Queer in the Land of Sodom
(glbt), February 21, 2002
By Lee Walzer
Although the idea of a vibrant queer community in Israel, reputed
birthplace of the biblical condemnation of same-sex relations, may seem
far-fetched, Israel today is one of the worldís most progressive countries
in terms of equality for sexual minorities. Politically, legally, and
culturally, the community has moved from life at the margins of Israeli
society to visibility and growing acceptance.
In the Beginning
There is no magic mythical beginning to Israelís lgbt community, like the
1969 Stonewall riots that spurred American queers into action. Instead,
changes in the values and politics of Israeli society over the past twenty
years or so created the space in which a gay and lesbian community could
The first gay organization was established in 1975, thanks largely to the
work of immigrants from the United States and other English-speaking countries
influenced by the development of gay liberation and the counterculture of the
The very name of this first organization, the Society for the Protection of
Personal Rights (then, as today, known as the Agudah, in Hebrew), reflected
the difficulty of organizing sexual minorities at a time when the existence of
a sodomy law was thought by many to make homosexuality itself illegal. In its
early years, the Agudah functioned more as a support and social group rather
than as a political organization.
Lesbians began organizing within the Israeli womenís movement, which
provided some space for the discussion of lesbian issues and radical feminism.
But for many years, Israeli lesbians funneled most of their energies into
feminism, rather than the struggle for gay and lesbian equality.
The development of a gay identity was difficult for many at a time when
Israeli society was still in the midst of its Zionist revolution. Zionism, the
national liberation movement of the Jewish people, sought to create a
"New Jew" as part of the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty. The New Jew
would work the land or engage in blue collar jobs, rather than in the
"bourgeois" professions taken up by Jews in the Diaspora (the early
Zionists were resolute socialists).
The security problems facing the Jewish state also precluded for many years
discussion of a variety of social issues and problems. Pleading more pressing
issues, the public agenda did not include the place of Mizrachim (Jews who
immigrated to Israel from the Arab countries) in a society dominated by
European-born Jews, womenís liberation, equality for Palestinian citizens of
Israel, or gay rights. Moreover, the collective values preached by the early
founders of the Jewish state likewise left little room for exploration of
By the early 1980ís, the values of Israeli society began to evolve, and
with them, the scope of public discourse. The socialist certainties of Israelís
founders gave way to a consumer society. The certainties of Zionism gave way
to a multitude of political and cultural identities: ultra-orthodox Judaism,
growing assertion of a Palestinian identity among Israelís Arab citizens,
nationalism, and yearnings for a more Western, liberal society competed for
the allegiance of Israelis.
Yet, gay identity and politics still did not go public. The close-knit
nature of Israeli society made coming out exceedingly difficult, as did
Israeli societyís emphasis on family and reproduction. So it fell on non-gay
supporters of gay rights to move things forward.
By the late 1980ís, these efforts began to pay off, laying a road map for
future gay political success. As part of a broader reform of Israelís penal
code, liberal Knesset members decided to try to repeal the sodomy law. In
1988, they literally called a vote to repeal the sodomy law in the middle of
the night, when it was prearranged that religious Knesset members would not be
present, promising not to draw too much attention to the effort. The next day,
following repeal, religious politicians screamed to the heavens on the radio
and in the press, but it was largely for show. This pattern of doing things
quietly, even under the table, would repeat itself.
The next few years marked the golden age of gay political success in
Israel. By 1992, lesbian and gay activists had succeeded in getting the
Knesset to amend Israelís Equal Workplace Opportunities Law to outlaw
discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
In 1993, the Israeli military rescinded its few regulations discriminating
against gays and lesbians. And in 1994, the Israeli Supreme Court ordered El
Al Israel Airlines to grant a free plane ticket to the partner of a gay flight
attendant, as the airline had long done for heterosexual partners of
Since then, there has been steady progress, especially in the courts. As
the victories mounted, so, too, did the number of people prepared to be open
about their sexual orientation.
The reasons for gay and lesbian political success during this period from
1988 through the mid-1990s were many. Chief among them was the fact that gay
activists pursued a very mainstream strategy, seeking to convince the wider
public that gay Israelis were good patriotic citizens who just happened to be
attracted to the same sex.
This strategy, pursued until recently, reinforced the perception that gay
rights was a non-partisan issue, unconnected to the major fissure in Israeli
politics, the Arab-Israeli conflict and how to resolve it. Embracing gay
rights enabled Israelis to pat themselves on the back for being open-minded,
even as Israeli society wrestled less successfully with other social
Another reason for success was that the only source of real opposition to
gay rights in Israel stems from the countryís religious parties. This may
seem contradictory, but it is not. While religious parties have played a role
in every Israeli government since the establishment of the state in 1948, in
recent years, as their power has grown, so has the resentment of secular
Israelis. Thus, the opposition of religious parties to gay rights has
engendered the opposite reaction among non-religious Israelis.
The Revolution Begins
The mainstream path started to grate on some gay and lesbian Israelis in
the late 1990s. The fuse of disaffection was finally lit at what became known
as "the Wigstock Riots." Wigstock is an annual drag festival in Tel
Aviv that raises money for AIDS services in Israel. In 1998, a boisterous
demonstration broke out when the police attempted to shut down the event as
the Jewish Sabbath was beginning. Protesters spilled onto the adjacent
Hayarkon Street and blocked traffic for a few hours. Lesbian and gay activists
denounced what they saw as police coercion. Sounds like the Stonewall riots,
Well, not quite. The police came only because of a bureaucratic mix-up.
Organizers had gotten a permit from City Hall allowing the event to continue
until 8 pm, but the police permit ran only until 7 pm. While queer media
immediately labeled the event "the Israeli Stonewall," it was
perhaps the only Stonewall to result from confusion over a festival permit.
1998 was a banner year for a more in-your-face agenda. A few weeks before
Wigstock, Dana International, a popular transgender singer, brought home first
place for Israel in the Eurovision Song Contest. Danaís victory enabled the
Israeli gay and lesbian movement to add the "t-word" to its name.
Previously, the Israeli gay movement had shunned transgendered people, fearing
what their inclusion would do to its public image, but with Dana receiving
congratulatory telegrams from the Prime Minister and being made an honorary
ambassador by the Knesset, it was now "safe" for the movement to
expand its focus.
In November of that year, Michal Eden won a seat in the Tel Aviv City
Council, becoming Israelís first openly lesbian elected official. Her
victory was made possible by the growth of "sectoral" parties in
Israeli politics, be they religious, Palestinian, or economic. In such a
political environment, gays and lesbians could have their own elected
political voice as well, although such representation does not yet exist at
the national level. That year constituted a watershed in how the community
viewed itself, and how its politics would develop.
But the radical critique has not been all-encompassing. The Israeli LGBT
movement has not embraced feminism (in fact, sexism and tensions between gay
men and lesbians are both quite prevalent), and until recently, the place of
gay Arabs in the community was neglected, reflecting the wider societyís
indifference to Israelís Arab minority (some 20 percent of Israelís
Hagai Eladís article, "Gay Israel: No Pride In Occupation" [http://www.thegully.com/essays/israel/020220_gays_meet_sharon.html]
thus comes at a rather grim time for Israel, and possibly, at a turning point
for queer politics. Against the backdrop of clashes between Israel and the
Palestinian Authority, the 2001 Tel Avivís Pride Parade, typically a
celebratory, hedonistic affair, got a dose of politics when a contingent
called "Gays in Black" marched with a banner proclaiming,
"Thereís No Pride In Occupation."
In recent months, a group called "Kvisa Shíchora" (Dirty
Laundry) has sprung up, linking the oppression of sexual minorities to what it
sees as the Israeli oppression of the Palestinians. It remains to be seen
whether Israeli gays and lesbians can point the way toward a better
relationship both with Israelís Arab minority and the neighboring Arab
- Lee Walzer is the author of "Between Sodom and Eden: A Gay Journey
Through Todayís Changing Israel" (Columbia University Press, 2000)
and "Gay Rights on Trial" (ABC-CLIO, 2002), available at
Amazon.com. You can email him at email@example.com.
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