Four Years After Tel Aviv's Gay Center Shooting, Young Israelis Look Back at the Night That Changed Their Lives

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Doron Halutz

Four years have passed since the murders at Barnoar, a club in Tel Aviv for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth. On August 1, 2009, a masked individual sprayed the club with gunfire, killing Nir Katz, 27, and Liz Trubeshi, 16. Others were wounded. Until not long ago, it seemed that the case would never be solved. We got used to living alongside it, as though it had never happened.

Four years have passed since the murders at Barnoar. Immediately afterward there were rallies, empathy, demonstrations of support for gay rights and tolerance. Public opinion seemed to have changed. But two months ago, after a lengthy period of groping in the dark, the police announced that the case had been solved: Hagai Felician, a known felon from the Bnei Brak neighborhood of Pardes Katz, was indicted on two counts of murder on July 10. Police also revealed that a relative of Felician had turned to Barnoar director Shaul Gonen for advice prior to the murders. According to an immunity-from-indictment agreement signed with police, Gonen admitted to having had a sexual encounter with the then minor. “Felician allegedly decided to take matters into his own hands, and together with another suspect, Tarlan Hankishayev, and the state’s witness, plotted to harm Gonen,” according to Wikipedia. This opened a Pandora’s box. In addition to ugly comments, festering with violence and hatred, there were also politicians who, clumsily courting the “gay pride vote” in the last election campaign, asked whether the act of indiscriminately shooting at dozens of young gays and lesbians met the definition of a hate crime. Gays are good for drawing tourists to the Pride Parade. Enshrining equality of rights in the law is apparently too much.

Four years have passed since the murders at Barnoar. Immediately after that night, we spoke with six young people who had come out of the closet early and had time to confront the upheaval in their lives in a concrete way. Some of them were in the club at the time of the shooting; others were regulars but that evening were spared the horror by chance. They told about a feeling of empowerment after coming out of the closet (and about the violence and the humiliation they had been forced to endure because of it). Try telling them that Israel is a liberal paradise and that homophobia is a thing of the past.

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Alona Livneh, 22, Lives in Ramat Hasharon, lieutenant in the IDF.Credit: Yanai Yechiel
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Alon Albachari, 20, Lives in Kfar Sava, currently in the army’s officer candidate academic studies program.Credit: Yanai Yechiel
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Lee Arnen, 22, Lives in Jerusalem, company commander of new recruits in the IDF.Credit: Yanai Yechiel

We met with the six again this month, to see how they are doing, what has changed, to hear about their thoughts and feelings now that the case has been solved. In the intervening period they were drafted, fell in love, despaired, studied, became disillusioned, were sad, were happy. Some still carry the trauma of the tragedy. One of them, Uri Gil, a strikingly handsome youth, was still in hospital recovering from gunshot wounds when we met with him back then. He refused to talk about it now. Tamir Ehrlich, who was a regular at Barnoar but wasn’t there that night, talks about a “black hole” whose implications he is still trying to fathom. He has turned from a bewildered kid into a mature young man and agreed to share his experiences, but declined to have his photograph taken. A month after the murders, Alon Albachari entered Tichon Hadash high school, but discovered that being a young gay person out of the closet could still be more complicated than he thought. Guy Solomon continues to star in drag shows and is starting to think about emigrating. Alona Livneh and Lee Arnen became officers in the Israel Defense Forces and devoted themselves to the state. They continue to think about how it might perhaps be possible to make it a better place to live.

Alona Livneh, 22, lives in Ramat Hasharon, lieutenant in the IDF

I was drafted two months after the terror attack, and the fact that I am being discharged on August 1, the date on which it happened, is the closing of a circle. I call it the “terror attack” and not “the murder” or “the shooting,” because even though I was there, no one shot me, or at least I wasn’t murdered or wounded in the shooting. My basic training was complex. At first it was a little too much for me to bear arms. I told my commanding officer that they had no idea what this thing could do, whereas I had seen it close up. But I was fortunate to have an empathetic commander, and since then I have been very much into the army thing.

The two weeks after the attack were terribly intensive. I made the rounds of hospitals, visiting friends who were wounded, went to rallies. I was deep into it the whole time. And then I arrived at a new place, where I needed to present myself anew, and to consider whether the fact that I was in Barnoar at the time of the attack defines who I am. If I became close to people, I felt that they had to know that this is part of my life story. For the first year after the attack I didn’t go back to Barnoar. One time I showed my brother the table on the terrace where I had been sitting when the shooting started. I didn’t go in − I showed him from outside. I didn’t want to see the place and I didn’t want to see that it was continuing as before and that the experience had become my private affair. I know it’s wrong to draw an analogy with the Holocaust, but I heard the term “survivors' guilt” − people who survived and felt guilty. And because I survived and came out of it safe and sound physically, I felt that maybe I had less right to
affiliate myself.

On one of the Hanukkah festivals − it’s a bit hard for me to place it in terms of the year − there was a festive candle-lighting event at Barnoar. I was on furlough, I went to visit my grandmother in Holon and it worked out for me to get off the bus and pass by the club. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Shaul Gonen, who was busy with the event. I was in uniform and I sat alone at the side, smoking. People gave me strange looks: “Is she supposed to be here?” I expected that it would be very emotional and homey for me, or very difficult. It turned out to be a bit of an alienated feeling, something like “I was here and I don’t need to come back.” I thought I had closed a circle with myself, but it turned out that I still had a long way to go.

About two years after that, I contacted Shaul. We’d had good relations when I was there as a youngster, and even though he has trouble with names, he always remembered my name. I was in an officers’ course and wanted to have my squad discuss LGBT people in the army, so I called him to get some tips. Afterward, on Facebook or in congratulatory messages we sent each other, he said that in his opinion I was suited to be a counselor. The main role of the counselors in Barnoar is to be a sounding board, someone to trust, a kind of big brother type. They are not social workers; if they spot something complex, they turn to the appropriate authorities. The secondary role is to make sure the youngsters don’t wreck the place. I don’t know if Shaul did it more for Barnoar or for me.

I promised him I would think about it. When I went there to talk to him about it, it was the first time I had actually entered him since the attack and also communicated with the people around. I took courses and attended meetings and was a counselor there for 10 months. It was part of the closing of the circle, though maybe it is never really closed. But when I was given a new assignment in the army and only got furlough every two or three weeks, I realized that I wouldn't be able to keep up the counseling and I had to stop. I regretted it, but everyone understood completely.

The attack had already become part of my past, but the solving of the case brought it back into my daily present. I was distraught. I became a junkie of Internet news, I wanted the latest information all the time, to try to understand the story. Until at some point I let it go. Even after the gag order was lifted there were a lot of vague details, and there were rumors and contradictory reports. I reached the conclusion that the perpetrators were a gang of criminals from Pardes Katz, and that it didn’t interest me all that much. After four years, it’s too late for it to have a jolting effect on my life. I didn’t believe they would be caught, and I didn’t want to see their photographs in the paper. In my personal life, the arrest changed nothing.

I don’t wish the murderer health and happiness, but why he did it, what his name is, the kind of weapon he used − all that is less essential for me. The murderer’s arrest will maybe put an end to his violence, but not to violence in general. Wild weeds spring up on a background of homophobia and hatred, and that's what we have to fight against.

Four years down the line: I hope to study humanities at university.

Guy Solomon, 22, lives in Tel Aviv, prepping for the psychometric test ahead of university

The truth is that not too much happened in the past four years. I moved to Tel Aviv, following a partner I had. That story ended, but I stayed in the city. I did National Service in the Israel Museum, as part of a team that was creating an information center for Israeli art. And I have just resigned from a marketing firm, a grownup’s job. I am now preparing for the psychometric test, but I don’t know yet what I will study.

I still do drag, but mostly at private events − organized parties of workers’ committees and companies, weddings. In a word, moonlighting. I now have a deeper understanding of drag than before, much of it thanks to the television show “RuPaul’s Drag Race”: where drag came from, its roots in pop culture. It’s more than getting on the stage and making movements and having fun. The understanding sharpens the performance, and I am able to get more messages across, but it’s hard to explain, it’s something that comes from within. I go mainly for glamour, Old Hollywood: Lisas, Barbras, Tinas. I used to feel a strong connection to the veteran Israeli divas, like Riki Gal and Ilanit. Today, less.

Drag is very political, but about particular issues, as part of the Gay Pride community. I don’t get into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or economic and social conflicts. I used to be active in the Open House and in IGY [Israel Gay Youth], in organizations and activities for teenagers. The move to Tel Aviv and my job took up a lot of my time, so that recently I haven’t had time to be active, but it remains close to my heart. Especially issues like gay marriage, adoption, equal rights for people who are supposedly second-class, and stigmas about transgenders, bisexuals and [AIDS] carriers.

I didn’t go back to Barnoar after the murders. I felt that something in me had changed. It’s not a matter of age, and I wasn’t scared off by what happened there − it was obvious to me from the start that it was a localized event. Maybe I felt less in need of the place, felt that I was sure enough of myself and self-accepting. But it bothered me that the case wasn’t solved. I know a lot of the people who were wounded there, it’s a painful point. I was in Tel Aviv on the night of the murder. The headlines about the case being solved hurtled me back there, and that’s no easy thing.

I was still working then, and I was on the computer all the time, following the events and investigating and checking profiles on Facebook, until I figured out what had happened. I recognized the people straight off, including the one whose photos were pixelated. It’s an ugly story in many senses. I was not wronged personally, but I felt that it could have been prevented. I have known Shaul for years and I have the highest regard for him. He did a great deal for the community, at both the personal and the social level. I have no reason to be angry at him. He never would have done anything if he thought it would hurt his wards. What hurts me is that children paid with their lives because of someone’s momentary insanity.

There were some who said that what happened shows that the community is rotten from within. People say all kinds of things. It’s not a recurring pattern, and things like that also happen in the society in general. When it happens in other contexts, is it considered a characteristic of the straight community? Homophobia is always out there. Personally, I was able to filter things; I didn’t take negative remarks to heart and I surrounded myself with people I felt good with. But you see things on the social networks and hear stories from friends. It pains me that many places in the world do not show openness to the subject, that the situation is still bad. On the other hand, what’s happening in the United States is amazing. I think Israel is on the same path. Slowly, but on the path. I am optimistic. In any event, I hold European citizenship. I can go
anytime and get married.

Four years down the line: I wish I had an idea or a direction. Hopefully in classical Europe, which is what I feel I need for myself. Maybe in Israel, maybe not. We’ll see.

Lee Arnen, 22, lives in Jerusalem, company commander of new recruits in the IDF

Four years ago, I was shocked that something like that had happened, and in Tel Aviv, too. Now I am shocked that it is not happening again. The world has not stopped being homophobic: “homo,” “faggot” and “queer” are curse words, and so are “tramp” and “whore.” When I enter a public toilet, I am sometimes told, “Excuse me, this is the women’s toilet.” I reply that I'm a girl. “This is not a place for people like you.” Or I come out of my barracks [in the army] and I'm told, “These are women’s barracks.” I know − that’s why I went there.

Even after the motive for the murder was revealed, people reacted by saying “It’s because you're perverts, it’s your fault,” or “You were wretched for four years and you are no longer connected to us” − instead of understanding that it was a hate crime against a particular population, only because it is different. I find it sad that teachers, MKs, older people say things like that, and sad also that a judge says that women enjoy rape. Talk creates reality. It starts with “You homo,” moves to beatings in an alley and then they enter the bar and kill him. Or her. Or migrants. Or any weak population group. It started like that in Germany, too, and ended in the gas chambers. As a nation that is a persecuted minority that underwent horrific things, and which is hated all over because it is different, we should take in those who are different.

Obviously, relations between a man and a boy of 15 are wrong. At 15 you are in a vulnerable state and are looking for someone to give you support. People who feel any sort of attraction to children should not work with them. But when it happens between a teacher and a pupil? A person who decides to murder kids of 14-15 because he doesn’t see the person he is looking for is apparently a homophobe. What happened was only the
trigger for his homophobia.

As a society, we have not progressed. When [U.S. President Barack] Obama talks about [same-sex] marriage, you see that it’s important for him. But here, even MKs who spoke about the subject did not show up for important votes. They don’t really have it − security affairs are more important to them. So, sure, I am a bit envious, and when I read reports on the topic I don’t think, “Ah, that will soon come to pass in Israel”; I think, “There is no chance that it will happen here.” But maybe, as imitators of the United States, we'll adopt it here, too.

Many people from the community are moving to the United States and Berlin. I don’t see myself living in a place where I won’t be able to speak Hebrew. I am a Zionist, and I have been serving my homeland for four years now. People say there are equal rights, but every time I come to a new place I have to think about what the reaction will be if I say that I have a female partner and not a male partner. I also know that I won'tbe able to marry my partner here and that in Jerusalem I won't kiss her in the street. I do, actually, because I look like a guy, but people there will still stare. A girlfriend said to me, “I don’t understand the community, you're segregating yourselves.” I told her: Imagine not being able to kiss your boyfriend on the street, having to think about it five times. Do I have to be ashamed that I love women? Only because it’s different from what people are used to?

I have had a girlfriend for the past year and a half. We met at Mikveh, a Jerusalem club. I'm still not thinking about marriage and children, but the very fact that it’s forbidden makes you want it more in principle. At the moment, in any case, it’s more important to deal with children who are thrown into the street because their family is homophobic, and with discrimination that still exists in work places. Before the army, I was fired from a store, even though I was an excellent worker, because my hair is clipped. I don’t do that deliberately, as a provocation. I have never been interested in makeup-dresses-heels, in what’s normative for women.

I performed in drag in the Pride Parade in Tel Aviv, with dancing and lip sync. Usually I do boy bands and the like, but this time I also did Placebo and “The Flower in My Garden.” The drag thing is about playing at gender, playing with the boundaries.

But the parade in Tel Aviv is a street party, which for me is less important. It’s a different feeling in the Jerusalem parade. Last year, stink bombs were thrown at us. I feel that there I'm fighting for my right to walk on the street and be proud of what I am.

I have plenty of battles to fight: as a woman, as a lesbian, as a butch. There are men who say, “Ah, you just haven’t met the right man.” And yes, they will teach me. Israeli society must change. Parents are not present in their children’s lives, teachers in their pupils’ lives, officers in their subordinates’ lives. I look back and think: Did I have teachers who were there for me when I needed them? One. They don’t try to understand when someone behaves violently. Maybe he or she was raped at the age of 5, maybe his father beat him up at home? No one fights for anyone. But I care about my people.

Four years down the line: Commanding officer in the army, and if not the army the university. Or an educator. My dream was to be an actress, but there are more important things.

Alon Albachari, 20. lives in Kfar Sava, currently in the armys officer candidate academic studies program.

The murder happened during summer vacation, before I entered high school. A new place, you want to prove yourself, and also not hide who you are. It wasn’t easy for me. I wasn’t accepted, I had no friends, people kept their distance from me in the hall. Why? “Because you’re gay.” I didn’t preach, but I tried to educate people a little. I brought Hoshen [the education and information center of the LGBT community in Israel] to school. I tried from the 10th grade, but they only invited them when I was in the 12th grade. Absurd, but at least they were invited. The people for whom it was most important to be there walked out in the middle of the talk.

I used to be very involved in the community, in everything. Today a lot less. I also used to think of myself as something of a psychologist for friends, or as an intimate friend, but no longer. I have become indifferent. I'm aware of this, but I don’t know what to do with it. There is a vacuum, but also a fear of being hurt, fear that something will happen again. I hung out at Barnoar in that period, but as it happened I wasn’t there that day, something got fouled up. I didn’t know how to digest it. It was a mental burden. I went back to Barnoar once or twice afterward, but I didn’t feel connected. People there are happy and listen to music at an insane volume, but the only thing I saw was what my friends experienced there, that a murder happened there. So my
instinct was to disappear.

I went to an ORT network [vocational] high school, in the communications track. Teenagers have strength, but not a platform, so in the 11th grade a friend and I started a project, a news site for young people, which is also a forum in which they can exchange opinions. I am devoting most of my time to this now, even though I’m not yet making millions from it.

The reports about the case being solved, two days before the Gay Pride Parade, seemed to me like a PR trick. Suddenly, after four years, it popped up out of nowhere, so I thought it was an attempt to create a headline. And then more and more details came to light. Shaul, let’s say − I know him. He helped me a lot and he was always there. He is a good person with a halo over his head. Everyone in the community will say he is a good person with a big heart. It’s possible that a snowball started with him, even if that’s not what he intended. I was in something of a state of shock. There was always gossip about who’s going out with whom, and about a counselor in some organization or a security guard in a club who is maybe going out with one of the young people, etc. But there was never any gossip like that about Shaul. Even if something happened, the fact is that 15 is the new 18: age plays no part anymore, it’s the loss of childhood. My brother is 24 and most of his friends are 30. I followed the reports all the time, I was riveted by them. It struck with bombastic headlines, as though it were Judgment Day.

After time passed, I told myself that it would probably take them 20 years to solve it. Yallah, it happened, let’s move on. It threw me into emotional turmoil. I had flashbacks of the reports from that evening, when I was watching television and news bulletins started to come on. I called friends, who replied, “I can’t talk, I'm in hospital.” I didn’t want to go back. I didn’t want emotional overload. But wherever I went, people were talking about it, Facebook was jammed, people asked, “Did you hear about so-and-so?” And I couldn’t always provide an answer, because I myself didn’t know. It just enveloped you from every direction.

After the murder I listened to lots of melancholy songs, like Ofra Haza’s “Throughout the Day.” They reflected my feelings. These days I listen mainly to pop − Lady Gaga, Rihanna − and try to keep up positive energies. To drive in a car with good music playing, to sing a little, to smile. Before I came out of the closet, a friend noticed that I wasn’t smiling, that my lips were straight. He said, “Find something good to hold onto and always smile, so it gets glued to your face.”

Four years down the line: The army. I'm on a film unit track, and if I'm good enough, operational documentation. It’s an adventure to be a combat soldier, and maybe it will pull things out of me that I didn’t know about myself.

Tamir Ehrlich, 19, live in Holon, cafe shift manager and waiter

These four years, between 15 and 19, are the period in which you change the most. After volunteering all my life, suddenly I am living as an individual. I had a passion to change and influence things, which has lately died out. I was in Lead, a leadership development organization, and I was a moderator on the Channel 2 youth program “23 Minutes.” I was part of a National Service year of a youth movement in Zichron Yaakov until the group fell apart. I decided not to do army service. I also cut my ties with activities earmarked for the LGBT community and I'm barely in contact with people I knew from Barnoar. As part of my project in Lead, I wanted to form a think group that would deal with the needs of the LGBT community in Holon. But it failed, and I escaped into a project that deals with art, in which young artists are organized to create works

I miss the life of social involvement. In the past year I felt that I abandoned it, that I no longer have the drive. I felt that I need a little quiet. I don’t know if it’s the trauma or a logical process for an adolescent. It also has to do with the results of the election in January. The right wing is strong and firm, and that's frustrating. There were moments in my life when I thought of going in a political direction. But art can be political, too. In October I am moving to Jerusalem to study art at Bezalel [academy of art], and I hope the studies will inject those things back into me. I'm also paying for school myself, so I have to work more.

I visited Barnoar twice after the murder, two months and half a year on. At first I told myself that I had simply grown up. A new generation had arrived, I didn’t know anyone there. I liked the place and it was important for me that it go on, but in retrospect I have no doubt that the trauma had an impact, even if not consciously. I was 15, I was undergoing a process related to my identity, both sexual and general, and Barnoar was a protected place, true and right, in which people helped. That was torn from me. It became a murder scene. Liz [Trubeshi, who was murdered] was with me at IGY in Holon. Other friends were wounded. It’s an experience I still haven’t coped with, like a black hole.

I did not feel relief when the murder was solved. I broke into tears. I don’t know where that came from, why I cried. Maybe because after the repression I was forced to confront the subject. The community came in for a great deal of criticism; people said we had to take stock. I too was certain that the murder was committed out of hate from an ultra-Orthodox direction, but I don’t feel a need to take stock. At the age of 15 I went to the Gay Pride Parade in Tel Aviv for the first time. At the entrance I was greeted by a group dressed in black and carrying signs that said, “You people need to be jailed and beaten until you become normal.” That’s something I haven’t forgotten.

It makes no difference to me if it was revenge that started from something personal. The massacre was not personal. The murderer didn’t know the victims. It’s hatred. After the case was solved, the Internet was flooded with homophobic rants, and I still encounter homophobia, of course. And ignorance. In Lead, too, someone asked me, “If I were to give you money, would you have a sex-change operation?” And there are people who are surprised to hear that you are gay and are also saying so, and then they look at you with a revolted or scared eye. That surprises me time and again.

A year ago I had the [Hebrew] word “Bo” tattooed on the back of my neck. That’s the name of my Torah portion, which tells about the exodus from Egypt [Exodus 10]. The Israelites ask Moses why he took them out of Egypt, they say they had it better there as slaves. It’s about your responsibility as a free person. The great difficulty is to question what is supposedly obvious, and the tattoo is a symbol for the need to remember constantly that we are free.

I fomented a change in my school. I came out of the closet when I was 15 and coped with humiliations which I know some kids are still going through. I fought it for two years, and in the 11th grade no one dared say a word to me about it. I find it sad that another generation and another generation have to experience themselves as different. To be gay is not to be different, and when that becomes the general situation a great many psychological problems will be resolved for many kids. Straights can’t understand it, but having to cope with this situation makes us more successful, more complex. Maybe equality will make us less special, but it seems to me preferable.

Four years down the line: I'll have an undergraduate degree in art and I might go on with my studies. I don’t have a clue.

From left: Guy Solomon, Alon Albachari, Lee Arnen and Alona Livneh.Credit: Yanai Yechiel