Gay Oy Vey! cleans out Israels closets

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The folks over at Harvey Milk Institute –offering queer-themed courses, events and workshops since 1995 — must sift through nearly double the number of course proposals than they can actually program.

Yet Avner Even-Zohar's ostensibly obscure "Gay? Oy Vey! Queerness in Israeli Film and Culture" popped out at them and made the cut. The course begins Monday evening and will meet weekly through March 26 at the Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy in San Francisco's Castro District.

"There's so much overlap between Jewish and queer identity — how the closet operates, invisibility, visibility — and then you add Israel to that, one of the most interesting and volatile regions on the planet," said Kevin Schaub, HMI's dean and executive director. "The culture that has been established there hasn't been examined by most Americans."

Even-Zohar's course seemed an ideal way "to step out of our protected world, because queer culture isn't just in San Francisco."

Besides, the New Jersey native who was raised Presbyterian wryly added, "We're all just Yid queens."

Even-Zohar — who does not describe himself as such — is a 32-year-old from Herzliya, Israel who's been living in the United States for six years. The Richmond resident serves as director of campus division for the Israel Center of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

His own interest in Israel's portrayals of gays and lesbians stems from his master's thesis in Middle Eastern and Hebrew studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He explored the contrasting culture of two generations: 1948 and the establishment of the Jewish state, and 1973 and the Yom Kippur War.

Much of his work centered around the formation of the sabra identity, paying particular attention to the role that Zionism, the Holocaust, religion and the military played in personal and societal development.

During the onset of the Jewish state, Even-Zohar argues, Israelis "didn't want to talk about sexuality at all." As a collective society, kibbutzim ideology made its impact, meaning there was "no place for individuality."

"[David] Ben-Gurion said the Israel Defense Force will become the melting pot, become the sabra prototype. Everybody will be the same. They really didn't appreciate diversity: Heterosexuality was the only acceptable way; homosexuality was not an option."

Furthermore, according to Even-Zohar, this "romance" between the new state and its pioneers was decidedly straight.

"There's always a love story between the man and the land. Soil, land — [the Hebrew words] are all feminine. New pioneers are men, while the wife is supposed to stand aside and appreciate," he said.

Within an equation that leaves little room for homosexuality or non-traditional gender roles, Even-Zohar believes a hyper-masculinity flourished as the ideal sabra. The fruit itself has a tough, thick outer skin that takes some difficulty to peel away, yielding to a sweeter, soft center — a metaphor for a stereotypical Israeli man.

To demonstrate, Even-Zohar intends to show two films in the class, so students can analyze the evolving cultural context from statehood to the present-day climate for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people in Israel.

The first, "Hill 24 Does Not Answer," a government-supported 1955 film, was "almost a propaganda movie," he said. Its intent was to masculinize the national identity of the sabra and abandon the European Holocaust survivor identity. "The lack of gay characters is what is so interesting. It tells the story of four characters, building a road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It's three guys and a girl, but they just concentrate on the guys."

The other film, "Hide and Seek" (1981), also depicts Jerusalem in the 1940s, but the filmmaker, Volman Dan, became the first Israeli director to depict a gay character positively. The story focuses on a gay man, a teacher, who has a relationship with a Palestinian. "He couldn't be out about it, and at the end, he almost pays for it with his life."

To Even-Zohar, this honest portrayal of a gay man's difficult reality in Israel, coupled with another Israeli reality — that of denial and repression of homosexuality — will help both Jewish and non-Jewish, queer and straight students understand what it's like to be gay in the Holy Land.

And what does the instructor think about the queer landscape in Israel today?

"The gay community is maturing, it's becoming better and better. But in some ways, it doesn't matter. It's not good for gays when there's no place for feminism, gay rights and human rights — because everyone is obsessed with national security and the peace process," he said.

"I don't predict hard times for the gay community in Israel, but it is definitely less comfortable when you know some major [Knesset] ministers do not approve of homosexuals, like the Shas. Some ministers are nasty and homophobic, but they participate in the coalition with the left."

Even-Zohar is still optimistic, however. He points to the election of openly lesbian Tel Aviv City Council member Michal Eden and the Supreme Court decision won by two lesbian parents — former Bay Area couple Nicole Berner and Ruti Kadish — legally recognizing the rights of the nonbiological mother of one of their two sons. Furthermore, Agudah, Israel's primary queer rights group, is continually making strides, notably a successful lobby to lower the age of sexual consent laws to equal that of heterosexuals.

"It's not so much left or right, there's progress nonetheless," Even-Zohar says with a hint of hope.