By Wayne Hoffman
Managing editor of the New York Blade.
Between Sodom and Eden
A Gay Journey Through Todays Changing Israel
By Lee Walzer
Columbia University Press. 302 pp. $49.50; paperback, $17.50
The Lives of Gay Men in Israel
By Amir Sumakai Fink and Jacob Press
Stanford University Press. 373 pp. $55; paperback, $19.95
When transsexual Israeli singer Dana International won the 1998 Eurovision song
contestpop musics World Cupshe was condemned in the Knesset by Deputy
Health Minister Shlomo Benizri as "an abomination . . . worse than Sodom and
This conservative legislators statement wasnt shocking in itself. The
surprise was that Benizri stood largely alone. Throngs filled Tel Avivs 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
Israels sodomy laws were repealed in 1988, and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 Avivs City
Councilthe countrys first openly gay elected official.
Cultural changes have been equally dramatic. Three years ago,
"Florentin"Israel Televisions 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 Israels gay bars and
cafes, Tel Aviv now hosts an annual Pride parade.
After interviewing more than 100 peoplefrom activists to rabbis to legislators
across the political spectrumabout this societal sea change, Walzer has crafted the
definitive resource on gay Israel, and an essential glimpse into the countrys
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 Israels gay movement "largely a success story," Walzera
Washington-based lawyer and activistfinds 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 Israels 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 Israels 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
Sumakai Fink and Jacob Pressan Israeli and an American, respectivelylet
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 Israels 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 Hitlers Germany to help
build both a new movement and a new country in Israel.
Fink and Presss technique has shortcomings. While the stories common
elements are intriguingdating women, networking through personal ads, cruising the
urban parks that lend the book its titlethese recurring motifs become repetitive.
And although the book was published a few months ago, the interviews date from 1993;
the seismic shifts in Israels political terrain were only beginning then, so it
already seems like ancient history.
Still, reading the books together, it becomes evident how quickly Israels culture
wars are progressing. Walzer is "cautiously optimistic" but acknowledges that
the struggle is not over. Israels Eurovision entry this year was titled
"Sameach"meaning "happy"by a band called Ping Pong. The
video shows Ping Pongs 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 Israels 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
Israels national values is still an open question.