TEL AVIV — Under the relentless Mediterranean sun, a collection of rainbow flags thrash in the ocean breeze along a strip of oceanfront in Tel Aviv known as Hilton Beach. In fact, the rainbow flags hang on pillars of the beachfront bar, are pinned between the beach’s public restrooms and wave persistently and proudly on the wall dividing sand and the boardwalk.
Hilton Beach, according to Trip Advisor and just about any in-the-know Tel Avivian, is the gay mecca – the unrivaled, most popular destination during Tel Aviv Gay Pride week – in an already open and increasingly gay-friendly city. The array of rainbow flags is likely the most fabric one will see there; Haaretz wrote in February 2014 that Hilton Beach attracts the “fittest, hottest guys in the tightest bathing suits,” a relatively tame description in light of the beach’s unabashed liberalness.
Sixty-three kilometers away, in Israel’s capital of Jerusalem, the rainbow flags are much harder to spot. At the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, the city’s largest LGBT community center, the small rainbow flag that hangs in the window is easy to miss. It functions merely as an identifier, not as a rebuke of Jerusalem’s more traditional and religious environment.
The rainbow flags vividly illustrate the two starkly different cultures that have taken shape in Israel’s largest cities. While Israel’s LGBT policies are among the most tolerant in the Middle East, Jerusalem has exhibited slower progress than Tel Aviv in its overall friendliness towards, and acceptance of, gay Israelis. For many LGBT residents and activists in Jerusalem, the city – and public sentiment within the city – still has large strides to make before gays and lesbians achieve full equality.
In the past five years, the Ministry of Tourism in Israel has actively plugged the nation as a popular destination for gay Jews and non-Jews alike. The efforts have been remarkably successful in Tel Aviv – over 100,000 people, tourists included, participated in last year’s gay pride festivities, according to city data. But the tourism ministry’s promotion seemingly bypassed Jerusalem.
The demographic disparities between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, in large part, explain the contrasting receptions to LGBT culture. According to 2013 research from the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, a policy think tank in Jerusalem, 30 percent of Jerusalem’s Jewish population consists of ultra-Orthodox Jews, or Haredim. Conversely, only 2 percent of Tel Aviv’s Jewish population identifies as ultra-Orthodox, while 61 percent classify themselves as secular.
“In Israel, to be Jewish is to be Orthodox,” said Elinor Sidi, executive director of the Jerusalem Open House, or JOH. “When I came out of the closet 12 years ago, I was taught to believe that if I wanted to live as a complete person, I had to leave religion – there was no place for me in shul.”
Sidi is among the leaders of Jerusalem’s small, but growing LGBT community. She oversees a staff of four at JOH and a dedicated army of volunteers, running initiatives from a free HIV clinic to a bullying support group. A large component of her work at JOH rests in challenging and correcting traditional perceptions of the gay community. The biggest undertaking on Sidi’s plate, however, is the funding and planning of Jerusalem Gay Pride. The raucous gay pride parade in Tel Aviv is a municipal event, Sidi said. In Jerusalem, the event is entirely organized by JOH.
“Tel Aviv Pride is more of a celebration of the rights that we have, a celebration of what we have achieved,” Sidi said. “Jerusalem is smaller – 5,000 people – and it’s a protest and demonstration for the rights that we don’t have yet.”
The solemnity and political nature of gay pride in Jerusalem is appropriate, given the surroundings, Sidi said. According to a 2013 Haaretz poll, only eight percent of ultra-Orthodox Jews believe gays should be afforded equal rights, including the right to marry. Sidi leads demonstrators in a march to the Knesset, Israel’s house of parliament, and uses gay pride each year as an opportunity to “say something.”
Sidi and her colleagues believe that the tide in Jerusalem is beginning to shift, and that members of the Orthodox community are beginning to find that “gay” and “religious” are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Sidi cites handfuls of members of JOH’s support groups, who feared being marginalized upon coming out, but were instead met with tacit recognition by their religious leaders.
Today, an evolving Israeli society confronts a confluence of progressive movements – beyond LGBT rights, including gender equality and religious freedom. Some scholars believe that vocal, and seemingly omnipresent, demands for social justice in Israel, such as installation of a pluralist prayer area at the Western Wall or inclusion of Reform and Conservative rabbis within Israel’s chief rabbinate, will only benefit the LGBT cause.
“Gay Israelis have forced the local variance of Orthodoxy to at least acknowledge that LGBTs exist,” said Lee Walzer, an American attorney and author of “Between Sodom and Eden: A Gay Journey Through Today’s Changing Israel.” “What they’re struggling with, though, is how to acknowledge it.”
The politicization of Judaism in Israel further complicates the issue of legalizing gay marriage, according to Walzer. Under Israeli law, Orthodoxy maintains a “religious monopoly over marriage and divorce,” and civil marriages are illegal. Walzer is skeptical of significant progress for Israel’s gay rights movement without overhauling the state’s religious establishment.
“I would not say never,” Walzer said. “But it’s not going to happen any time soon.”
The current climate for gay life in Israel, religious gay life included, has shifted considerably since the initial publication of Walzer’s book, in 2000. At that time, gay rights were seldom discussed in the United States. LGBT matters were, however, a part of Israel’s public discourse, albeit in concentrated pockets of the country – like Tel Aviv.
“The stereotype was that Tel Aviv is just this hedonistic, Mediterranean city that parties non-stop, and in Jerusalem, they learn Torah all day long,” Walzer said. “Jerusalem today is very schizophrenic – there are secular areas and gay communities – but it doesn’t reflect Israeli trends, and to me, it doesn’t feel part of the Israeli experience.”
Even so, manifold outlets for gay, religious Israelis have emerged in Jerusalem within the past decade. The Jerusalem Open House, in fact, helped spawn and cultivate gay religious support groups that ultimately developed into non-governmental organizations, including Havruta, for gay religious men, Bat Kol, for gay religious women and al-Qaws, for gay Palestinians. The groups function as a viable middle ground for religious members of the LGBT community, and are becoming increasingly present and influential in gay Israeli society.
“We represent something else,” Daniel Jonas, a chairman of Havruta, told the Daily Beast last year. “More moderate, more communal.”
Sidi, of the Jerusalem Open House, considers the ingratiation of religious gay groups into mainstream Israeli society as beneficial and necessary. It is, she said, perhaps the best way for the Orthodox establishment in Israel to gain exposure to members of the gay community, and ultimately accept gay congregants and followers.
“The Reform and Conservative movements were really leading the change, and Orthodox rabbis saw that gay reform rabbis were being ordained,” Sidi said. “When a person comes out today, they are not necessarily forced to leave the community. There is still a place in front of God for them. It’s going to take [the Orthodox] a lot of time, but they’re getting there.”
Don Goor is among the gay reform rabbis who have potentially impacted the shifting Orthodox approach to homosexuality. Goor, 56, made aliyah, or immigrated to Israel, in June 2013 with his husband, a Reform cantor. He had previously been a pioneering figure in Reform Judaism in Los Angeles, Calif., where he was among the first gay rabbis to be appointed senior clergy of a synagogue.
When Goor was named senior rabbi of Temple Judea, it was “the country’s largest mainstream synagogue to have an openly gay man as its spiritual leader,” the Los Angeles Times wrote in 1997.
“I’m a rabbi who happens to be gay,” Goor said to the Times then. “I’m comfortable discussing homosexuality. There’s nothing that’s hidden.”
Today, as an “oleh hadash,” or new immigrant, to Jerusalem, Goor’s “Jewishness” is not necessarily impeded by the overwhelming presence of Orthodoxy in the city, he said, but his approach to daily life is decidedly more secular. He elects not to wear a yarmulke on a daily basis, and his new job no longer places him in a pulpit, yet in a traditional office environment, coordinating educational trips to Israel for American Jewish youth groups.
“I try to my best to stay unaffected by Haredi impositions,” Goor said. “It’s not the judgment or the lack of acceptance that I care about – it’s when Haredi rabbis cause an uproar over the new cinema being open on Saturdays.”
A ruling by the Israeli Supreme Court in 2006 mandated that Israel’s government recognize all foreign same-sex marriages. It was touted as a landmark achievement for gay rights in Israel. As a result, Goor and his husband, Evan, maintain the same rights as heterosexual spouses in Israel. Their respective Israeli identity cards read “MARRIED.”
But there are instances, Goor concedes, in which he and his husband wonder if they would be better off living in Tel Aviv, where the gay community is more lively and where the distinction between those who are religious and those who are not feels less severe.
“Something about Jerusalem just feels right,” Goor said.