Israeli gays: accepted and shunned

Orael is frightened of going to school in Israel's Upper Galilee, where he must endure a barrage of anti-gay slurs.

Classmates see him as effeminate, and taunt him repeatedly. Accustomed to being called "disgusting freak" and "faggot," he expects even worse from his upcoming compulsory army service.

In Israel's north, few homosexuals have come out of the closet. Orael — whose last name is being withheld to protect his safety — has fled the fervently religious town of Safed more than once because he feels so alone.

In fact, the 16-year-old had never met with a group of openly lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people until he told his story to 13 such visitors on a mission from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation last month.

Amazingly, despite the absence of a supportive, visible community nearby, the lonely teenager without so much as an e-mail account somehow developed a fierce sense of pride about his sexual identity. Even the "out" travelers from the so-called queer mecca couldn't have expressed their convictions so forcefully at such a young age:

"Being gay," Orael stated flatly, "is a gift."

Orael reached that epiphany completely on his own. But that's not the case for all queer and questioning youth in other regions of Israel — thanks to Agudah, the nation's primary LGBT rights association. Sa'ar Nathaniel, a board member of the Tel Aviv-based organization, shared the community's advances of the last decade with the Bay Area "Journey of Pride" visitors.

"There's little gay-bashing here," said Nathaniel, who recently opened Jerusalem's only gay and lesbian pub. "Verbal, yes, but it's not physical like in the States…It's more stuff like, 'Please don't hang that rainbow flag there.'"

And that's not the only differences between gay life in Israel versus that in the United States. For instance, sodomy laws were repealed years ago, discrimination was banned in the workplace, and immigrant same-sex partners of Israelis are eligible for visas even if they're not Jewish.

More significantly, the Israel Defense Force policy on gays in the military resembles what Clinton once envisioned for the United States — before he broke his campaign promise. And perhaps more surprisingly, the Orthodox in Israel are less concerned about homosexuality than one may think.

Because of a ban that was lifted in 1993 under the Rabin administration, when the angst-ridden Orael is drafted in two years, he will have the option of telling his fellow soldiers and commanding officers that he is homosexual — whether he is asked or not.

While not all LGBT Israelis feel it is safe to be open about their sexual orientation, the most recent generation of soldiers is much likelier to be out than the preceding one, and many report few or no repercussions. Nonetheless, the barracks are by definition not gay-friendly, and the policy does not guarantee freedom from humiliation and harassment.

Last week, for instance, the Jerusalem Post reported a flap that occurred when an Israeli general ordered an army journal not to publish an issue with a cover story focusing on a reserve colonel's homosexuality. Although the IDF's chief of staff denied the dispute was related to the colonel's sexual preference, and said the journal would maintain its normal publishing schedule, many in the LGBT community felt he was downplaying the general's apparent homophobia.

Shaul Ganon, another Agudah board member, said he is encouraged by the positive experiences of the newest crop of queer soldiers but he made it clear that the climate of intolerance that existed during his own military days — before the ban was lifted — is far from over.

"If someone had found out about me," Ganon deadpanned, "I'd have probably put a gun to my head, as two of my friends did."

The Orthodox establishment, on the other hand, is certain not to adopt any change in its stance toward gays and lesbians. The fervently religious political parties do not accept homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle.

However, anti-gay lobbying is neither on the top — nor a large part — of their agenda, as it is for most in the religious-right arm of the Republican Party in the United States.

"Right now, LGBT people are not direct targets of the ultra-Orthodox," said Shai Levy, one of the Agudah's active volunteers. "They're much more focused on things like getting immigrants to become religious."

With Orthodox legislators distracted by such concerns as the growing movement to allow buses to run on Saturdays, less attention is drawn to those quietly lobbying on behalf of gay rights. Last year, for example, the Agudah and others successfully pushed the Knesset to lower the legal age of consent for homosexual sex, which had been 18, to equal that of heterosexual intercourse, which is 16.

Israel's liberal Supreme Court — which Nathaniel calls "the Wailing Wall of the secular" –has also made a series of pro-gay rulings in the family law arena.

For instance, in a landmark decision last spring, the court agreed that former Bay Area resident Nicole Berner-Kadish is legally entitled to be registered with the state as the mother of 5-year-old Mattan, although her partner, Israeli-born Ruti Berner-Kadish, is the biological mother.

Nonetheless, Israel still lacks a written constitution that guarantees secular rights, enabling religious interpretations to permeate state institutions. That Jewish law is such a guiding force in the Israeli national conscience is particularly troublesome for those Orthodox who acknowledge their homosexual desires.

While the number of religious Jews who openly identify as lesbian or gay is indeed low, researchers generally accept that 10 percent of women and men in the general population have homosexual inclinations, a percentage that may be higher in Western industrialized countries, which include Israel.

In heavily populated Jerusalem, small chapters of "Orthodykes" or "Moah Givra," — something of a gay beit midrash — meet discreetly at anonymous locations arranged by the Jerusalem Open House, the city's queer community center.

But more likely Jerusalem's Orthodox feel being gay and frum are mutually exclusive, and thus face the difficult dilemma of choosing which life to abandon. Others take a different route: ending their lives altogether.

The high rate of gay and lesbian suicides in Israel prompted the Agudah and the Jerusalem Open House to set up 24-hour hotlines for people grappling with their sexual identity.

However, Orit Volovelsky pointed out that homosexual haredim are not just wrestling with HaShem (God). The clinical psychology intern explained that since so many queer people opt for secularity, "the Orthodox are treated as an outside group within the LGBT community."

But even as gay Israelis leap toward equality, Levy contends the overwhelming need for crisis intervention demonstrates that the country's queer community is "very young and not fully developed."

For that reason, members of the Agudah are somewhat envious of what they observed when they visited San Francisco last October.

Volovelsky said the small delegation she and Levy were a part of was excited to visit the Reform Congregation Sha'ar Zahav, known for its specific outreach to LGBT Jews.

"It felt good to be around everyone," she said. "Sometimes it's odd, or funny, to see the differences between being a Jew in Israel and the rest of the world."

Levy noted that the well-established pluralism in the United States allows for "religion to play a totally different role" than it does in Israel, where there are only about 10,000 Reform Jews and 7,000 Masorti (Conservative). Between these two non-Orthodox streams, there are less than 100 congregations, none of which is gay-specific.

"Synagogues [like Sha'ar Zahav] are more of a community center, something that unites," he said.

Volovelsky, who facilitates the Agudah's youth support groups, also joined Levy in railing against what she calls "our '80s thinking." Despite all the recent legislative gains, on a cultural level, she said, Israel's queer community lags far behind the Bay Area specifically and the United States in general.

"Here, I'm a lesbian, that's it. We're still trying to be the same; we're too scared to say there are differences. In San Francisco, there's butch-femme, there's Jewish, there's Christian, there's Republicans, there's Greenpeace gays.

"We do have Russians and Arabs but because it's a small community, it seems like there's just one community."

That immigrants and non-Jews feel increasingly welcome in Israeli gay organizations may be the key to breaking down the homogeneity Volovelsky complains about. (For the time being, some of those measures are on hold; with the new intifada, it is too dangerous for Palestinians and some Israeli Arabs to travel to certain cities.)

Acknowledging that prejudice against "the other" does occur in the LGBT community," Levy nonetheless believes the notion of shared queer identity often overcomes any tendency to splinter.

"We're much more communal than in Israeli society as a whole," he said, recognizing that Jewish sabras value the diversity Muslims and others bring to the queer community.

Levy also pointed out that while gay men in America are often perceived as a relatively affluent group, that is not the case among their Israeli counterparts. Without a steady source for major financial donations, organizations like the Agudah struggle to stay afloat, no matter how remarkable their achievements.

"The generation that is out and active is even worse off than the general community in terms of financial well-being. If they're 20- and 30-something, it's almost impossible" to contribute monetarily. The older generation is the wealthiest, Levy added, but is mostly closeted.

However, a gay, youthful sensibility does guarantee a thriving culture and nightlife, enough so that the visiting San Franciscans didn't feel homesick in the least.

"Florentin," Israeli television's attempt at cashing in on the Aaron Spelling formula, introduced gay characters to prime time four years ago. And young pop fans — not just the LGBT community — danced in the streets when transsexual performer Dana International put Israel on the cultural map after her "Diva " won the 1998 Eurovision Song Contest, the World Series of pop music.

And as far as the "scene" is concerned, Tel Aviv is unquestionably the hot spot. Increasingly, bars, cafes and dance clubs (called "parties") boast they are gay or gay-friendly. Even Nathaniel, a Jerusalem resident who promotes parties and opened a gay pub there, admitted, "Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is like Amsterdam to Tehran."

When the Agudah organized its first Gay Pride celebration in the coastal metropolis in 1993, a modest 300 participated. By last year, more than 10,000 Israelis hit the streets donning rainbow flags, drag, glitter and slogan T-shirts for the annual June occasion.

And because LGBT people from the Bay Area and Israel have participated in reciprocal missions, they have had much opportunity to provide insight and swap ideas about how to build community.

Lior Mencher, the Agudah's executive manager, noted that the San Francisco delegation's "older sibling status" helped us "to see things that are happening here in an entirely new perspective.

"They've already been through a lot of what we are going through now, and we gained so much from just sitting and talking to them."

One of the topics the Israelis and Americans discussed extensively was the Tel Aviv queer youth shelter.

Citing the large number of homeless LGBT teenagers, Michal Eden, the city's first openly lesbian council member, championed her municipality's project as a facility that "will not say no to any boy or girl in Israel who needs it."

Orael from the north is one of those youth Eden surely has in mind. Unfortunately, the shelter is only in the early planning stages so its completion will be too late to help young people like Orael.

According to a group e-mail sent by a gay man from Kiryat Shmona, shortly after the "Journey of Pride" group returned home, Orael had to flee Safed again because of troubles with his family. He was thought to be en route to Tel Aviv.

Based on the subsequent posts, there is no doubt LGBT activists in both the Bay Area and Israel are crossing their fingers that Orael can find his way to the Agudah's community center.