Mizrahi, Gay and Proud – the Team Behind Israel's Pink Panthers’ Revolution

'I think Arisa is one of the most positive and optimistic changes to have occurred in Israeli culture in general.'

Arisa (from left): Omer Tobi, Uriel Yekutiel and Yotam Pappo.
Tom Marshak

It’s hard to exaggerate the success of Arisa, whose Middle Eastern-themed gay parties began five and a half years ago in Tel Aviv. You’ll find about 1,500 people at these riotous monthly events – a mix mostly of transgender people, gays and lesbians, but also heterosexuals. They’re mainly right-wing Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern descent), but there are also left-wingers and Palestinians, and partygoers hailing from the outlying areas as well as Tel Avivians. Revelers dance with contagious joy in smoke-filled clubs, to the sound of roaring Mizrahi music, singing along to every song.

But the success of Arisa can’t measured only by demand for its parties. Its activities crossed the boundaries of the nightlife and gay experience long ago and turned it into a genuine phenomenon. Since it was launched in July 2010 by Omer Tobi, Uriel Yekutiel and Yotam Pappo, numerous mainstream Israeli artists have performed there – from Mizrahi stars Zehava Ben, Sarit Hadad and Lior Narkis to Haredi singer Ben Snof.

Some singers also collaborated on songs with Arisa, among them Margalit Tzanani (“It Ain’t Europe Here”), Dana International (“Saida Sultana”) and Omer Adam (“Tel Aviv”). The latter, which Tobi and Pappo worked on with songwriter Doron Medalie, became the official anthem of Tel Aviv’s Gay Pride Parade in 2013 and was one of the top hits of that year. In addition, the group was invited to appear overseas, including in Brazil, Amsterdam, Shanghai and Tokyo. Its party videos went viral, too.

This success seems surprising on two levels: First, because it crosses boundaries between what is still considered the fringe and the mainstream; and second – and even more surprising – it has forged a connection between Mizrahi music and the gay scene. After all, mainstream Mizrahi music always glorified that old-school, Israeli type of masculinity – rough, tough and aggressive. Yekutiel, Tobi and Pappo say they weren’t driven by any belligerent ideology, though. They didn’t create Arisa to rescue Mizrahi music from the depths to which it had sunk in Israel. But this connection did more than just boost Mizrahi culture; it also created a means of expression for a group that had hitherto fallen between the cracks – the gay Mizrahim.

Dr. Ofri Ilany, a historian from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Be’er Sheva (and Haaretz contributor), labels the development as nothing short of a cultural revolution. “I think it is one of the most positive and optimistic changes to have occurred in Israeli culture in general, and the LGBT scene in particular. The more that LGBT rights have strengthened in the ideology of Western, liberal democracies – to be precise, in the United States and Europe – the more homosexuality in Israel has become identified with Ashkenazim, Tel Aviv and left wingers. So, everything that messes with that order is positive. If five years ago it was difficult to imagine this connection, even though there were some Mizrahi gays in the public consciousness, that is no longer the case today.

“Of course, it’s important to remember that, historically, the Middle East was always more tolerant than Europe regarding the sexual phenomena of gender fluidity and expressions of intimacy between men. In other words, the current situation – in which the West is, so to speak, gay-friendly and the East is homophobic – is relatively new. You shouldn’t let this identification become entrenched as something timeless and ahistoric,” he adds.

Netanel Azulay, an activist in the LGBT community, also praises Arisa’s role among what he calls “the pink panthers.”

“Even if it sounds pretentious,” he says, “I can definitely say that until Arisa arrived, the character of gay parties and nightlife was very specific. It appeared that Tel Aviv had a monopoly on shaping homosexual identity. It forced you to undergo this kind of membership process in order to be the ideal gay who dances to electronic music. And then along came Arisa, which opened the gates to another type of person – one who loves Mizrahi music and is looking for an unpretentious space that has room for everything.”

A two-door closet

Living in what he defines as an enclave within an oppressive society, Azulay says he lives with a dual identity – being both gay and Mizrahi. “My closet has two doors,” he says, “and in Arisa, every depressing thought about cultural fun and celebrations drained away. The audience comprised all sorts of gay people. Both my identities were validated.

“The new alternative that Arisa brought with it was refreshing and heralded a new spirit – one that threatened to topple the gay ideal: a home in North Tel Aviv, two dads and a dog. Arisa manages to provide access to the gay periphery.”

Azulay says his father, who spent most of his youth as a Black Panther (the Mizrahi protest movement founded in Israel in 1971), told him recently that his own refuge from parties that refused to admit him and Mizrahi friends back in the day was gay parties, which welcomed them with open arms after the Ashkenazi elite rejected them.

Arisa party in Tel Aviv club.
Guy Hod

The personnel at Arisa has changed a little since its inception, but the Yekutiel-Pappo-Tobi trio was and remains its beating heart. Tobi, 25, is kind of the artistic director, responsible for shooting the videos that serve as party promos. Pappo, 29, is the house DJ, while Yekutiel, 27, is the performer/drag queen. They met through Tel Aviv’s nightlife scene, each getting there from a different point of origin – and not just geographically speaking. Tobi had moved from Omer, near Be’er Sheva, to study theater. Yekutiel had a particularly active YouTube channel, where he uploaded videos of himself appearing in drag, performing the songs of Jennifer Lopez and Christina Aguilera. Pappo, who studied philosophy, linguistics and history, used to hold henna parties in his apartment.

In the early years, they also had a fourth partner, Eliad Cohen, a young guy who had moved to Tel Aviv from Acre and was working as a barman. He has since become a global gay icon, starring in numerous ad campaigns – especially ones that require little clothing.

Yekutiel and Cohen successfully presented an alternative family model in the videos they produced. Cohen, with his ripped muscles, six-pack abs and hairy chest, played the role of the strong, muscular guy, while his partner, Yekutiel, sported a combination of both male and female attributes: on the one hand, he wore makeup and kitschy accessories; and on the other, he had a hairy chest and groomed mustache. He might be a dedicated mother or bimbo in a Mercedes, a soccer star or Brazilian Carnival dancer, a geisha or Breslav Hasid. Together, they played a wide range of couples – from a duo whose intense love becomes a blazing hatred, to the dynamic between a dandy and his controlling wife.

At first, Arisa attracted mainly an audience of Tel Aviv hipsters, who embraced the parties like they were some kind of cool joke that gave them permission to dance to Mizrahi music. But everything changed one night. The Arisa guys appeared at the Riff Raff Bar, which attracts cultural and media figures, as well as youngsters, and is considered a hipster stronghold. To this knowing crowd, Arisa was nothing more than comic relief.

“When we were in Riff Raff, they took us down,” recalls Pappo. “On the one hand, they wanted Arisa’s music – because that was the biggest thing that was happening in the world of hipsters. But then we played a song by [Israeli-Moroccan singer] Eti Levi and they simply stopped us.”

And then, says Tobi, they finally understood who their real audience was. For the next party, Arisa brought in Liat Banai, a Mizrahi singer who broke onto the scene at age 16 and was crowned “the queen of depression” because of her sad songs, and then got married and disappeared.

According to Yekutiel, this was the first party where the Tel Aviv crowd who saw Arisa as ironic fun finally stopped attending. In their place, people who really connected with the music started showing up. “Of course, we never saw all of this as a joke,” Yekutiel hastens to add.