The New Normal
Yaakov and Sami
A Still Forbidden Love
In Tel Aviv’s Florentin neighborhood, a few blocks away from the nightlife district where abandoned warehouses have morphed into exclusive clubs, Yaakov and Sami [not their real names] share a fourth floor apartment with their two cats. Despite the fact that the two have been “roommates” for ten years, share a bank account and have met each other’s families on multiple occasions, neither is out to their families, at least not officially. In fact, David’s mother doesn’t even know that Sami is Palestinian. She thinks he’s Jewish.
Sami is from East Jerusalem: he has an Israeli ID card and lives in Tel Aviv legally (though it was a six-year process to officially change his residency from one city to the other). He says he grew up without any knowledge of homosexuality, since it was never discussed in Palestinian society. “Before I knew Hebrew, I didn’t know about homosexuality,” he says. “I had these feelings and thought I was the only one.”
Sami was lucky. His residency status allows him access to Tel Aviv, where he lives an openly gay life. He recognizes that life in the Territories for a gay man or woman can be lonely at best, dangerous at worst. But while he appreciates the freedom he has in Israel to express his sexuality, he remains connected to other Palestinians and like them, still faces discrimination. “If you live in Israel and have an Israeli boyfriend, they think you will be less Palestinian,” he says. “When gays and lesbians meet you and find out you’re Arab, they expect you to be grateful. They think you ran away [from the Territories] and that you should say bad things about Palestinians.”
Several organizations have emerged in recent years to provide support to LGBT Palestinians. Aswat in Haifa, launched in 2003, reaches out to Palestinian lesbians. Alqaws (“rainbow” in Arabic), works with LGBT Palestinians both in the Territories and in Israel. Alqaws started as a project of the Open House in 2001 and then became a separate organization in 2007, but its headquarters are still at the Open House offices in West Jerusalem.
Among its many services, Alqaws hosts a Palestinian gay party once a month in Tel Aviv, and helps gay West Bank Palestinians get a one-day permit to enter Israel to attend. The party runs from 5 pm until 11 pm, allowing those with permits to pass through the checkpoints before the day ends. The club then switches gears and prepares for the swarm of gay Israeli men who typically don’t start their partying until well after midnight. Some Arabs who live in Tel Aviv then don Star of David necklaces, like Sami did when he was younger, and continue partying with the Jews.
The Agudah, the Association of GLBT Israel has for decades been quietly assisting LGBT Palestinians seeking refugee status who can’t stay in the West Bank because of safety and can’t stay in Israel because of security. “They are our brothers,” says Agudah chairman Shai Deutsch. In the past 10 years, Agudah has worked with more than 800 LGBT Palestinians, though only about 20 of them have ultimately been granted refugee status.
At the government level, Nitzan Horowitz, Israel’s only openly gay Knesset member, says that there is currently no official assistance for LGBT Palestinians seeking asylum. When the Home Affairs Minister is a member of the conservative Shas party, permitting someone who is not Jewish and gay into Israel is like “letting the devil in,” he says with a laugh. But quietly and on a one-to-one basis, NGOs and some government officials try to help. In the courts, small surprising victories come through every once in a while—in 2008 Israel’s Interior Ministry granted a residency permit to a gay Palestinian to live in Tel Aviv with his partner of eight years when he claimed his life was in danger in the West Bank. But such examples are rare.
When asked how people react to their interfaith, bi-national, same-sex relationship, Sami and Yaakov characteristically disagree.
“I think they don’t care,” says Yaakov.
“They do care,” says Sami.
“You care,” counters Yaakov adding that the normal reaction to their partnership, at least in Tel Aviv, is “That’s so beautiful.” For Yaakov, there’s nothing extraordinary about it. “What’s so beautiful?” he asks. “I don’t know.”—Brian Schaefer
Tel Aviv: An International Gay Tourism Mecca
Non-stop parties, a welcoming vibe and long stretches of Mediterranean coast (with a gay-friendly beach right in the middle): it’s no wonder Tel Aviv has become a hub of gay tourism. The boom in gay and lesbian foreign tourists reflects efforts by the municipality and national government to court the pink dollar. One of Tel Aviv’s most successful campaigns is “Tel Aviv Gay Vibe,” which targets France, the United Kingdom, Germany and the USA. A project of the Agudah in collaboration with the Tel Aviv City Council, the three year-old initiative has experienced tremendous success. Approximately 5,000 gay tourists flooded Tel Aviv for Pride Weekend last June.
The mastermind behind the campaign is Tel Aviv City Council member Yaniv Waizman, who also oversees Tel Aviv’s general tourism efforts. “I told [the mayor] gay tourists spend lots of money and they will find Tel Aviv a great destination,” explains Waizman, himself a long-time activist in the LGBT community and co-founder of IGY, a national association for gay youth. “And he said okay, let’s try it.” All of a sudden, “there was great PR for gay tourism,” says Waizman of the campaign’s launch. He reports that in the second year of the project, the government decided to match the municipality’s NIS 200,000 (New Israeli Shekel), approx. $50,000, investment in the campaign. The hotel association followed, along with El Al and a number of travel agencies. “We suddenly understood the power of money, the pink economy and the pink checkbook,” Waizman says. “It was a very interesting revolution.”
The government has taken note of these accolades and has tapped into the excitement. It tweets about Pride parades, sends gay delegates on speaking tours abroad and invests significantly in gay tourism. The military has gotten in on the action as well. On its Facebook page a photo of two uniformed men holding hands during this year’s Pride festivities received much international attention (the photo later was found to have been staged).
The country’s leaders have also joined in: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the LGBT community recently at the UN, and Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren delivered the keynote address at this year’s Equality Forum’s Global LGBT Summit, where Israel was a featured country. Ambassador Oren called Israel’s LBGT community an integral part of the country’s diverse social landscape, and even foreign minister Avigdor Leiberman has lauded the gay community while abroad.
This has led to accusations of “pinkwashing” by opponents of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. The phrase came into mainstream use last November when Sarah Schulman, a gay activist and writer in New York, published an op-ed in The New York Times, arguing that the government had co-opted the successes of the Israeli gay rights community as a “deliberate strategy to conceal the continuing violations of Palestinians’ human rights.” She pointed to several LGBT Palestinian organizations as proof of improving gay rights in the Arab world, though two of the three mentioned are located in Haifa and West Jerusalem.
Schulman claimed that the Israeli government has spent $90 million on attracting gay tourism. Information provided to Moment directly from the campaign’s organizers reveals that the Tel Aviv Gay Vibe budget was NIS 340,000 in 2010 and grew to NIS 840,000 in 2011, the equivalent of about $250,000, a tiny fraction of what Schulman claimed.
The issue has divided the LGBT community in Israel. Some activists like Noa Sattah agree with Schulman. The former executive director of the Jerusalem Open House points to Netanyahu’s recent UN speech saying “he never says that in Israel. And [Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman only uses it internationally. It’s so disgusting.” Others activists, such as filmmaker Yair Quedar, believe that Israel should be able to boast of its success, “the same way that the United States can be proud of its gay rights and be ashamed of its treatment of poor people, Iraqis, Afghanis and so on.” As for Yaniv Weizman, he understands the criticism. “I let [the government] use gay rights because I believe it’s true,” he says. “Israel is one of the most liberal countries in the region and in the world.”—Brian Schaefer