In San Francisco, the Castro district teems with gay life — there are drag shows, gay-run boutiques and the signature of the gay rights movements — the rainbow flag — seems to be everywhere.
In the Chelsea neighborhood of New York, gay life has taken root, transforming that West Side area into a mecca for men with well-developed pectorals in tight T-shirts and jeans, and for the wider the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
But try to find a “gay neighborhood” in Tel Aviv, believed to be one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world, and you’ll come up short. Likewise, there are very few exclusively gay social establishments or bars in Tel Aviv — a sign of how well woven into the fabric of the city Tel Aviv’s LGBT community has become. This is due in large part to the city’s overwhelmingly accepting culture, observers say.
“I don’t think people ever felt particularly threatened, so that’s why there was no need to group up” in a gay neighborhood, Etai Pinkas told The Jewish Week. Pinkas, chairman of the new city-funded LGBT Pride Center, is having lunch at the center’s café and reflecting on the city’s gay community, the victories it has won and the unfinished work that stands before it. “Generally, LGBTs in Tel Aviv are very well integrated.”
To drive home the point, Yonatan Gher, 29, who heads the LGBT Jerusalem Open House, says, only half jokingly, “Tel Aviv has already gotten to the point that if you’re a man and woman walking hand in hand you might get frowned upon; Jerusalem is not quite there.”
Gher himself is a kind of poster boy for gay rights and gay tolerance in Tel Aviv. After adopting a child with his partner, Gher earlier this year became the first gay man to be granted maternity leave by the State of Israel.
Existing at a safe remove from Jerusalem’s stringent Orthodox rabbinate, which condemns homosexuality as beyond the pale of Jewish law, Tel Aviv has become such a comfort zone for Israel’s gay community in the past decade that some experts refer to the city a “gay haven.” A sizeable percentage of Tel Aviv’s residents are part of the LGBT community, and thousands gather at the municipality’s new Pride Center each month, according to Pinkas. Tel Aviv, whose gay population is estimated at between 15 and 20 percent of the overall population, according to Pinkas, even boasts a gay Knesset representative, Nitzan Horowitz, who is only the second openly gay parliament member in Israel’s history.
“As a gay person, it’s one of the best places in the world to live in,” said 33-year-old Yael Rav Hon, director of the independent LGBT educational group called Hoshen. The group operates out of the center but sends teams of volunteers to classrooms, offices and army bases to teach about issues that affect Israel’s gay community.
The city began planning its LGBT Pride Center back in 2003, and the building finally opened to the public last June, according to Pinkas, who chaired the human rights committee during his recent city council term. In his eyes, the most challenging part of constructing the center was convincing the mayor — Ron Huldai — that there is in fact a large Tel Aviv gay population that would benefit from such a center. But in time — and after surveying over 3,000 gay community members to provide proof — Pinkas was able to convince the bureaucrats that the center was vital. It now hosts a wide array of youth groups, senior groups, social activities, yoga classes, performing arts courses and counseling sessions.
“The real breakthrough was not the fact that it was even built, but the fact that it was financed by the government,” Pinkas said, noting that all staff members are full-fledged city employees, and the center runs according to city protocol, without any outside funding. Today, the Pride Center is working on founding an in-house LGBT-friendly medical clinic in cooperation with one of Israel’s largest medical insurance companies, Kupat Holim Clalit Health Services.
“[The Pride Center is] like a model for all citizens in Israel,” agreed Adir Steiner, 43. Steiner, a long-time adviser to the mayor on gay issues, fought the IDF in a seven-year struggle for widower benefits after his partner Dr. Lt. Col. Doron Maizel died of cancer in 1991. “We want to develop [the center] so eventually every boy or girl facing sexual identity questions will have a house to come to.”
But Pinkas warns that the situation in Tel Aviv is hardly representative of Israel’s attitude toward its gay community in general. LGBT awareness began in earnest in Israel in the 1970s, and until 1988, a federal law enforced by the rabbinate still prohibited same-sex relations, Rav Hon said. The political “gay revolution” only began to surge in the mid-1990s through the activism of former Knesset member Yael Dayan, who initiated the fight for equal rights among homosexual and heterosexual couples. Dayan remains politically active as current deputy mayor and city council member in Tel Aviv.
“You live here so you can put a barrier between yourself and that crazy rabbi in Jerusalem,” agreed Yoav Sivan, a journalist, political consultant and human rights activist. He’s referring to various haredi rabbis who have made statements in the past sharply critical of the gay lifestyle, which they believe is forbidden according to Jewish law. Sivan is the only person to have served simultaneously on the boards of the Jerusalem Open House and the Tel Aviv-based Aguda, the LGBT associations that organize the gay pride parades in each city. “In Jerusalem, the mayor invests all his power in attempts to stop the parade,” Sivan said, “while in Tel Aviv, the mayor recognizes the political power of the LGBT community and is a speaker at the parade.”
Yet even in Tel Aviv, the situation for LGBT residents is far from perfect, activists say. The city is by no means immune to discrimination and homophobia, as Hoshen’s Rav Hon has learned through her sometimes trying experiences in classrooms, where some students have responded with fear and anger to even the word “homosexual.”
“We want to change the atmosphere and stereotypes of the community,” she said, noting that a gay-bashing incident afflicted an IDF combat unit just a few years ago. “The need [for education] is so strong — this subject of sexual identity is not inherent in studies,” she added, explaining that most homophobia in Israel simply comes from lack of proper education.
Supplementing such educational initiatives, Pinkas is currently pushing the mayor to rename some of the streets of Tel Aviv for Jewish gay activists like Harvey Milk, to keep the LGBT community on the public’s radar.
“It would mean recognition of the contribution of LGBT people to humanity and maybe in a way to the development of LGBT rights in Israel — it would make people proud,” Pinkas said. “I don’t think streets should be named after people because they are LGBT. The reason is what they did as part of the LGBT community.”
Equal rights and representation are one thing, but in Israel — and therefore in Tel Aviv — gay marriage is an entirely different story.
“I don’t think we’ll ever have it,” Pinkas said, pointing out that the Israeli rabbinate doesn’t even allow non-Orthodox Jewish weddings, intermarriages or civil marriages between men and women, let alone between members of the same sex.
Steiner agrees, adding that he and his 13-year partner Zach don’t feel the need to be officially married, as long as they have other equal rights. But for those Israelis who do want a legal marriage, the couples need to travel to Canada to obtain their marriage certificates — Europe is not an option unless one of the partners is European. Only then will the State of Israel — unconnected to the rabbinate — issue the couple identification cards that read “married,” thanks to a court case won by travel agent Russell Lord.
According to Evan Wolfson, founder and executive director of Freedom to Marry, a New York-based group that aims to win marriage equality throughout the U.S., “Israeli law is exceptionally progressive and Israel is certainly in the front ranks of countries that have reduced legal discrimination against gay people and against gay couples and their kids. That includes honoring the lawful marriages that couples celebrate elsewhere. That said,” Wolfson continued, “Israel’s marriage law for gay and non-gay people alike is outdated and deeply problematic and so gay people share some of the same problems with their non-gay brothers and sisters.”
Despite the uphill battle, openly gay Knesset member Nitzan Horowitz, a member of the left-wing Meretz Party, is working to bring civil marriages to Israel — not just to gays, but to anyone who doesn’t want or might not qualify for a strictly Orthodox wedding.
“In order for Israel to be a normal state, we must acknowledge civil marriage, allowing couples to get married according to their beliefs,” Horowitz said. “We didn’t establish a Jewish state here to be like Iran or Saudi Arabia.”