Last edited: April 29, 2004

The Gay Israelis

Washington Post, July 26, 2000
1150 15th Street NW, Washington, DC, 20071

By Wayne Hoffman
Managing editor of the New York Blade.

Between Sodom and Eden
A Gay Journey Through Today’s Changing Israel
By Lee Walzer
Columbia University Press. 302 pp. $49.50; paperback, $17.50

Independence Park
The Lives of Gay Men in Israel
By Amir Sumaka’i Fink and Jacob Press
Stanford University Press. 373 pp. $55; paperback, $19.95

When transsexual Israeli singer Dana International won the 1998 Eurovision song contest—pop music’s World Cup—she was condemned in the Knesset by Deputy Health Minister Shlomo Benizri as "an abomination . . . worse than Sodom and Gomorrah."

This conservative legislator’s statement wasn’t shocking in itself. The surprise was that Benizri stood largely alone. Throngs filled Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square after the victory, waving gay rainbow flags alongside Israeli flags. Polls found those who were "proud" of International outnumbered her detractors 3 to 1. International represented a new Israel, whose secular values and sexual mores she summed up succinctly: "We should be seen as a liberal, free country."

Such a vision is recent in Israel, but it has taken root quickly. The status of gay Israelis, in particular, is changing with remarkable speed. As Lee Walzer explains in "Between Sodom and Eden," "In a period of ten years, lesbian and gay Israelis have attained rights that remain distant dreams for their counterparts in some Western countries."

Israel’s sodomy laws were repealed in 1988, and since then the government has banned workplace discrimination, recognized extensive legal rights for same-sex couples, instituted progressive sex education curricula and fully integrated gays into the military. A lesbian now sits on Tel Aviv’s City Council—the country’s first openly gay elected official.

Cultural changes have been equally dramatic. Three years ago, "Florentin"—Israel Television’s answer to "Melrose Place"—brought gay characters to prime time. Last year, a multicultural gay community center opened in Jerusalem. Long home to most of Israel’s gay bars and cafes, Tel Aviv now hosts an annual Pride parade.

After interviewing more than 100 people—from activists to rabbis to legislators across the political spectrum—about this societal sea change, Walzer has crafted the definitive resource on gay Israel, and an essential glimpse into the country’s broader social wars. Growing acceptance of gays is part of a movement more concerned with democratic integration and individual rights than with nationalistic separatism and collective responsibilities, he writes. As this consensus gains power, legal discrimination and cultural heterosexism wither.

Declaring Israel’s gay movement "largely a success story," Walzer—a Washington-based lawyer and activist—finds good news in unexpected places. Orthodox rabbis explain why homosexuals vex them less than Sabbath-breakers. A drag queen describes what a supportive environment the military can be. High school students report a gay-positive atmosphere fostered by educators and parents alike.

While presenting ample cause for celebration, Walzer justly criticizes the largely individualistic, assimilationist Israeli movement for its lack of attention to AIDS, feminism and sexual liberation. And the most significant problem, pernicious discrimination against the Israeli Arab minority, has left a rift in the gay community. While gay Arabs "may want to fit into Israel’s gay community by downplaying their Arab identities . . . the feeling is not necessarily reciprocated by gay Israeli Jews," Walzer writes.

Blending journalistic techniques with sociological methodology, "Between Sodom and Eden" is a rigorous investigation of Israel’s gay scene, both politically and culturally. Perhaps the only element lacking is a sense of how individuals integrate this changing political situation into their personal lives.

Filling this gap is "Independence Park," comprising a dozen interviews with Israeli gay men from diverse backgrounds. After brief introductions, authors Amir Sumaka’i Fink and Jacob Press—an Israeli and an American, respectively—let their subjects speak for themselves, each telling of his childhood, sexual awakening, coming out and current situation.

These stories are revealing and often moving. A closeted Jerusalemite explains his shame at being unable to reconcile his sexual desires with his religious obligations to his wife of 23 years, while a divorced newspaper columnist in Haifa describes his transformation into one of Israel’s most visible radical activists. A young kibbutznik tells how a sensitive military commander saved him from suicide, while an elderly community organizer in Tel Aviv recounts fleeing Hitler’s Germany to help build both a new movement and a new country in Israel.

Fink and Press’s technique has shortcomings. While the stories’ common elements are intriguing—dating women, networking through personal ads, cruising the urban parks that lend the book its title—these recurring motifs become repetitive.

And although the book was published a few months ago, the interviews date from 1993; the seismic shifts in Israel’s political terrain were only beginning then, so it already seems like ancient history.

Still, reading the books together, it becomes evident how quickly Israel’s culture wars are progressing. Walzer is "cautiously optimistic" but acknowledges that the struggle is not over. Israel’s Eurovision entry this year was titled "Sameach"—meaning "happy"—by a band called Ping Pong. The video shows Ping Pong’s two male members kissing, followed by their two female band mates doing the same.

Two years after Dana International stirred up the Knesset, Deputy Education Minister Shaul Yahalom denounced Israel’s latest Eurovision submission for promoting "sexual perversions." "An Israeli entry to a contest," he said, "must present our national values."

Despite all the progress gays have made in recent years, who will ultimately determine Israel’s national values is still an open question.

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