Gay Tel Aviv a golden ghetto few safety, oppression worries

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TEL AVIV — In America, Robert Lebow was enemy number one of the far right. In Israel, he is not.

"Folks here face different threats," says Lebow, an openly gay resident of Tel Aviv. Israelis live with the specter of "bombs on buses and buildings blowing up."

"Everyone here knows someone who has been injured or maimed. You think they're going to worry about two men kissing?"

When Lebow moved to Tel Aviv six months ago, it was for personal rather than political reasons. Nonetheless, when he arrived he couldn't help but notice Tel Aviv's sexually progressive atmosphere, especially when compared to that of the United States — specifically Detroit, where he lived for more than 40 years.

On a warm Tuesday evening, Lebow keeps company with fashionable gay men sipping lemonade and espresso at Cafe Nord on Tel Aviv's Ben Yehudah Street. The cafe's patrons — dressed in tight T-shirts, denim shorts and work boots — bear a striking similarity to many gay men in San Francisco's Castro District.

However, Tel Aviv's gays maintain a comparatively quiet presence. This isn't for fear of discrimination or oppression, although the Middle East is undeniably macho, but rather because there is nothing to fear.

"There are few gay activists here. We don't need them," Lebow said. For Tel Aviv residents, being gay "just is. I think that's why people aren't aggressively `out' like I was in Detroit."

Compared to the United States, Israel's laws regarding gays are progressive.

In 1988 the Israeli Supreme Court decriminalized sodomy. In 1992 it passed an equal opportunity law forbidding discrimination against workers based on sexual orientation.

A gay El Al Airlines steward emerged victorious from the same court in 1993 after a decision that rendered gay partners eligible for employee benefits: Such benefits were previously reserved for spouses only.

The Society for the Protection of Personal Rights for Gay Men, Lesbians and Bisexuals in Israel spearheaded these battles. The organization, established in 1975, hosts support groups, political forums and a prayer group called Congregation Ga'avat Israel. It maintains chapters in Tel Aviv and Israel and is supported by the New Israel Fund.

Meanwhile, gays and lesbians in Israel continue to serve their three-year mandatory military service alongside their heterosexual compatriots. Sexual orientation is not a valid excuse for dodging army service.

In addition, the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality acknowledges gay and lesbian domestic partnership agreements drawn up by local lawyers. This legal document affords couples the benefits of a religious marriage under laws of the Jewish state.

All told, Tel Aviv's gay scene appears remarkably closeted by San Francisco standards. Absent are Western-style flamboyance and the radical activities of groups like Queer Nation. Still, "that does not mean a healthy gay society is nonexistent," Lebow says.

He points to newsstands displaying an Israeli magazine simply titled GAY, and he notes that thousands of gays and lesbians from around the world converge here each year for an annual gay film festival.

"You can see gay couples being affectionate and openly gay on beaches, on the streets, in coffee houses. Not everyone — some," Lebow says.

They're at Cafe Nord and at Abbis — a smoky pub pulsing with 1970s music and American films. They're at the Playroom — a loud, high-priced disco catering to the under-20 crowd — and a number of other locations.

In the evenings, men also gather at Gan Ha Atzmaut, Independence Park, meeting beneath its trees. While heterosexuals who live nearby say they are aware of the park's nighttime scene, they deny that Israel has many gays. Nevertheless, men congregate nightly in the park — adjacent to the line of high-rise hotels along the Mediterranean coast.

And unlike American parks, Gan Ha Atzmaut is safe after dark. A man dressed in linen trousers and eelskin loafers and wearing expensive jewelry laughs when asked if he is afraid here at night.

"Of what? Getting robbed? This is not Central Park. This is our park," he says. "This is a gay park. We take care of our own."

Like Lebow and others, this man does not fear that Israel's attitude toward gays will change under the leadership of Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Orthodox Knesset members.

The right wing "is a little scary. But nothing here really frightens me too much," Lebow says.

"I don't think there's enough of a religious stronghold to change things in a pejorative manner. People are worried about education, housing, immigrants, territories. Not us."

Besides, Lebow adds, "the religious party has always been vital to Israeli politics. It's always been a presence and a force."

Even so, Lebow admits that Tel Aviv is the only place where gays in Israel can have an active social life, as the city is both Western and liberal.

"This is the golden ghetto," Lebow says. "Haute couture — Karan, Kristoff. Cafes on sidewalks," he says. Tel Aviv vibrates "30 hours a day, 10 days a week."