An Israeli City Just Hosted Mideast's First-ever Queer History Festival (And It's Not Tel Aviv)

Tel Aviv may grab all of the headlines and plaudits as a gay mecca, but Haifa is determined to grab a piece of the action

Opening night of the Haifa Queer History Festival, Februar 8, 2018.
Rami Shllush

Where to go to enjoy the best of gay life in Israel? Yes, Tel Aviv – the city that time and again tops lists of the world’s most popular LGBTQ destinations.

But a group of young gay activists in Haifa would like you to look north.

Frustrated that the blossoming gay scene in Israel’s other big coastal city tends to get overlooked, they’ve resolved to put Haifa on the map.

A project aimed at documenting Haifa’s rich gay past peaks this month with the Haifa Queer History Festival (running until February 23).

Inspired by the United States and Britain, where such events have become annual traditions, the organizers note proudly that the history festival is not only a first for Israel but also the entire Middle East.

“We want people in this city to know Haifa has very deep LGBTQ roots,” says Dotan Brom, a graduate student at the University of Haifa and a driving force behind the project.

Dotan Brom, a driving force behind the Haifa Queer History Festival.
rami shlosh

As Brom observes, to be gay in Haifa is to suffer discrimination twice: “First, we’re discriminated against because we’re gay, which would be true anywhere,” he says. “But then we’re discriminated against because we’re from Haifa – rather than cool and trendy Tel Aviv.”

Set on a mountain range overlooking the Mediterranean, the city’s topography often draws comparisons to San Francisco. One of Israel’s main high-tech hubs and home to two universities, Haifa is widely regarded as model of coexistence – a rare example of an Israeli city where Jews and Arabs live peacefully side by side. Distinctly secular, it is the only major Israeli city with a Jewish majority where public transportation operates on Shabbat.

But despite everything it seems to have going for it, Haifa has somehow never managed to take off like Tel Aviv.

As Arnon Allouche, director of Haifa’s new LGBTQ center, laments, “It’s frustrating for me that all the young gay people in this city who want to live openly consider Tel Aviv as virtually their only option.”

Over the past two years, Brom and two fellow activists have been collecting testimonies from founding members of the Haifa LGBTQ community for a special oral history project.

Earlier this year, they raised almost $15,000 through a crowdfunding campaign to finance the creation of a digital archive and production of a documentary about the city’s gay scene as extensions of this project.

Materials collected for the project were on display at the exhibit that kicked off the Haifa Queer History Festival on February 8. The exhibit was held at the Communities' House for Pride and Tolerance – Haifa’s new LGBTQ center, which opened exactly a year ago. The festival has included film screenings, a book launch, walking tours and a special one-day seminar devoted to Haifa’s queer history.

A visitor at the Haifa Queer History Festival exhibition in Haifa, February 8, 2018.
Rami Shllush

A prominent spot at the entrance to the exhibition highlights Haifa’s unique contribution to the Israeli transgender scene. On display are photos of the late actress-singer Gila Goldstein – widely considered Israel’s first transgender woman – and the late Zalman Shoshi, who described himself as Israel’s first transvestite.

In the next room, a special corner is devoted to another gay icon: Marcia Freedman, an American-born feminist and lesbian activist who served in the Israeli Knesset in the 1970s and lived in Haifa before moving back to the United States.

Hanging on the nearby walls are photos, documents and press clippings depicting key moments in Haifa’s gay history. Off in a small room toward the back of the building, videotaped interviews with veteran LGBTQ activists from Haifa are projected onto the walls.

Rafi Eppler. "In the 1980s and ’90s, most people in this city were still in the closet. Today, it is a much more visible community."
Rami Shllush

A key highlight of the exhibit is a special section dedicated to a trailblazing column on gay issues that ran in one of Haifa’s weekly newspapers back in the 1990s. The name of the column – a play on a Yiddish phrase – was “Gay Vayz” (“Go Figure”). The column was penned by Rafi Eppler, a pillar of Haifa’s gay community who used to write under the pen name “Rafi Niv.”

“Sure, my family knew that I was gay. But back then, there were still boundaries that were hard to cross,” explains Eppler.

As he recounts, the column grew out of his attempt to help a gay couple who were threatened by separation. “I had heard about a couple that had immigrated from Russia – two men; one was Jewish and the other wasn’t – and the immigration authorities wanted to deport the non-Jew,” Eppler says. “To help them, I offered to write a piece in the local paper about the case. It was such a hit that the editors offered me a weekly column on gay issues.”

The gay community in Haifa has made significant strides since those days, Eppler observes. “In the 1980s and ’90s, most people in this city were still in the closet. Today, it is a much more visible community,” he says.

Also in attendance at the launch is Eyal Friedlander, an artist with a mane of white hair who was one of the city’s first gay activists. Many of the documents and photos featured at the exhibit come from his personal collection. “Eyal had the hindsight to know that all this stuff would one day be valuable,” notes Brom.

Friedlander is perhaps best known for the campaign he waged back in the ’90s against what were famously known as the “pink lists” – lists compiled by the police detailing all members of the local gay community, after a series of murders targeted gay people. Any person known to be gay, as Friedlander notes, was immediately considered a suspect by police.

Eyal Friedlander. "Tel Aviv just doesn’t do it for me. I love the calm and quiet of this city.'
Rami Shllush

Friedlander, who has also lived in Paris and New York, explains Haifa’s appeal for him. “Tel Aviv just doesn’t do it for me,” he says. “I love the calm and quiet of this city. And whenever people would ask me how I could move back to Israel after living abroad, I would tell them that for me, Haifa is a soft landing.”

The Communities' House for Pride and Tolerance is almost filled to capacity, as activists and supporters of the local gay community swarm in. On an outdoor veranda, young activists listen devotedly as Ruti Litwin, 71, a veteran lesbian activist, greets the crowds. “Looking around me here, at all the representatives of the different generations and different LGBTQ communities, makes me feel really optimistic,” she says.

Event co-organizer Yoav Zaritsky reassures the crowd that this will not be a one-time thing. “As far as we’re concerned, this is the start of an annual tradition,” he says to much applause.

Despite the community’s great strides in recent decades, gay activists in Haifa still have their work cut out, notes Allouche.

“In Tel Aviv, gay couples don’t have to think twice about holding hands in public, but here they do – and that’s why this center is so important to us,” he says, adding, “More than anything else, I want this to be a place where gay couples can come and hold hands if they want.”

Earlier this year, Israel Gay Youth – the main advocacy organization for LGBTQ teens in the country – set up a first-of-its-kind group in Haifa for Arabic-speakers. But, as Allouche notes, there are no Arabic speakers mingling in the crowd. “Much to my regret,” he sighs.

That, too, he concludes, proves there’s still much work to be done here.

Dr. Ruti Litwin. "Looking around, at all the representatives of the different generations and different LGBTQ communities, makes me feel really optimistic."
Rami Shllush