Pioneering Pride: The Unsung Heroes of Israel's LGBT Community

Transsexual Rina Natan fought desperately for the chance to become a woman. Poet Mordechai Georgo Langer linked Judaism with homosexuality. We remember them and other pioneers on the eve of the Gay Pride Parade in Tel Aviv.

Rina Natan may have been born male and named Gershon Natan, but she went to tremendous lengths to be able to fully claim her identity as a woman. In the 1950s, she waged a tenacious struggle against the Israeli medical and legal establishments, in order to undergo a sex change operation. After trying various forms of passive resistance and then, in a drastic move, attempting to perform surgery on herself, which nearly killed her − she ultimately succeeded in her quest.

The heroic tale of Natan − apparently the first transgender woman in Israel − has recently been retrieved from the depths of oblivion and researched by Dr. Iris Rachamimov, a historian at Tel Aviv University. Rachamimov discussed Natan’s struggle at “Beyond the Parade,” an event held this week in Tel Aviv. The talk, held in conjunction with Gay Pride Week, was devoted to forgotten or unconventional figures in the history of Israel’s LGBT community.

Rachamimov found about 50 reports about Natan in the Israeli press from 1953-1958, which showed that she was born in 1923 or 1924 to an affluent German family in Siegen, Germany. In school, Natan excelled at music, painting and writing stories. As a child, Natan felt “a psychological need to wear women’s clothing and act female in every way,” as she once put it.

Just how she survived World War II is not entirely clear, but it is known that she spent a period of time in France, learned farming and immigrated to Palestine in 1946. In this country, she lived on a series of kibbutzim − Ma’agan Michael, Ashdot Ya’akov and Na’an − and during the War of Independence served in the Israel Defense Forces as a medic, a job she retained during her subsequent military service.

“Natan first appeared in the headlines in early 1953, not long after newspapers in Israel reported extensively on Christine Jorgensen, a transgender woman whose story was a worldwide sensation,” Rachamimov tells Haaretz. “Besides that, it’s no wonder that Natan was aware of the possibility of sex change surgery, given her German origins. Before the Nazis came to power in 1933, Germany was a world center for sex liberation and nonconformism.”

In 1953, Natan was arrested in Tiberias while dressed in women’s clothing, because the police suspected her of criminal intent. “I’m a woman in my mind and in my emotions. It’s only because of a physiological mistake that I was born a man,” she explained to the police, Haaretz reported at the time. Subsequently, she returned to the headlines for staging hunger strikes and demonstrations, and also after she got beaten up on the Tel Aviv beach.

“The police arrested her one more time and she was tried with ‘disturbing public order’ − apparently because they couldn’t find anything else to charge her with, since wearing women’s clothes is not a criminal offense. She was sentenced to probation,” Rachamimov says.

Natan was not deterred, though, and finally resorted to hurting herself with the aim of forcing doctors to operate on her. A Health Ministry committee recommended that her request be granted and that she be allowed to undergo the surgery to become a woman “for reasons of mental hygiene,” but in late 1954, Attorney General Haim Cohen rejected that recommendation.

Rachamimov points out that Cohen has also gone down in the annals of the Israeli gay pride movement as the one who ordered the police not to enforce the British Mandate-era law banning homosexual intercourse (the law was only annulled by the Knesset in 1988).

However, in Natan’s case, Cohen adopted a conservative position and argued that the operation she wanted violated criminal law, as it would deliberately cause physical harm.

After trying to hurt herself, Natan was involuntarily admitted to the Nes Tziona psychiatric hospital and subjected to testosterone injections. Still not dissuaded, she persisted in her battle, and on May 25, 1956, showed up at Assaf Harofeh Hospital after having cut off her penis. In the midst of her physical agony, she smiled and told the doctors, who knew her by then, “This time there’s nothing else to do. Now you’ll have to operate on me and remove the extraneous genitals and make me a woman.”

Because her life was in danger, the doctors were compelled to complete the job. “It was the first surgery in Israel of a transgender woman that was the result of choice − unlike previous operations on intersex patients [born with both male and female sexual characteristics],” Rachamimov notes.

She adds that there is great significance in Natan’s struggle: “She triumphed in ‘the war against the attorney general,’ as she called it, and waged an individual battle of civil resistance that entailed a great deal of self-violence.

“The unusual nature of her struggle for her time,” Rachamimov adds, “is evident in the mocking and derisive way most of the press reported on it. They referred to her as male and included detailed descriptions of what she wore, her hairstyle and the way she walked as they sexualized her image.

“The reports about her contained very few direct quotes from her,” says Rachamimov. “Ha’olam Hazeh was the only newspaper that showed any empathy for Natan and supported her claim that she might be intersex. It used more respectful language than the others. Readers who wrote letters to the editor also expressed some sympathy for her cause.”

Rachamimov adds that the terminology now used to refer to transsexuals, some of it derogatory, didn’t even exist in the language at the time. The press referred to Natan as “he/she,” “man/woman” or “Mademoiselle Rina.” After the surgery, Natan was issued a new passport and ID card, in which her gender was changed to female and her first name was changed to Rina. In 1958, she left Israel and moved to Switzerland; her life since leaving is shrouded in mystery. If she is still alive, she would be about 90 today.

Rachamimov asks that anyone with more information about Natan contact her to aid her research.

Erotica among Hasids

The “Beyond the Parade” event in Tel Aviv also shed light on other obscure local figures. “The aim was to bring these pioneering and nonconformist figures in the history of the local LGBT community − who get little recognition these days − back into the public consciousness,” says Dr. Ofri Ilani, journalist, historian and a coeditor of the left-wing group blog Eretz Ha’emori, who organized the event together with Ruth Garon of Beit Ha’ir.

“The goal was to dig beneath the modern image of the gay community − as we are perceived from the outside, as well as in our own eyes − and to look at people who expressed their sexuality and identity in ways that were not adopted by the mainstream in the community,” Ilani says.

At the event, which included a discussion between literary scholar Dr. Shaul Setter and the writer-poet Yotam Reuveni, Ilani spoke about the homo-religious writings of Mordechai (Jiri) Georgo Langer, who could be considered the first gay Hebrew poet, although he only lived in prestate Israel for a few years and did not openly define himself as homosexual.

Ilani notes that, “In recent years, there’s been a lot of talk about the clash between homosexuality and religion − such as in connection with the pride parade in Jerusalem. At the same time, there has been an increasing amount of activity by religious gays. But most of the talk is about the coexistence that could occur between Judaism and homosexuality under certain conditions. To me, what’s so interesting and exciting about Langer is the completely opposite direction he took. He tried to retell Jewish history as a homosexual story. In effect, he depicted Jewish ritual as a homoerotic experience.

“Langer was an extremely unusual and paradoxical figure,” Ilani continues. “He was a yeshiva student and a psychoanalyst, and was also known to be Franz Kafka’s friend and Hebrew teacher. He was a Zionist, but with a thoroughly Diaspora mentality and way of being. Moreover, he was the first modern Hebrew poet to overtly express homoerotic passions and feelings. I agree with Shaun Halper of the University of California at Berkeley, who says Langer was the first to introduce homosexual experience into Jewish literature and to create a Hebrew gay aesthetic.”

Langer was born in 1894 in Prague to an assimilated, liberal Jewish family. In his youth he became interested in mysticism and religion and, influenced by a classmate, began to immerse himself in Judaism. He learned Hebrew, began studying Talmud on his own, grew earlocks and put on phylacteries. At 19, he traveled east to Belz (now in Ukraine), a place regarded by most Prague Jews as a remote and godforsaken, and joined the Hasidic yeshiva there.

“He wasn’t there for very long, but for a while he remained extremely pious − for instance, when he spoke with women, he would avert his eyes,” Ilani says. “There is no direct evidence that Langer lived a life that could be called homosexual, but after his death people who knew him talked about his ‘enigmatic character’ and the ‘mysterious’ side of his personality.

“Considering that in his time homosexuality was looked upon as a crime and a shameful perversion, statements like that could be taken as a hint,” Ilani adds. “Studies written about Langer in the 1970s say he committed the sin of erotic male love. His poems also express a passion for young men: for example, in ‘Elem Hen’ (‘Charming Lad’), the speaker gazes longingly upon a young man in a city park.”

Langer also developed a theory of Jewish homosexuality. In his 1923 book, “The Eroticism of Kabbalah,” he argued that sex and the mating of lovers “is at the very basis of the Torah.”

Ilani stresses that Langer not only insisted that Judaism had an erotic strain; he also tried to prove that it contained deep homoerotic underpinnings, contrary, of course, to the accepted notion that the religion completely rejects homosexuality: “He interpreted the commandment ‘Ve’ahavta lere’akha kamokha’ (‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’) as calling for ‘ahavat re’a’ − i.e., erotic love between men.

“He maintained that Judaism does not restrict sexuality as a whole, but puts certain limits on sexuality between man and woman, while also leaving room for ahavat re’a. He believed that, in his day and age, male eroticism flourished in the Hasidic court. The relationship between the rebbe and his students was an erotic one, he felt − akin in nature to a sexual union. He also saw an erotic connection among yeshiva students.”

Do you see any similarity between Langer’s erotic theory and other conceptions that were popular at the time outside the Jewish world?

“Langer’s ideas are based on homoerotic theories that were developed in the early 20th century by German thinkers, especially Hans Blüher, a leader of the German youth movement. Blüher contended that the familial bond between man and woman was more primitive and inferior to the loftier, erotic bond among men that gives rise to Männerbund [lit., male society], which builds the state and civilization. The kind of bond that can be found in youth movements, or in the military, for instance. Blüher’s theory was combined with a certain anti-Semitic outlook: He said that Jews were feminine and therefore incapable of Männerbund. Blüher started out as a disciple of Freud but later was a Nazi supporter for a while.

“Blüher’s theory also influenced the outlook of the early Hashomer Hatzair [left-wing socialist Jewish] movement. Langer was clearly influenced by it in the way he perceived the erotic attraction between men, but unlike Blüher, he sought to show that Jews were capable of male eroticism.

“To this end, he retold Jewish history as a tale of the struggle between the love for man and the love for woman. He also viewed Judaism as an expression of Eastern, Oriental sexuality, in contrast with repressed and wilting Western, European sexuality. Essentially, he took anti-Semitic notions about Jewish sexuality and Orientalist notions about Oriental sexuality and tried to give them positive meaning.”

Toward the end of his life, Langer wrote that his main goal was to engender a feeling of male love among the Jewish people. He aspired to do this in Palestine, too, arriving in 1940 after escaping war-torn Europe by the skin of his teeth. However, by the time he got to Tel Aviv, he was quite ill, having endured terrible cold and hunger en route. Max Brod and other writers tried to help him, but he died in 1943.

‘Feminine arena’

The concluding lecture at the Tel Aviv event was delivered by feminist scholar and peace activist Dr. Hannah Safran, from Isha L’Isha – Haifa feminist center. She  spoke about the struggle waged by four leading figures in local lesbian-feminist history − mainly in the 1970s through the 1990s.

Contrary to what many believe, major public activism by lesbians in those decades was not directly related to the gay-rights cause per se, but rather an outgrowth of the feminist movement, Safran tells Haaretz.

The four women are Marcia Freedman, a pioneer of Israeli feminism and an MK (Ratz) from 1974-1977, who separated from her husband during her time in the Knesset, subsequently came out of the closet and eventually left Israel to return to her native United States; Chaya Shalom, a left-wing activist from Jerusalem who was among the founders of the first lesbian-feminist organizations; and Tal and Avital Jarus-Hakak, a prominent lesbian-activist couple who gained fame as a result of their protracted legal battle for permission to adopt each other’s children.

While Freedman and the Jarus-Hakak couple’s names and stories are somewhat known, the public is much less familiar with Shalom, 68.
“Beginning in the late 1970s, Shalom was active in the [country’s] first lesbian organizations, and later in Women in Black and other leftist groups,” notes Safran. “Like other women in such circles, she represents a political approach that says the demands we make for ourselves as an oppressed group must be combined with demands on behalf of other oppressed groups.”

Shalom came out when she was 35. In a 2009 interview with the local Jerusalemite weekly Zman Yerushalayim, she said that when the Kol Ha’isha (Women’s Voice) organization was established in Jerusalem in 1979, “it was a home for all feminist women, and there was a place there for lesbians, too. They had consciousness-raising groups and support groups, and at last I had a framework in which I could reveal my true identity and find support.”

After Shalom came out, she became active in Kol Ha’isha, which she says was “the only place then where one could come to talk and get together, and have cultural evenings and picnics and birthday celebrations.”

Kol Ha’isha, and other feminist centers that arose at that time in Haifa and Tel Aviv, became magnets for lesbians, who were often the most prominent activists − albeit in the framework of feminist activity launched together with many straight women.

Yet, Safran notes, the lesbians were not always able to give voice to their unique problems and desires, often because some feared that the feminist struggle would thereby be seen as a lesbian struggle. In some cases, this led the lesbians to secede from the common women’s cause and to start their own organizations.

“Lesbian women were active in the feminist battles and frequently were among the leading figures, but as long as the lesbian presence was kept hidden, there was no open discussion of the significance of lesbian existence,” says Safran.
She adds that with increasing discourse surrounding sexual identify and representation in feminist activity in Israel, the establishment of a separate organization for feminist-lesbian women was part of a broader phenomenon in which Mizrahi (i.e., those originating in North African or Middle Eastern countries), Palestinian and other groups of women organized independently.

ALEF (a Hebrew acronym for Lesbian Feminist Organization) was founded in 1978 and active for a year and a half, and Shalom and other activists launched KLAF (an acronym for Feminist Lesbian Community) in 1987.

In the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, KLAF published a magazine, held programs in schools, and organized social and cultural events. In 1993, Shalom and her KLAF colleagues memorably organized a demonstration outside the Jerusalem Theater to protest a call by the ultra-Orthodox to shutter a photography exhibit there about lesbians from San Francisco.

Just as lesbians had trouble finding their place in the general feminist movement, they were not initially an easy fit with the Association for Individual Rights (the Israeli gay task force, now known as the Association for LGBT Rights in Israel), which was led by men at the time.

“There was a problem doing activism with gay men, because the male impulse is to make oneself heard first and not leave room for others,” Shalom told Zman Yerushalayim, years later. “The women felt that they weren’t true partners. The feminist line did not fit with the gay male line. Women usually feel more comfortable in a feminine arena.”

During the first Lebanon war and, to a greater extent, the first intifada, Shalom tried to link the lesbian liberation movement to other political causes, particularly the struggle for peace and the protest against militarism and occupation.
In 1988, she was one of the founders of Women in Black, whose demonstrations throughout the country during the first intifada made great waves. However, adds Safran – who also participated in the protests – the lesbian presence was virtually invisible.

“Even though passing drivers often cursed out the women protesters and called us lesbians, among the protesters themselves, this [gay identity] was something that was completely concealed,” Safran recalls. “And this was the case even though lesbians made up about a third of the demonstrators in the protests in the three major cities. Shalom also regularly clashed with her fellow activists in Women in Black over the connection between the oppression of lesbians and Palestinians.”

Safran says that Shalom is still socially and politically active today in leftist and lesbian circles, and also started a group for older lesbians at the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance. Adhering to a radical viewpoint, Shalom has also repeatedly warned of the danger in devoting the bulk of gay and lesbian efforts to the struggle for parenting rights and legalization of same-sex marriage.

In a lecture on lesbian activism at the 2005 “Other Sex” conference at Tel Aviv University, Shalom harshly criticized lesbians for increasingly adopting the values of patriarchal society, and thus possibly contributing to the marginalization of other lifestyle alternatives, like those of women who aren’t interested in marriage or motherhood.

“This trend has supplanted the radical feminists’ demand for the right not to give birth and not to become a ‘national’ or ‘patriarchal’ womb. This trend manifests a desire to be swallowed up amid the heterosexual masses − to disappear within them, to use a woman’s womb to proclaim: ‘We are no different, we embrace the patriarchal values and have no wish to question them or rebel against them,’” she said.

OferVaknin
Daniel Bar-On
Avishag Shaar-Yashuv
Emil Salman