Berlin: The 'New Zion' for LGBTQ Israelis?

Economic, political and social problems as well as homophobia have driven Israeli queers to seek pinker pastures abroad, say researchers who will be addressing this week's 'An Other Sex' confab at Tel Aviv University.

Homophobia is not just fear and revulsion of gays or members of other LGBT groups. It also can be interpreted, in English at least, as “home-o-phobia” – the fear of going home. The late feminist and lesbian theoretician Gloria E. Anzaldúa suggested that interpretation after a discussion about homophobia at an American college, where a straight student said she had always thought exactly that: that the "homophobia" meant the fear of going home.

Anzaldúa adopted the student’s innocent mistake as part of her effort to expand the concept of homophobia beyond a description of a societal position toward queer people. Her definition also recognizes the bleakness of the homophobic situation: the fear of going home among queers who feel shunned and excluded, the fear that there is no longer a home to return to, nor any hope of finding a new one.

Israeli scholar Ruth Preser, currently completing her post-doctoral studies at the Institute for Cultural Inquiry in Berlin, is using Anzaldúa’s concepts in an ethnographic study she has been conducting over the past two years. She is examining the immigration of queer Israelis, who yearn for a feeling of belonging in both Israel and Berlin.

“Homosexuality is not only a transformation in identity (for example, the statement ‘I am a lesbian’), nor is it only the public, declarative dimension of that transformation, which takes the form of ‘coming out of the closet,’” says Preser in a telephone interview from Berlin.

“Queer identity also causes movement in space and time, from the home and toward it, from place to place, and gives rise to questions about the results of that movement and the link between queerness, immigration and being uprooted, and between exclusion and exile.”

Preser will present the preliminary findings of her study in a lecture entitled “Berlin My Love,” at the 14th annual "An Other Sex: LGBT Studies and Queer Theory" conference at Tel Aviv University, being held this Wednesday and Thursday. She will participate in a panel discussion about the migration of Israeli queers, and will talk about why Berlin is a popular destination not only for Israeli expatriates in general, but for Israelis whose sexual identity differs from the accepted norm in their homeland.

“My study began with a desire to examine the politics of queer identity in Israel and to see what happened to it outside of Israel’s borders,” Preser explains. “I concentrated on Berlin because queer discourse in Israel has become so enchanted with it over the past decade. One gets the impression that Berlin has become a kind of ‘new Zion’ for queers, particularly Tel Avivians and activists.”

Actually, it is not only Berlin but Germany as a whole that has become a magnet for members of the LGBTQ community in recent years. A recently published, comprehensive study by the Bertelsmann Foundation shows that in the 25 years since the Berlin Wall fell, tolerance toward this community has grown throughout Germany — despite the fact that openness toward immigrants in general decreased there during that same period.

Israeli queers who move to Berlin have a special place on this seam line because of their sexual identity and because of their national and ethnic identity, since they are the biological or social "offspring" of two groups that were persecuted under Germany’s Nazi regime.

Life in a 'pressure cooker'

In interviews Preser conducted with Israeli lesbians and queer women in Berlin, and after examination of the social media pages of Israeli immigrants in that city, she found a variety of criticisms of their homeland which had sparked their emigration.

Preser: “The intensive discourse about Israelis here that has been created in recent years poses an alternative to life in Israel — an alternative that is not necessarily presented as a criticism of Zionism, although that, too, is present. The main criticism that the immigrants express is about the very possibility of living in Israel. The immigration is conceptualized in terms of lack of stability and of employment and financial security, weariness due to the security situation and the difficulty of continuing to live in a ‘pressure cooker.’”

The researcher stresses that among queers, all this is combined with “the difficulty of leading a non-normative life in Israel (i.e., a life that differs from the conventional familial settings), and the ongoing exposure to homophobia even in Tel Aviv. In this sense, Berlin is a generic name for a phenomenon that, while it does not necessary mark emigration as an anti-Zionist act per se, it certainly calls into question the assumption that Israel is the safest, best and only place for Jews. Ironically, in most cases the immigrants are the children or grandchildren of people who immigrated to Israel.”

Israeli LGBTQ expatriates do not just sit by the rivers of Berlin and weep for Zion. In another lecture at this week's "An Other Sex" conference, entitled “Point of Departure,” Hila Amit, an Israeli PhD candidate at the University of London’s School of Asian Studies, will present her study about queer emigration from Israel to Berlin, London and New York. Amit will discuss trends that arose from interviews conducted with some 40 queer Israeli immigrants in those three cities, and assert that a new queer diaspora is being created there.

In a telephone interview from London, Amit says that “most of the previous studies about emigration from Israel were written from a Zionist point of view, focused on heterosexuals and assumed that most of the expatriates would like to return to Israel if the economic conditions were better. Those studies did not allow for the presentation of other narratives of immigration for reasons having to do with sexual identity, gender identity and criticism of the perception of Israeli nationalism.

"In my study, I focused on non-heterosexual Israelis who decided to leave Israel for good. Most of them define themselves as queer and belong to the Israeli left. They feel both non-identification with Israeli society, which they see as aggressive, sexist and militarist, and non-identification with Israel’s mainstream LGBTQ community.”

Amit says that difficulties related to sexual and gender identity were a major factor in the interviewees' decision to leave Israel: “While Israel tries to market itself to the world as a country that is enlightened and liberal toward its gay community — which is known as ‘pink-washing’ — many of my interviewees showed the less 'pink' side of LGBT life in Israel. People whose appearance is not ‘normative’ — such as transgendered people or lesbians with a masculine appearance — experience discrimination, violence and humiliating treatment, while they are not bothered so much in the large cities abroad.”

Amir found that most of the emigres had been political activists in radical left-wing and alternative groups in Israel. But as time went on, they became burned out and frustrated by their lack of ability to foment political change and the hopelessness of solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; this one one ideological reason that contributed to their decision to leave.

The researcher explains that these individuals continue their political involvement abroad in an attempt to create change from outside. She suggests “seeing these immigrants and the discourse they create about immigration as a political act that subverts Zionism and the regime in Israel. This is a community of outsiders, the non-hetero-normatives in Israeli society. Israeli queer immigrants belong to the collective of those who do not belong.”

'Carriers of diversity'

Amit and Preser both emphasize the fluid nature of life in Israeli queer communities abroad, which engender new patterns of activity and include partnership with communities and groups that are not connected with Israelis. Preser notes that for several of her interviewees, life in Berlin led to a change in the way they defined their sexual or gender identity.

“Sometimes it took the form of expansion of the range of sexuality, when the same women formed relationships with men and explained it by saying that the patterns of masculinity they had come to know in Berlin were different from the Israeli ones," Preser says.

"Some of the men they met, at least those from the middle or lower-middle class, were less macho and militaristic than Israeli men. The descriptions of German masculinity as ‘less manly’ and even as ‘passive’ are reminiscent of the image of the Jewish man living in exile that the Zionist movement rejected, not to mention the image of Jewish masculinity as ‘feminine’ in the anti-Semitic discourse of the 19th century.”

Preser takes particular interest in the ways that Israeli immigrants in general, and queer immigrants in particular, become in Berlin what she calls “carriers of diversity” — people who help create, by their very presence, social diversity in the city and encourage its openness to the "other."

“On the one hand, Berlin brands itself as a tolerant, liberal and multicultural city that celebrates diversity. But on the other, the day-to-day treatment of foreigners there is very confusing. One may make the generalization that foreigners are welcome in Berlin to contribute to the diversity there, but not to belong. That is true of the immigrants, but applies just as much to the way German citizens of Turkish extraction are treated."

Adds Preser: "These experiences are common to foreigners in general, not just to Jews, and they take place in parallel with a strong feeling of calm, security and cosmopolitanism.”

The session featuring Preser and Amit will take place Wednesday, June 11, at 11:15 A.M. at Tel Aviv University (Hall 1, Social Sciences Building). Shirly Bachar of New York University and Yasmin Max Sasson of TAU will first speak about the link between queerness and the search for/loss of home, and about documentary films about a lesbian couple.