While Tel Aviv may be out and proud, Jerusalem, just 45 minutes away—at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and on the frontline of the religious-secular divide—feels like a completely different country. The stabbings of gay marchers by an ultra-Orthodox protestor during the city’s 2005 Pride parade still reverberates throughout the gay community, says Noa Sattath, 34, a former director of the Jerusalem Open House, the primary resource center for the city’s LGBT community.
“Pride in Jerusalem is and has been a protest. It’s not a celebration, like in Tel Aviv,” says Sattath, a native Jerusalemite who is now a rabbinical student. She recalls that Jerusalem Pride in 2006 was the most secured event in the city’s history, with 11,000 police for 6,000 marchers. Since then Jerusalem Pride has become smaller. “The leadership of the Open House made a decision to make it less controversial and make it a quieter event,” she says. “They reached an agreement with the head of the Haredi community not to be in the city center or by Haredi neighborhoods so it would be easier for the Haredi community to digest.”
The 2012 Pride parade, its 10th anniversary in Jerusalem, drew only about 1,500 participants who walked through the more secular part of town. As the city’s population becomes increasingly observant, the future of LGBT visibility is not necessarily on an upward trajectory. “Jerusalem is a territory to be conquered,” says former MK Uzi Even. “It will take some time.”
Israel’s ultra-Orthodox are often aggressively anti-LGBT and formidable opponents to gay rights, although more moderate religious communities have taken steps to become more accepting. Organizations such as Havruta for gay religious men and Bat Kol for gay religious women have been instrumental in demonstrating how to be both ritually observant and honest about one’s sexual orientation. Membership in the two organizations, which collaborate but remain separate to respect the practices of their religious members, has grown significantly in the past few years. Havruta now has more than 500 people on its mailing list, and hundreds attend monthly events.
One of the leaders of Havruta, Daniel Jonas, now 30, came out in a very public way a few years ago when he wrote an op-ed on Ynet, the website of one of Israel’s largest and most widely read papers, Yediot Achronot, urging gays and lesbians from religious communities to come out of the closet. “If it’s one guy here or a girl there, the community can ignore it,” says the Hebrew University student. “But if there is a mass of people who come out, people would realize that there is a community here.”
He urges respected religious authorities to take a stand. “In a way, the rabbis are in the closet,” says Jonas, noting that he has received support from many when he speaks with them privately but that most won’t make public statements on the issue. “They don’t dare be the first one.”
Sexual relations between men are explicitly condemned in Leviticus, but relations between women are not as clearly addressed in the Torah and therefore don’t attract the same degree of religious wrath. Bat Kol was created in 2005 by ten religious women who, after a few secret meetings, decided to start an organization to “provide a viable path for Orthodox lesbians to celebrate both their sexual orientation and their religious beliefs without having to sacrifice either identity,” according to one of the co-founders, Sarah Weil. The organization now counts more than 300 members and hosts meetings, events and activities for women all over the country.
Lesbians still lag behind gay men in representation and visibility in Israel’s LGBT community, says activist Anat Nir, founder of the production company LezBizNess, which organizes parties, festivals and other lesbian events. “In the gay community, inequality stays the same,” she says sitting cross-legged on her couch in the Tel Aviv apartment she shares with her partner, a café owner. “Men are the decision makers, men lead the community, men are close to the money, men’s issues are on top.” These problems are not unique to Israel—the imbalance is found in LGBT communities around the world, she adds, “Women still aren’t getting equal rights anywhere.” She says the situation has improved recently, with the appointment of two additional women to the Agudah board.
Lesbians are far more represented than transgenders, the last letter in the LGBT alphabet, who struggle for visibility and recognition not just within mainstream society, but even among their gay and lesbian peers. Transgender activist Nora Grinberg says that the LGBT community needs to understand that it “involves not just wealthy Ashkenazi gay men but also women, poor gay men, Palestinians and of course transgender and gender queer.”
She admits that compared to a lot of places, Israel is not a bad place to be transgender. Sexual reassignment surgery is heavily subsidized by the government, although the transgender community is critical of the criteria under which it can be performed. Israel is also one of the few countries in the world that allows transgender people to serve in the military in their preferred gender. Grinberg considers openly gay MK Horowitz to be a supportive ally in the government. Nevertheless, she says, “we’re still fighting for a place under the sun.”
Despite the progress, deeply engrained prejudice against gays remains. On August 1, 2009, a gunman walked into a support meeting of LGBT teenagers at Bar Noar at the Tel Aviv headquarters of the Agudah and opened fire, killing 16-year-old Liz Troubishi and Nir Katz, a 26-year-old youth counselor, and wounding 15 others. The killer has still not been caught.
Immediately following the shooting, LGBT groups held a rally at Rabin Square that drew approximately 25,000 people, including government officials such as President Shimon Peres. The attack made “the gay issue not just a Tel Aviv issue, but an Israeli issue,” says Tel Aviv City Council member Yaniv Waizman. “Suddenly everyone understood that there are gay teenagers all over the country. It opened minds. It opened hearts.”
The shootings also led the disparate factions of the L, G, B and T community to come together and face the reality that there is more to be done. On the third anniversary of the shooting, the Nir Katz Center opened in Tel Aviv to fight abuse against the LGBT community. But on another level, there is concern that for many young Tel Avivis, being gay is not a political identity. “Since the progress was so quick, there was no need for demonstrations and protest and struggle,” says Uzi Even. “We worked within the system because the system accepted us.” Yet as the government continues to shift to the right and religious parties gain more power, there is no guarantee that the system will continue to be so friendly. If the LGBT community were to come together, it would be a powerful voice in Israel, says Sattath, the former director of the Jerusalem Open House. “The Jewish middle-class gay and lesbian community is a minority, but it’s a strong minority compared to others in Israel,” she says. “The community doesn’t always choose to [look beyond itself] but it has huge potential.”
Meanwhile, Uchovsky marvels at how quickly his “Moshe” dream came true, on both a national and personal level. “I wrote about this guy and his partner, and I ended up living that life with my spouse,” he says. And despite the occasional reminder that not all of Israel embraces them, life goes on. “The thing about the gay community is that it’s a long journey,” Uchovsky says. “It’s a process, but it never really backfires because the moment you start living it, there’s no way back. The fights just make you stronger.”
Brian Schaefer is a Tel Aviv-based writer. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Haaretz, and The Jerusalem Post.