but isn’t sure he got the message across. Still, he’s determined to find a niche for himself in Israeli and Jewish society.
Meanwhile, he downplayed the obstacles he has faced in those worlds, including the fact that the World Congress of GLBT Jews was recently denied membership in the World Jewish Congress – a rejection which he attributes to bureaucracy. He himself still hasn’t given up on the idea of joining the WJC. "Being gay," he says, "has taught me to be resilient."
August 16, 2002
Isn’t That Queer- a Nightclub for All
by Orly Halpern
After almost 2 years of bitter fighting, trust between Israelis and Palestinians has never been lower. But in a packed, smoky nightclub on the edge of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim district, the gay communities from both sides still bridge the growing divide, breaking down racial and political barriers as Jews and Arabs defy traditional stereotypes and threats of suicide bombers. While tensions are high in the rest of the country, Laila’s remains the only nightclub where Israeli Jews clap enthusiastically side by side with Palestinian Arabs. Does the fact that these revelers are gay, lesbian or bisexual have anything to do with their mutual tolerance? Absolutely.
"Here we don’t care where you are from or who you are, Jew or Arab. That’s what characterizes the gay world," says Johnny, a Christian Palestinian Arab from East Jerusalem wearing a tight white shirt and stylish jeans as a Jewish friend greets him with a kiss. "I have 10 children," says Simo, an ultra-orthodox Jew wearing a black suit and yarmulke, as he pulls out photos to show Johnny and Amir, the Arabs sitting near the bar with him. "I raise them to believe that all people are the same."
"No one is prejudiced, you feel very free here," says Rotem, a 19-year-old Israeli. Simo agrees: "As a religious man … I feel more comfortable to come to this place than to go to a straight place. I love my wife, but I do have a slight attraction to men." Despite his attraction, Simo admits, "I’m scared to realize my fantasy of being with one." Simo, Johnny, Amir and Rotem sit together in the hot dark nightclub talking about their belief in God as Kylie Minogue blares in the background. "I used to be religious," says Amir, who has a goatee and wears a tight red shirt. "I prayed five times a day at the Dome of the Rock mosque. I tried for two years to be religious [and not gay], but it was a waste of time. I’m proud to be gay and have been for the last 10 years. This is the way God made me."
But the political reality outside Laila’s divides these four. Because of severe Israeli security measures, Palestinians are having increasing difficulty coming to downtown Jerusalem, where Laila’s and the Open House, a gay support center, are located. Even those from East Jerusalem, who are considered "permanent residents" of Israel, have trouble passing the newly erected military checkpoints on their side of the city. Yet despite the checkpoints, many take the trouble to get to Laila’s anyway. "Palestinians feel good to come here because they don’t get harassed," says club owner Avi Friedlander, a Jew from Germany who immigrated six years ago. Friedlander and his wife, Anne Marie, opened the place because he has "many gay friends in Europe who complained when they visited Israel that there are no gay bars in the city.
It was our idea to make this place for all kinds of people." The first ever Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade took place last June, attended by more than 4,000 people. Despite threats of attacks by ultra-Orthodox Jews, who opposed having a gay celebration in the holy city, the event highlighted the connection between Jewish and Arab gays and the occupation of the Palestinian Territories – even though very few Arabs showed up. Yasser, 31, a father of three from the Old City, explains why: "The Arabs are scared of being filmed on TV and being seen. Our families don’t know we are gay and that we are here."
A group of 50 women and men wore black shirts with pink writing in Arabic and Hebrew that said "Black Laundry against the occupation, in favor of social justice." Founded in Tel Aviv last year, "Black Laundry" members directly connect their sexual tendencies with their fight for Palestinian freedom. "We protest against the festive nature of the pride parade [because they’re] doing it while the occupation is going on. Pride is a political thing. We can’t celebrate our freedom while other groups are oppressed," explains Gali, 22, a lesbian from Tel Aviv wearing the Black Laundry shirt and fishnet stockings. Anat, a 27-year-old lesbian from Tel Aviv and a founder of Black Laundry, adds: "There is a connection between our oppression as lesbians, homosexuals and the oppression of the Palestinians. Since the intifada, the city of Jerusalem is covered with posters and graffiti saying ‘Expel the Arabs.’ Yesterday the city was covered with graffiti saying ‘Expel the homosexuals.’ I don’t want this [parade] to be a fig leaf for the abuses of human rights. A few kilometers from here there are people under siege, people who are hungry."
September 13, 2002
Gay Palestinians suffer under Arafat–Commentary
by Davi J. Bernstein
Chatting with a 21-year-old Palestinian man in a gay bar in Tel Aviv was the most interesting moment of my summer vacation. There isn’t much social interaction between Arabs and Jews these days because of the ongoing terrorist war against Israel, but the gay scene is a little bit different.
Why do Arab and Jewish homosexuals mix in Tel Aviv? Because Israel is the only country in the Middle East where homosexuals can live in freedom. It is not widely known that, along with its war against Israel, the Palestinian Authority is conducting a vicious campaign against its own homosexual population.
The New Republic, in its Aug. 19 issue, exposed hideous human rights violations by the Palestinian Authority, which employs special police squads to capture men who have sex with each other. The lucky ones are forced to stand in sewage water up to their necks or lie in dark cells infested with insects; others are simply starved to death. These horrific crimes have motivated hundreds of Palestinian homosexuals to flee to Israel.
To be sure, these people have not become Zionists. But at the end of day, they know that "in Tel Aviv no one cares if you’re gay," as one Palestinian who fled to Israel said, while in Palestinian Gaza, "the police will kill me, unless my father gets to me first." If any gay solidarity exists, it must be to defend the nations that permit us to live and denounce the regimes that do not. When so many around us are deliberately misunderstanding the reality of the Middle East, we must be honest and state clearly that Israel is the only country in the region that tolerates our existence.
It is incredible that Palestinian statehood can be a "progressive" cause, when the state they seek is one in which terrorism is tolerated but gay people are not. Such a state is totalitarian, not progressive. It is this same totalitarian impulse, not any Israeli "occupation," that continues the conflict with Israel, because the Palestinian leadership respects nothing ö not homosexuals, Jews, or inalienable rights ö only its own will.
While those on the Left indulge Palestinian totalitarianism, President George W. Bush, DC (Yale ’68), rejects it. His vision is the only hope for freedom ö and peace ö in the Middle East: defending Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state while supporting a democratic Palestinian state that eschews terrorism. Such a vision gives Palestinian homosexuals a chance at a life in their own land because a Palestinian government accountable to its people will be attuned to their most basic needs, not busy encouraging suicide bombing and rounding up homosexuals as Yasser Arafat’s dictatorship is now doing. Every decent person must take a position.
Do you stand with the Palestinian Authority and its totalitarian ethos that seeks to destroy Jews and homosexuals today and who knows what else tomorrow? Or do you stand with Israel ö whose government you may or may not support ö but whose people share our fundamental values of life and liberty?
I put this question to my new Palestinian friend in that bar. He answered: "Where you sit is where you stand, and I’m sitting in Tel Aviv." It is inspiring to me ö as a Jew, as an American, and as a gay man ö to know that Palestinians are coming to the Jewish state for the freedom to live as God created them. Let us condemn the barbarism of the Palestinian Authority, and let us pray for the intrepid Israelis and Palestinians who are fighting for the right to live according to Micah’s prophecy: "Every man shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid" (Micah 4:4).
Davi J. Bernstein is a senior in Ezra Stiles College at Yale.
October 7, 2002
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New challenge for gay Israeli trailblazer: Seat in Knesset culmination of life fighting prejudice
by Danielle Haas, Chronicle Foreign Service
Tel Aviv – Uzi Even, a veteran of two Israeli wars and one of the founders of the country’s nuclear research plant in the Negev desert, can boast an impressive list of achievements as a professor of physical chemistry at Tel Aviv University.
But it is his pending role as Israel’s first openly gay member of parliament that may prove his greatest challenge yet. Israeli gay rights groups call Even’s forthcoming appointment as a Knesset member for the left-wing Meretz party a victory for their community of about 40,000. But orthodox Jewish lawmakers have not hidden their disgust. "These people have a very big problem," Avraham Ravitz of the ultra-orthodox United Torah Judaism party said. He pledged to fight any attempt by Even to pass gay rights legislation. "People display various kinds of deviant behavior, but I don’t see cities organizing parades for people to take pride in kleptomania." Meanwhile, Nissim Zeev of the mainly Sephardic Jewish orthodox Shas party declared he would not be shaking Even’s hand after he is sworn in when the Knesset reconvenes in November after its summer recess.
"That man represents debauchery and bestiality in mankind," he said. Confronting entrenched hostility is hardly new for Even, 62, who has been publicly fighting anti-gay prejudice for more than a decade. Ten years after the army demoted him from his position in a technical intelligence unit when it discovered he was living with a man, Even delivered an address to parliament on the issue of gay rights that helped persuade the military to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The United States, wrestling with the same issue, adopted a "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy.
But Even, with his combat experience, helped get a stronger policy in Israel. "Now, if you tell the military you’re gay, the answer is, ‘So what?’" he said. Later, he won a lawsuit against Tel Aviv University demanding that it extend spousal benefits to Amit Kama, his partner, fellow academic and junior of 20 years. The two, who met on a beach, have been together for 16 years. They became Israel’s first gay foster parents when they took in Yossi, a 15-year-old boy who was tossed out of his home after coming out as a homosexual. Today, at 24, Yossi lives a short distance from Even’s apartment in Tel Aviv with his own partner of three years. He thrilled his foster parents when he turned 18 and took their family names as his own.
"It is the thing I am most proud of, fostering Yossi. I wanted children but was too old to start with a baby. Yossi was a gift," said Even, seated barefoot in his living room. Although Israeli lawmakers may still speak of gays in what Even calls "the language of the 19th century," he is the first to admit that attitudes toward homosexuality have progressed by leaps and bounds since he came out to his own family at age 27. In 1975, the precursor of today’s Association of Gay Men, Lesbians, Bisexuals and Transgenders in Israel was founded, and in 1988, parliament decriminalized homosexuality.
In 1992, it prohibited anti-gay and lesbian discrimination in the workplace. However, gays, lesbians and transgenders have yet to win full rights to social security, health insurance and taxation benefits, and they still are not able to formally adopt children. Ironically, Even has had more success in bringing about acceptance of homosexuality in the public sphere than in his private life. Seeking solace after a relationship of four years came to an end in his late 20s, Even found little sympathy from his father who, on hearing of his son’s sexual orientation, asked incredulously: "You’re not a criminal, and you’re not an Arab, so how can you be gay?" A psychologist who treated the young Even’s depression over a failed relationship was dismissed by his mother when it became clear that he did not intend to persuade his patient to change his sexual orientation.
"Even when I became a professor, even when I became a politician, they didn’t want to be part of it," he said. He has little contact with his family to this day, although Kama’s relatives have welcomed him warmly. Even came to his new role as a member of the Knesset by a stroke of luck. He was 13th on a list of Meretz candidates for 12 seats in parliament, and when lawmaker Amnon Rubinstein resigned, he was automatically named to fill the open seat. He stresses that when he takes office he will not be a one-issue lawmaker. Drawing on his vast experience as a scientist and academic, he intends to press issues related to higher education and the strategic balance in the Middle East, as well as those related to rights for sexual minorities in Israel. In the gay community, expectations are high.
"The fact that there will be a gay (member of the Knesset) is the most important thing to happen for gays and lesbians here, but also for all open-minded Israeli people," said Lior Mencher, executive director of the Association of Homosexuals and Lesbians. "Israeli gays and lesbians are now strong enough to stand behind him. And if they (politicians) are not ready for him, we’ll make them." Although he is determined to press for change and is aware of the respect his academic background commands, Even is wary of gays and lesbians expecting too much, too soon, when he takes up his place in the 120-member Knesset. "My election has symbolic value. Somebody has to be the first and allow others to come out. But I’m a single member of a small party in the Knesset which might have a very short life span," he said. As for the orthodox legislators who were calling for gays to be put to death only three years ago, Even said the most he can hope for is their respect as a fellow lawmaker. "I don’t expect them to accept what I say," he said. "But I don’t want their polemics either."
December 17, 2002
Foreign workers, and gay, too. It isn’t easy in Israel.
by Nurit Wurgaft
An out-of-the-ordinary beauty pageant took place at the David Intercontinental Hotel in Tel Aviv last month. Eight Filipino men competed before an audience of about 200 for the title of "Miss Gay" in English, or "Miss Feminine Man" in Tagalog, the official language of the Philippines. Based on the report appearing in Focal, the new entertainment monthly of the Filipino foreign worker community in Israel, which covered the event, the number of titles handed out was identical to the number of contestants, as is the custom in beauty pageants in the Philippines.
Aside from the first prize (a trip to Turkey plus a crown and scepter, as is the practice in beauty pageants the world over) and a second-place prize of a vacation in Eilat, prizes were also given for best appearance in bathing suit and in national costume, as well as most talented, photogenic and, of course, Miss Congeniality. Another prize was also bestowed on a contestant who did not win in any of the categories, but earned the "crowd favorite" award.
One of the organizers, who goes by the name Joe, says they tried to invite Dana International to serve as a judge, but it didn’t work out. Eventually, this honor was given to representatives of the manpower companies that bring the Filipino workers here. Notably absent were representatives of the gay-lesbian community in Tel Aviv, who did not even know about the event. The homosexual foreign workers are barely aware of the community and generally their involvement in it is limited to the Gay Pride parade.
To break down cultural barriers, A. and M., both from Colombia, joined a group of homosexuals from South America, which meets regularly in Tel Aviv. The vast majority of the group turned out to be Spanish-speaking Israelis. A. and M. try to conceal their identity and be absorbed into the group. A. and M. heard about the Filipinos’ beauty pageant and speak of it with open envy. In Colombia, such an event would be impossible. In South America, there are places where until recently anti-homosexual laws stood on the books, and even where such laws did not exist, it is a great deal safer to stay in the closet. "Colombia was a varied country. There are places where there is more openness, or where they at least leave homosexuals alone," says M., trying to defend his homeland. A. reminds him of a woman whom both men knew, an openly avowed lesbian, who was murdered because of her sexual preference. "It’s true," M. sadly admits. "Since there is such chaos in Colombia, and there isn’t really any public order, every so often groups form and decide to enforce their own order. They call themselves "clean-up crews," because their object is to purify society from social phenomena they consider negative. For instance, they may decide to put an end to the phenomenon of panhandlers in the street. And then the beggars really do vanish – out of fear, of course – and anyone who doesn’t vanish fast enough, pays for it with his life. Or else he simply gets a severe beating.
The homosexuals are on the black list of these groups, which at times finger them as a target for purification." Parents received threats The desire to express his sexuality, and get to know and be part of the gay world, was the main reason M. decided to come to Israel. "Although I am here illegally and the police can arrest me at any moment, I love my life here. I can do things here that in Colombia I couldn’t even dream of," he says. "I can go to gay hangouts, flirt with people, have people flirt with me. I recently did something I’d never ever done before – I got on the stage at the South Americans’ club and performed a drag queen act. I had a great time doing it."
A.’s motivation to come here was primarily financial, but he too only came out of the closet after his arrival. "After I decided that I wasn’t willing to go on living in secret, I called my parents and told them," he says. "I did so because I didn’t want them to find out from someone else. There are people in the South American community who do not look fondly upon homosexuals and threaten to call and tell our families back home." Indeed, not long after he came out of the closet, someone in the foreign worker community called the parents of A., told them what they already knew about their son, and threw in a few scathing words about how their son had "turned rotten" in Israel. A. says that the threats – as well as the fact that someone in the foreign worker community is willing to spend the money on an overseas call simply to make good on these threats – are a deterrent to many foreign workers.
"There are people who you could say escaped their countries to live in a more open, more liberal society, but nevertheless have to go on hiding," he says. The difficulty of keeping secrets when you live in a small community is only one factor in a tangled webs of reasons that foreign workers have to take into account when they decide to carry on an openly gay lifestyle. The views of employers are no less critical. So there are people who appear in a drag show at night, before audiences of hundreds of people and yet observe complete secrecy in the daytime hours.
"We heard from friends working in Saudi Arabia that they expelled people only because it came out that they were gay," says a Filipino worker called Pearlie. "In a new and unfamiliar place, caution is never over-exaggerated."
"We never expose ourselves right at the start," explains A. "Afterward, it depends on the employer and on the type of work. I have a boss with whom I have a good relationship and he accepts it really well, but someone who, suppose, works for religious people, knows that he can lose his job because of something like that, and also people taking care of children usually prefer to keep it secret. Why take the chance?" Not long ago, another reason for concern developed in the form of the deportation police.
"True, they used to seize people in the street and deport them, as well, but now it’s a lot more intensive," says a South American foreign worker who used to live an openly gay lifestyle. "It may be that police here may have a tolerant attitude toward gays, but what if they don’t? If I am arrested, I don’t need an additional stigma to deal with." Pearlie, who has cared for an older man for the past two years, says that he never feels a need to bring up the subject. "My work is completely unrelated to the fact that I am homosexual, and homosexuality should not interfere with work," he says. "On my day off, I can go out with makeup on and wear glittery clothes, or take part in a drag show, but during the week I am just a guy who does a good job and doesn’t make trouble." Although nothing has been said, Pearlie is certain that his employer knows, and accepts. "He loves me like a son," he says. "We don’t talk about it, but he knows that I have a mate, and it’s perfectly fine. Recently, when we were outside, one of the neighbors made a nasty comment about homosexuals, and my employer got into an argument with her and told her she was wrong. I think he came out in my defense. I was very moved by it."
Pearlie is one of the fortunate few who has a significant other who is also Filipino. The others experience the loneliness that is the common fate of many of the foreign workers – the price of an unstable life in very small communities – but as a minority within a minority the chance of gay foreign workers finding a mate is even smaller than that of the others.
Shades of racism
The Filipino gay-lesbian community in Israel is thought to number less than two dozen individuals. Joe is aware of just how much this limits his chances, but nevertheless maintains his optimism. "In my way, I don’t feel loneliness," he says. "I have a lot of friends, and after work I am always busy. I always have plans for parties, I arrange things, write in the new newspaper – there is demand for my skills." He is astounded to hear about "Hazman Havarod" (Pink Time), the newspaper of the gay-lesbian community in Israel, and is disappointed to learn the paper comes out only in Hebrew.
So far, his connection with the community in Tel Aviv is pretty much participation in the Gay Pride parade; occasionally he goes to the parties they organize. Whether from caution or unfamiliarity, very few Israelis come to the parties and events that Joe, Pearlie and their friends arrange. "At first, we would throw parties only for the gay Filipinos and our straight friends," says Pearlie. "Only later did we find out that the Israelis also like drag shows and our parties. Now we also invite Israeli friends, but nevertheless, the majority at our parties is Filipino."
The executive director of "The Aguda" – the Association of Gay Men, Lesbians, Bisexuals and Transgender in Israel – Lior Mencher, says that the South Americans have in fact integrated into the forum of Spanish speakers, which operates under the aegis of the Aguda, and have come to its salsa parties. "We have tried to forge links with the Filipinos," he says, "but it didn’t work out. I suppose they were afraid of coming to us because some of them are illegal and perhaps we are seen as a form of the establishment." He says the association may make another attempt to make contact. Joe says the Filipinos do go to the well-known meeting places, but have not made formal contact with the community. They plan to hold a discussion of the subject, at which they will decide if they want the connection. A. and M., who have gone to a few parties organized by the Aguda, were at first very impressed by the openness of the members of the community, and were subsequently disappointed to discover that this openness pertained solely to sex.
They say Israelis are not willing to embark on a significant relationship with a foreign worker. "Sometimes at a party someone will start up a conversation with me," says A., "hears the accent and asks ‘Where are you from?’ I say I’m from Colombia. Then he gets all excited because all Israelis have been to South America, and he says: ‘Really? That’s great. When did you immigrate to Israel?’ So then I say that I haven’t immigrated. I’m not willing to lie about that. As soon as he realizes that I’m an illegal foreign worker, the atmosphere chills and he quickly finds an excuse to move away."
M. says he understands them. "We’re also deterred from entering relationships with a mate whose status is uncertain. We don’t have any links with the Filipinos or with foreign homosexuals in general. Falling in love with a person who at any moment can be put in prison and from there straight onto a plane involves a big emotional risk. Who wants that? A person like me, who lives in dreadful fear, from terrorist attacks as well as the police, is looking for support and love. Sex is important, but for me the love is much more important. So I can understand the reticence of the Israelis, but it still hurts."
The experience of the Filipinos is not much different. "The Israelis like Filipinos, but not for a serious relationship, only for occasional sex," says Joe. "It’s the lifestyle here. In the Philippines, it’s more accepted for people to live together. If I were in the Philippines, I would certainly have a steady mate. Here, I realize that it most certainly won’t happen for me." Mencher isn’t surprised. "The gay-lesbian community suffers from the same diseases as Israeli society in general, including racism," he says. "It’s natural that people will be deterred from entering a significant relationship with a person with whom the relationship is so uncertain, without having anything to do with the sexual preference. Besides which, as soon as Israel was marked as part of the developed world, there were numerous applications from people from the Third World who propose a relationship of mutual exploitation, along the lines of the mail-order brides from Russia: you make sure I have work, and I’ll be your mate. This is the accepted practice in Europe. But we are very put off by it."
Israeli Queers Revolt-Black Laundry Connects Homophobia and the Occupation
by Sue Katz
When was the last time you heard of a demonstration against a beauty contest? It might seem like a flash from the past, but the Israeli queer group, Black Laundry (Kvisa Sh’hora), took an old-fashioned protest target and turned it into a witty and pointed demonstration against the occupation by Israel of Palestinian lands.
“We all dressed as drag-queens —girls, boys, butches, trans, everyone. It was our own alternative beauty show,” said Dalit Baum, one of the Black Laundry founders. Their signs helped spectators make connections between the beauty event and the dominant political crisis. “Glamor Won’t Cover the Crime: End the Occupation,” they said. And with even more bite: “Children in Ramallah (on the West Bank) aren’t Hungry; They’re just on a Diet.”
Dalit says the group does not hesitate to salvage from the past. “We found a leaflet from the 1970s women’s movement in Tel Aviv and used their slogan— ‘We’re not beautiful, we’re not ugly, we’re mad’.”
Black Laundry began life at Gay Pride 2001. A small group of Tel Aviv lesbians and gays felt that they could not support Pride-as-usual in light of the occupation, so they distributed a leaflet in the bars and clubs seeking queers with an interest in protest. To their surprise, over 250 folks joined their contingent, well appointed in black and pink and sporting the wittiest prettiest placards of the day.
The press found them even more fascinating than the usual drag queens so they received a great deal of attention. Organizing around the statement “No Pride in Occupation,” their most popular slogan was “Gay & Palestinian: Freedom Twice Denied.” By making connections between homophobia and the occupation, Black Laundry brings Israeli gender politics to a new level. Dalit explains their original motivation. “It felt impossible to celebrate our civil rights in a carnival atmosphere when we knew what was being done in the occupied territories just a short distance away.”
The humor used to highlight their issues makes Black Laundry the darling of the media. They can be quite outrageous. For example, to counter the commercialism of Pride, when every rainbow colored object—from key rings to porch awnings—becomes a saleable “Souvenir of Pride,” Black Laundry asked the contingent of Palestinian gays and lesbians who were arriving from Ramallah (only those with foreign passports) to gather up empty tear gas grenades and bring them along. The West Bank was littered with hundreds of spent canisters left by the Israeli Army. Piled into supermarket trolleys, each grenade was decorated with a pink sticker saying “Souvenir of Ramallah.” Unfortunately, the empty grenades were seized by the police at the march as “dangerous objects.”
“Why then,” Black Laundry people asked them, “do you throw them at people?”
Following their smash-hit appearance at Pride, they decided to become a permanent group. They now have over 130 on their list- serve and biweekly meetings attract over 30 activists. The mix presently favors women in their twenties and thirties. There is a minority of Sephardic members (Jews whose families come from Arab, African, and Spanish countries, and who can experience ethnic discrimination in Israel). Some Israeli Palestinians (from villages within Israel’s pre-1967 borders) make it to actions, but the danger of being out is quite high, particularly for women. Palestinians from the occupied territories are prevented from participating by the Army’s extreme restrictions on their movements.
What the members share is a commitment to feminist process (consensus, rotating chair, diversity of ideas) and an aesthetic of outrageous and visual expression underlying a “joined-together” politic. Thea Gold, 27, involved with Black Laundry for 8 months, puts it this way. “If different oppressed groups—women, queers, Palestinians, the poor—realize that the same forces are keeping us down, it could help us all focus and combine our struggles and make them more effective.”
Black Laundry is very active and consistently manages to take the most provocative approach to old institutions. Besides their presence at the beauty contest, they also joined the annual Take Back The Night march.
This June, Jerusalem had its first Pride demonstration in an atmosphere so charged that it attracted world media coverage. “Jerusalem is a heated city,” Thea says, “the religious conflicts are strong and the political battles endless.” The Municipality reluctantly agreed to award them a license for the event, but unlike the local government of Tel Aviv, they provided no financial grant. The group organizing the march welcomed the collaboration with Black Laundry, who turned up dressed in black T-shirts with phosphorescent pink identity signs saying: Dyke, Butt Licker, Masturbating Lesbian, Slut. Their signs were in the six main spoken languages of Israel: Hebrew, Arabic, English, Yiddish, Russian, and Amharic (Ethiopian).
Their messages, again, creatively made the connections. “Transgender and not Transfer,” they said, rejecting the call by right-wing Israelis to expel Palestinians from their own land. “Jerusalem: One City, Two Capitals, All Genders” suggested a solution for the city that both peoples claim. In a brilliant co-optation of the protests of the homophobic right-wing religious people who say that the war on the Palestinian people is impoverishing Israel, they carried “Homosexuals and Lesbians in Solidarity with Ultra-Orthodox Poverty.”
Black Laundry pays attention to the cultural details and finds ways to transgress in a language which speaks to the whole population. For instance, it is a tradition, at the entrance to Jerusalem, to post wedding announcements with the first names of the bride and groom prominently displayed. Using the exact graphic style of these commonplace signs, Black Laundry plastered the city’s entrance with “Ruth and Miriam” and “Zvi Yossel loves Menacham Levy.”
The members to whom I spoke all believe, as the slogan says, “The Occupation is Killing us All.” Hadas Sandler, a professional lifeguard, sees the Israeli Army’s violence in the territories affecting women in Israel. “It impacts on us here. There’s now so much violence towards women and trafficking in women. I know it’s connected to the occupation and what we allow ourselves to do to Palestinians.”
The political roots of Black Laundry can be traced directly to Women in Black, a protest movement begun in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in January 1988, just weeks after the start of the first intifada (Palestinian uprising). The Women in Black model of a unified visual image and a regular weekly demonstration in the same location spread throughout Israel, so that at one point there were 39 simultaneous weekly vigils around the country. The model got picked up in Europe and the States and eventually around the world. Women in Black was nominated for last year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Last year they mobilized simultaneous actions in 150 cities around the world for the anniversary of the Occupation.
Black Laundry is also set to be fruitful and multiply. There is a New York city branch of Black Laundry preparing to march in their city’s Pride and a group in San Francisco. There is something very contagious about the poetry with which they convey complex connections. As one of their recent banners declared: “Free Condoms, Free Palestine.”
Sue Katz has published on the three continents where she has lived, including 14 years in the Middle East. She has completed her first novel, Above The Belt, which takes place in an Israeli martial arts institute during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. To contact Black Laundry, KvisaMail@yahoo.com.