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Gay Life in Israel: Now 'Part of It All'

September 14, 2006 By:
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The rainbow of gay pride marks the door of Jerusalem's Open House.

Elad Fishfeder is your typical Israeli. He's swarthy, thick-haired, lithe, with that hospitable persistence all too common in the Middle East. "Take a paper, take one," he says. "Here, one more even," insists the 30-year-old writer. He's typical, all right, save for an important difference: Fishfeder is religious, and he's also gay.

Wearing a kipah and all that it entails -- keeping kosher, keeping Shabbat, observing many other commandments -- and identifying as openly gay is bold. It's unusual. And in the staunchly secular city of Tel Aviv, where this man resides, it's practically unheard of.

But Fishfeder's not trying to make a statement, he's simply living his life.

Fishfeder, the editor of the Hebrew monthly The Pink Times -- the only gay magazine in Israel, printing between 30,000 and 40,000 copies each edition -- came out of the proverbial closet about seven years ago. "You know when you're gay; you know when you're a teenager, though I didn't do anything with it," he explains in slightly accented English.

When he finally did, he says friends and family stood by him, especially his older brother, who's also gay and living in the United States. Though Fishfeder comes from a "very supportive and protective community," he's made some real changes in his life; he prays at a shul with older people ("There is no gay and lesbian Orthodox synagogue in Israel," he notes), he lives alone, he dates quietly, but he never takes off his kipah srugah, the knitted kipah that is his tradition.

"I get looks and stares; it was very difficult," he says. "Most young gay guys who are Orthodox must make a decision: to live a conventional life -- living a lie -- or to leave the faith. It tears them apart. We're suffering, especially youngsters; we're living in great pain. People commit suicide, they get depressed -- they're sad and lonely.

"The official party line is that the ultra-Orthodox and modern Orthodox, they don't have homosexuals in the community. But they must acknowledge it exists," he continues. "They have to understand we must deal with the issue and not sweep it under the rug.

"This is who I am."

'Vehicle to Change Attitudes'
And he's not alone. Advocates for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals in Israel claim that between 8 percent and 12 percent of the population falls into this category. "No one really knows; it's a sensitive issue," says Mike Hamel, chairperson of Aguda ("The National Association of GLBT in Israel").

Aguda is the oldest, largest and only nationwide gay organization in Israel, founded in 1975 and headquartered in Tel Aviv, with branches now all over the country. It was formed as a "vehicle to change attitudes in Israeli society," explains Hamel, adding that back then, board members had to use code names for their own protection.

Why? He's quick to point out that at one time -- not too long ago, really -- homosexual sex was a criminal offense on the law books, a holdover from the British Mandate period, though he admits it was not applied. It was eliminated in 1988.

Progress moved quickly from there.

According to an online history of Israeli court cases pertaining to gay and lesbians compiled by BICOM: Britain Israel Communications & Research Centre, in 1992, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1988 was revised to prohibit discrimination in employment relations on the basis of sexual orientation and marital status. A year later, under the aegis of Labor Party Knesset member Yael Dayan, the Knesset established a subcommittee on Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Rights.

Also in 1993, the Israel Defense Force rescinded its regulations discriminating against sexual minorities. In 1994 the Supreme Court recognized same-sex partner benefits in the private sector, after a case pressed on by an El Al airline employee; three years later, it extended those benefits to the public sector following a law suit involving an IDF widower.

And GLBT advocates also look to 1997 -- and a boon in parental rights -- when a case first brought adoption to the forefront; it took until Jan. 10, 2005, but the Supreme Court eventually ruled that a lesbian couple could legally adopt each other's children.

Yet when Hamel -- 50, a computer-systems professional by trade and a father of three who came out six years ago, after his wife died -- discusses attitudinal changes, he's not talking about America's hot-button issue; he's not even approaching gay marriage. "That's not part of the Israeli agenda because it's not going to happen, not in the foreseeable future," he says, not as long as weddings fall under the rubric of religious law.

Like most GLBT communities, the battle is for respect and acceptance. Hamel notes that in many ways, Israel is more progressive than the United States.

"There is no gay-bashing," he says, referring to Jews only, not Palestinian or other Arab populations. "You can hold hands in the street, you can kiss in the street, but things are far from perfect."

Military life -- a requirement in Israeli society -- can be onerous; the corporate world hasn't embraced integration so well; and much of the religious community remains in denial that homosexuality is an issue at all. And perhaps one of the roughest crowds -- the roughest for most people -- is among the echelons of the young.

"Some 25 percent of kids report physical resentment -- pushing, shoving," says Hamel. And that's just for those gay and lesbian youngsters who actually discuss and relay such behavior.

That's why, among many things, including overseeing the editorial content of The Pink Times, Aguda cultivates a youth contingent, called Hoshen, to assist those grappling with their sexuality.

Hoshen (the Hebrew acronym for "education and change") is the informational and educational center of the GLBT community, a nonprofit volunteer organization whose purpose is to fight stereotypes regarding sexual orientation and gender identity. It does this by addressing high school students and teachers, university students and faculty, guidance counselors, professionals, soldiers, social workers, medical staff, police and border guards. It is also officially recognized by the Educational Psychological Authority of the Ministry of Education.

The change in attitudes, "it's been the biggest social revolution in the last 10 years in Israel," attests Eyal Shavit, who represents another volunteer organization -- Israel Gay Youth, better known as IGY. "It's not that hard to be gay in Tel Aviv; it's the gay capital of Israel, and recognized as such in European countries. But most kids don't tell their parents they're going to IGY. Most kids don't tell their parents they're gay.

"We walk a thin line," says Shavit. "We don't 'out' anyone. We want to offer places safe to youngsters who are confused.

"Our groups," he continues, "are basically social groups, not therapy. It gives youngsters the ability to meet others, to feel safe, ask questions -- a place where they can be themselves, without lying, without wearing any masks. The youngsters need an address to come to."

Both groups, Hoshen and IGY, are relatively young, less than five years in the making. Shavit, 27, and Yoav Arad, 34, who represents Hoshen, both remark that outside of school and family, the military remains one of their biggest concerns, particularly when it comes to men.

Israel is a very macho society, they acknowledge, and serving in the army is often seen as something to fear.

Still, the IDF has come a long way, believes Shavit: "It's better than it was two years ago, and three years ago, and five years ago."

But much work remains to be done to eliminate some of the stigma, they say.

Consider this: There is no word in Hebrew for "gay." Israelis use "homosexual," with a silent "h," and they shorten it simply to "homo." The softer term for lesbian is "lesbit."

Nevertheless, efforts inches forward. The youth-group leaders have several goals, including talking with younger kids (17-year-olds will often ask, "Where were you four years ago?") and working with children of same-sex couples, who have added levels of frustration and hardship regarding school and society.

And while he stresses that IGY representatives don't influence individuals' decisions, Shavit does aim "to improve ways of coming out. We don't want kids wandering the Internet for answers. We want to be the most common address for youngsters to find themselves."

Arad then defers to the grass-roots Aguda in Tel Aviv, with hundreds of active volunteers, and to an entity called Bayit Pituach ("Open House") in Jerusalem -- "the only really professional agency working with gays," with an actual paid staff.

"The rest of us," he quips, "are rookies."

Sharon Stern, a 35-year-old Jerusalemite, lesbian, self-avowed feminist and prominent volunteer with Open House, would good-naturedly disagree with that. She realizes that only a combination of efforts in different arenas will help break certain barriers between homosexuals and heterosexuals throughout Israel.

Open House was begun in 1997; it started out as a hotline at a time when gay and lesbian issues were barely on the map in Jerusalem. Also at that time, Stern says just a handful of places to congregate existed -- perhaps three or four cafes and bars. "But you couldn't feel comfortable going there. People would yell at you, curse at you. We needed something else."

So they found an upper-floor walk-up space on none other than Ben-Yehuda Street, the city's main pedestrian thoroughfare. At first, the group debated over whether or not to identify the facility; there was concern about provoking public ire. In the end, a rainbow flag was hung from a window, a sign put up and a pride mezuzah attached -- sent, in fact, by the Philadelphia Jewish community. After a few months, Stern reveals, someone broke the mezuzah; later, the flag was burned.

'Victims of Our Own Success'
But little by little, people started to stop by -- to weave their way up the stairs and through the door, and "we found out that we are one big diverse community."

Programming includes providing various services to build the GLBT community, advocating for social change on issues of concern, and taking action to promote tolerance and pluralism in Jerusalem.

Such measures inevitably led to the idea of a pride parade, something Tel Aviv has held since 1998. "We thought it would be somewhat of a breakthrough for all Jerusalem," states Stern.

And so, for the past few years, a march, parade, rally -- call it what you will -- has taken place in a city that's far from accepting of this particular lifestyle. In fact, an Orthodox man stabbed three people at last year's parade; similar violence was expected this year.

Alarm reached a zenith this spring, well in advance of the planned August parade, which was converging with an even larger GLBT event, World Pride. Some 10,000 people were expected to march in Jerusalem as part of the international event, which began in Rome in 2000, and which was postponed from last summer due to Israel's withdrawal from Gaza.

Stern says that Rome and Jerusalem were chosen specifically because of their religious nature, because "gay pride is celebrated in every major city in the world, so why not Jerusalem? There's so much intolerance here: between Jews and Arabs, Jews and Jews, gays and straight."

Thus, it was fitting that World Pride's slogan became "Love Without Borders."

But as fate would have it, war broke out with the Lebanese-based Hezbollah on July 12, and by Aug. 6 -- the week of scheduled pride events -- hundreds of bombs were dropping daily on northern Israel. Would-be participants stayed away in droves, and security was cited as the reason to put the march on hold. Other programs, including a film festival, a health conference, a youth day and Friday-night services, went on as planned in closed venues, and a fairly low-key rally in Jerusalem's Liberty Bell Park brought a few hundred people out on Aug. 10.

To date, Open House is petitioning the Supreme Court to conduct its march in the next few weeks.

Among those who did show up for World Pride was a group from the Philadelphia area, as part of a first-ever gay-pride mission to Israel, sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. It started out as a group of 28 men and women -- singles and couples -- and wound up one of 14. There was a significant contingent of 30 from New York, as well as solid representation from Canada.

Pierre Blain, project officer for the National and now International Day Against Homophobia, established in 2002, was there. The 57-year-old from Montreal bucked the trend and traveled to Israel during wartime because "we have to show the world that we are proud to be gay and lesbian. And because of the situation, it was more important to be here."

The Day Against Homophobia takes place in 40 countries, many of them European, yet is not held in the United States ("not yet," says Blain). It occurs in Israel.

And that represents considerable progress. It represents a far cry from the secrecy and shame that marked this group of people a decade ago.

Indeed, as Hamel states, "we're victims of our own success, in a way. GLBT is not such a big deal in society today; it's not considered a human-rights issue in Israel.

"But it is. Things are better, but they're far from being resolved. There's no outright homophobia, but it's underlying: no empowerment, no funding, no corporate money -- none of it goes to the GLBT community," he laments, adding that the group is attempting to appeal to resources outside of the Jewish state.

"For many years, Aguda focused on what was happening in Israel. That was okay 15 years ago, but now, it's not enough. Everything back then was a tremendous success.

"Sometimes, we live in our own bubble," he admits, with a shrug and a little wisp of a smile, glasses hanging down low on his nose. "But we're a part of society -- a part of all of it. We're reservists; we're going to war. We're a part."  

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