Between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem: An Overview of LGBT+ Life in Israel
In 2018, Benjamin Netanyahu wrote that he was proud to be the Prime Minister of a country which “consistently upholds civil equality and civil rights of all its citizens regardless of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation”. He did so in a letter to the World Congress for LGBT Jews after they accused him of “attracting international gay tourism in the country at the same time they discriminate their own LGBTQ citizens”. The Congress had written this in relation to the debate about providing homosexual couples with access to surrogacy, which Netanyahu had previously supported. Ultimately, though, he and the Government parties voted against the necessary legislation which sparked backlash from Jewish LGBT+ Groups.
Israel has often emphasised that it is an LGBT-friendly and tolerant country, especially in comparison to its neighbours. Thousands of tourists are attracted to the Pride Parade in Tel Aviv each year, with staff of the Israeli Foreign Ministry having previously admitted to promoting such events to improve Israel’s international standing with tourists who judge Israel for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But how justified is the portrayal of Israel as an open and LGBT-friendly country really when LGBT+ activists accused their own government of hypocrisy in 2018? This article will aim to provide a more differentiated overview of LGBT+ life in Israel based on several discussions with LGBT+ organisations and experts across Israel, as well as randomly interviewed LGBT+ people from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
It is indeed undeniable that Israel is at the forefront of LGBT+ rights in the Middle East, with some neighbouring countries still enforcing the death penalty, long prison sentences, and torture against LGBT+ individuals. A lesbian couple in Tel Aviv emphasises that they even feel safer in Tel Aviv than, for example, Berlin or London, cities with a similarly good reputation: “In London you might feel safe in the city centre or at a pride parade, but we did get odd looks or comments on the bus to the accommodation and in other parts of the city. In Tel Aviv, on the other hand, you can see a rainbow flag in almost every bar or restaurant, and you don't feel uncomfortable even when walking home at four in the morning”. Such a perception was not uncommon amongst many of the interviewees, with many describing Tel Aviv not only as a champion of LGBT+ rights in the Middle East, but in the world. This is not surprising given that officials in Tel Aviv estimate the city’s LGBT+ community to make up 25 percent of its population, with the number of LGBT+ bars and clubs going down over the years as ‘safe-zones’ became somewhat redundant.
A very big contrast to Tel Aviv can be found in Jerusalem, where LGBT+ life is nowhere near as visible or accepted. All of our interviewees emphasised that Jerusalem, as a place of special religious importance and a crucial focus point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is characterised by significantly higher tensions and intolerance towards LGBT+ people. Michael Ross, who founded and runs the English-language LGBT+ podcast “Straight Friendly Global”, supported by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation Jerusalem, experienced this firsthand at the Jerusalem Pride Parade in 2015, where six parade members were stabbed by the ultra-Orthodox Yishai Schlissel. One of the victims, the 16-year-old Shira Banki, tragically succumbed to her wounds three days later.
Even though he was shocked by the events, Michael knows of many others who have been attacked or verbally abused by right-wing radicals. He also notes that the issue of conversion therapy, an unscientific and incredibly harmful practice, is very common in Jerusalem but also in many other parts of Israel: “Conversion therapy is quite common here, with quite a number of teenagers and adults from the USA or Canada visiting Israel each year for so-called ‘summer camps’ for conversion therapy. This could increase if the practice is, justifiably, banned in many countries”. Shay Bramson, Chairperson of Havruta, an organisation representing religious LGBT+ Jews which has also sought to ban conversion therapy in Israel, further stresses the severe long-term psychological and physical harms of the practice, which he himself suffered when he was about 16 years old. He explains that even though Havruta managed to get the Ministry of Health to issue a warning to the public in 2014 regarding these harmful effects, the subsequent Health Minister Yaakov Litzman of the Haredi Agudat Yisrael party effectively ignored all complaints and reports filed by groups after what initially seemed like a step forward.
Stav Ben Baruch, who works for the LGBT+ organisation Jerusalem Open House, also notes the sometimes difficult interactions with authorities such as the police. Although there has been significant progress in recent decades - police protection at the Pride Parade has increased since the murder in 2015 - there are still officers who do not take reports of hate crimes and discrimination seriously, or fail to intervene when LGBT+ people are faced with insults and hostilities. Such hostilities occur frequently, with Jerusalem Open House members recently subjected to verbal abuse by a group of teenagers on the way to an event in Tel Aviv. In addition to the verbal abuse, the youngsters also threw rocks and began physically assaulting some of them until soldiers passing by dispersed the group.
Stav notes: “That day was a massive blackout for all those affected as they were in pure shock about the events. As this instance also shows, it would be wrong to say that such actions are only committed by members of the ultra-orthodox, or other very religious communities. In Jerusalem, we face similar actions from across different sections of society irrespective of their ethnicity, religious background or even age. There is a general negative attitude towards LGBT+ people here, sometimes even from random teenagers”. She further notes the numerous times the Jerusalem Open House’s mailbox and signs were vandalised overnight, and how LGBT+ people sometimes avoid certain districts or areas which are known to be very intolerant. She accepts that some areas such as the secluded area of Me’Shearim are unfriendly and hostile to any kind of outsiders, irrespective of whether they are part of the LGBT+ community or not. Nonetheless, expressing LGBT+ identities and symbols such as the rainbow flag would certainly not do them any favours.
However, even Jerusalem and Tel Aviv do not capture the entirety of LGBT+ life in Israel. As Michael Ross points out, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are to some extent extremes of a spectrum, between which there are tolerant cities like Haifa, but also communities that can be quite similar or even worse to Jerusalem, everything varying greatly depending on the location. He also finds that the discourse on LGBT+ rights in Israel very often prioritizes the interests of Hebrew-speaking LGBT+ people, who have good political networks, especially in Tel Aviv. On the other hand, the perspective and situation of Arab LGBT+ people in the region is neglected in the international coverage of Israeli LGBT+ life. Michael describes how this perspective too varies greatly depending on location: whilst Israeli-Arabs in Haifa are far more willing to work together with Jewish LGBT+ organisations, distrust and rejection prevail amongst Palestinian Jerusalemites due to the disputed status of East Jerusalem and Israel’s settlement policies.
Betty Ezri, a board member of the Israeli LGBT+ Taskforce Aguda, notes that this distrust has worsened in recent years with Israeli society becoming more divided and right-leaning, whereas she grew up with LGBT+ Haredis, Palestinians, and people of all backgrounds engaging and empathising with each other. Betty stresses, however, that many from Tel Aviv underestimate how much queer life there actually is in Jerusalem even today if one just looks closer: “Unsurprisingly, the general societal divides on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Jerusalem have not left the LGBT+ community unaffected, but outsiders not used to mixed cities such as Jerusalem might often miss LGBT+ life even when they walk right past it”.
Societal divides were also highlighted in conversations with several LGBT+ Palestinians who wish to remain anonymous for safety reasons. They further note the dilemma that Arabs seeking acceptance can at times only turn to Jewish LGBT+ organisations and activists they feel uncomfortable relying on due to the ongoing conflict. Whilst they accept they face severe discrimination or persecution within the Arab community, be it in Israel or the occupied territories, they find it strange to work with citizens from a State that displaces their families and friends from homes in Jerusalem and the West Bank. They note that where fellow Palestinians are affected by such policies, LGBT+ rights in Israel are of little practical value to them, especially if they live outside Israeli borders and therefore do not enjoy these anyways. At the same time, Israeli-Arab LGBT+ interviewees noted frustration about their lack of representation within Israel’s Government: the United Arab List, the only (and also historically first) Arab party in Government, publicly opposed the development of LGBT+ rights the Meretz party had pushed for, having campaigned against them in the most recent election run-up.
Reut Naggar, a well-known LGBT+ activist and feminist from Tel Aviv, points out that even LGBT+ Palestinians from the Palestinian territories allowed to enter Israel to avoid persecution do not necessarily enjoy a life of bliss. This is because the Israeli State does not recognise these Palestinians as asylum seekers, but provides them with temporary residence permits which may or may not be renewed every six months. These permits specifically do not allow them to take up work or access healthcare or social services. This, according to Reut, often leads these Palestinians to see no other option than to enter prostitution or to otherwise work illegally, without any social security and the additional uncertainty of their residency status.
Betty Ezri further highlights that in the whole of Israel, including Tel Aviv, the trans community does not receive enough attention in the political discourse. Even in Tel Aviv, trans people are exposed to a significantly higher potential for violence and are far more often victims of hate crimes and hostilities. She notes that: “The main issues in the male-dominated LGBT+ community in Israel seem to be marriage equality, opening up adoption, and surrogacy, which are all valid issues to focus on. However, for transgender people, many do not have the luxury to think about these things as they struggle with even finding a job, accessing adequate healthcare, and simply getting to work or to a supermarket without suffering abuse and violence”.
For Reut, this too illustrates the fragmented and heterogenous nature of the LGBT+ community in Israel: whilst she agrees that many LGBT+ people enjoy a comparatively good life in Israel, this does not apply equally to women, trans people, or the Arab LGBT+ community. It is because of this that she is not particularly surprised by claims that the Israeli government uses the LGBT+ community as a tool to distract from the occupation of Palestinian territories: “It is incredibly frustrating that the government constantly claims credit for the existence and development of LGBT+ rights, when it is actually underfunded activists and likeminded individuals who fought for these rights through various protests, policy work and above all through legal claims pushed in the courts”.
For instance, access to surrogacy was recently opened to same-sex couples, not through the legislative process but through a successful legal challenge in the Israeli Supreme Court. It is important to note that this ruling was only necessary because the Israeli parliament failed to secure a majority for the required legislation, with many conservative, ultra-orthodox and Arab parliamentarians opposing the bill despite an earlier court ruling. Against this background, it feels strange, says Naggar, when the activists’ hard work, which often must overcome the religious and more conservative elements in Israeli society, is suddenly used in discussions around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She notes, however, that there is reason for optimism on at least some issues: Israel's new government is taking a more liberal and inclusive view on LGBT+ issues as it does not rely on the votes of more right-leaning and fundamentalist parties. There are already several LGBT+ schemes and policies planned for the education sector as well as other areas of public policy, and the dire situation of LGBT+ Palestinians in Israel was just recently raised by MK Ibtisam Mara’ana in the Knesset on January 16, whose party is also part of the new coalition. In addition, the Israeli Health Ministry just recently prohibited the provision of conversion therapy by medical practitioners, a first step to a full ban of the practice.
It is important to note that the gap between the at times oversimplistic international perception of LGBT+ life in Israel and the diverse and heavily varying realities on the ground is not really unique to Israel. The international perception, for instance, of European countries with regards to LGBT+ rights is similarly influenced by bubbles such as London or Berlin, with other parts of the country as well as underrepresented minorities being equally overlooked. What makes this phenomenon particularly pertinent in relation to Israel, however, is that this distorted perception is considered by many to be an important factor for supporting the Israeli Government or Israel in general. It is in this context that one must stress that the LGBT+ community in Israel is not a monolith, but that LGBT+ peoples’ rights and experiences depend heavily on location, ethnic background, religious affiliation and one’s family and social environment.
Supporting Israel's right to exist, but also showing solidarity and compassion for the Palestinians’ suffering, can and must be justified independent from an oversimplified international perception of Israel as an LGBT+ paradise. One can endorse and commend Israel's progress on LGBT+ rights compared to its Arab neighbors – and indeed some European countries - without making this the starting point for evaluating important issues of international law, conflict resolution and the behaviour of actors involved in the ongoing conflict. One can also acknowledge Israel’s forefront role without forgetting the hard work of activists on the ground, as well as the experiences and perspectives of underrepresented groups such as women, trans people, and Arabs in Israel and the occupied territories. Merely focusing on Tel Aviv Pride certainly does not do justice to the many facets of LGBT+ life in Israel.