Forget Paris, This Is 'Gay Jerusalem'

Jacob Israel de Haan, a Dutch born Jewish writer and journalist is considered the victim of the first political murder in the history of the Zionist movement, in 1924.

Jacob Israel de Haan is probably the only common denominator between the anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox Eda Haredit organization in Jerusalem and the city's gay community.

The Dutch born Jewish writer and journalist is considered the victim of the first political murder in the history of the Zionist movement, in 1924.

jerusalem - Tomer Appelbaum - February 11 2011
Tomer Appelbaum

In a rather strange twist of events, he is held in high esteem by both communities, and is now the focus of a tour highlighting the city's rich homosexual history.

De Haan's name is still featured in the pashkevilim, the public proclamations posted in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods such as Jerusalem's Mea She'arim quarter, as a "victim of secular persecution."

On the other hand, a line from a homosexual love poem that he wrote also appears on a memorial in Amsterdam to victims of people persecuted for their sexual orientation.

Someone like De Haan in all probability could only have lived in Jerusalem in the early 20th century, with its unique historical circumstances.

De Haan immigrated to pre-state Israel in 1919. He found strength in religion and took a leadership role in the ultra-Orthodox Eda Haredit community in Jerusalem. He waged a successful political struggle against his major adversaries, the Zionists, and was murdered as a result, in 1924, by members of the Haganah pre-state paramilitary underground.

During his lifetime, he published a novel as well as poems that hinted at his sexual orientation. After his death, other poems by De Haan were published that made his sexual orientation clear. His writing did not diminish his standing among the ultra-Orthodox public, but it was used by the Haganah to justify his murder.

A book of Haganah history made reference to De Haan's Arab friends, who quickly sensed his homosexuality and exploited it.

Like other gay figures in Jerusalem's history, De Haan is currently enjoying renewed prominence. His life story has a central place in tours that are conducted in Jerusalem by university student and tour guide Yotam Zeira of the gay history of the city from the 19th century through the recent conflict over the staging of gay pride parades in the capital. Zeira has researched the city's gay history and found that gay life has flourished there.

The gay history tour, which Zeira conducted for the seventh time on Sunday, is currently being conducted by appointment but he hopes ultimately to offer tours on a regular schedule.

Last Sunday's tour group including three observant Jewish men wearing skullcaps.

"His world is as far from my world as the East is from the West," said one of them in reference to Zeira, "but I want to learn."

The initial focus of the tour was the Jewish Quarter of the 19th century and the oppression of the gay community by all three of the major religions that consider the city holy. Zeira then led the visitors through the alleys of the Old City recounting the visit at the beginning of the 20th century of the Swedish writer Selma Lagerlof, who came to Jerusalem with her female partner.

The tour guide then directed the visitors' attention to a surprising article written in 1906 by the father of the revival of the Hebrew language, Jerusalem resident Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who wrote about individuals who were outwardly men but inwardly feminine and the reverse. The tour featured the whole range of Jerusalem's population over the years, including Jews, Arabs, the British and other foreign residents.

Among those who made his mark on the city was Charles Ashbee, a British architect and adviser to the governor of Jerusalem who headed the Pro-Jerusalem Society, which was dedicated to improving and preserving the city during the pre-state British Mandate. Ashbee, who was known to be gay, took a leading role in shaping the modern city of Jerusalem and the Jerusalem landscape even as it exists today. It was Ashbee, for example, who was responsible for the requirement that building facades in the city be covered with Jerusalem stone.

Zeira's tour concluded with an account of more recent developments including the coalescence of members of the gay community in the city and the establishment of institutions along with political power and a lively night life.

The community is centered around the Jerusalem Open House, where Zeira is a youth counselor. He said the tours were the product of his desire to give young people a good feeling about themselves and to give them "geographic anchors" in the city.