Yishay Garbasz is known around the world as an Israeli artist, yet the country of her birth was not recognizing her gender identity. Her Israeli passport listed her as male, the sex she was assigned at birth. In late October, however, after a lengthy and exhausting bureaucratic battle, the Israeli Interior Ministry informed her that her request to amend the gender identification on her passport has been granted.
Garbasz, a transgender woman who lives and works in Berlin, had not visited Israel for more than a decade. “This year I couldn’t return to Israel for my aunt’s wedding,” she said. “My Israeli passport expired in 2007. I also have an expired British passport, but that one has the correct gender, ‘female.”
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Because of the discrepancy, she was unable to renew her British passport and therefore had no official identification. In all of her official correspondence with the Israeli authorities, they misindentified her gender, which she claims in Germany would be considered a hate crime.
Garbasz calls such treatment psychological warfare, whether intentional or not. And she says she’s not alone – that it’s part of a persistent violation of the rights of transgender men and women and other minorities that occurs in Israel, as well as in Germany and Britain. In England, she says, there was an 80 percent increase in violence against transgender individuals in the course of a year.
Her decision to retain her first name as her professional name – although she has said in the past that some of her closest friends call her Isha, Hebrew for “woman” – is just one of the many surprises in Garbasz’s life story. She was born in 1970 and grew up in the Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya, the child of Holocaust survivors – an experience that shaped her as well her art.
“My childhood memories are full of holes, the kind that are the result of trauma – trauma that my mother gave me, which she got from the Nazis,” she recounted. “She had two role models: victims and assailants. She gave me everything that she was and everything that she had to give,” Garbasz remarked.
“And yet, the trauma is not who I am. Over time and with work, it has become a tool that helps me see things properly, part of the many intersecting aspects of my existence, something that helps me see the world around me with greater sensitivity and also to take responsibility and convey other people’s testimonies.”
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With her photography project “In My Mother’s Footsteps,” which was shown at the 2010 Busan Biennale in South Korea, Garbasz set out to learn her mother’s life story, from Germany to the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia and Poland, through death marches and concentration camps. The book that was published in conjunction with the exhibit was nominated in Germany as photography book of the year.
As with Garbasz’s other work, the exhibit has not been shown in Israel. She has quite a collection of rejection letters in Hebrew, she quipped.
Failure to recognize her gender
Speaking before the Israeli Interior Ministry consented to list Garbasz as female on her passport, she noted that she appears as a representative of Israel in Phaidon Press’s latest publication about the most influential female artists. “And I can’t figure out how I can be representing Israel along with the world’s greatest women artists when the state refuses to recognize my gender.”
One of her major works, “Becoming,” is a two-and-a-half-meter (8 foot) high installation of self-portraits that she took during the year before and after her 2008 gender affirmation surgery. Other projects include an exhibit of photographs that she took in Fukushima, Japan after the 2011 nuclear disaster there; photographs of fenced border zones, including in the West Bank; and a work called “In the Same House,” which she created in Taiwan in 2007.
“I lived and worked among the Hakka people, who are called the ‘Jews of the East’ because they are persecuted. I wanted to explore what it’s like to grow up with grandparents. Mine were murdered in the Holocaust. I photographed families who have lived in the same house for over 100 years. I also found the sense of camaraderie I didn’t have when I was growing up in Israel.”
In addition to her difficult family life as a child – in one of her works, she branded her arm with hot metal with her mother’s number from Auschwitz – Garbasz also struggled with dyslexia, which caused her to do poorly in school. She served in the army, even becoming an officer, but she only learned to write when she was 25, at a special college in Vermont.
She spent some time living in a Zen Buddhist monastery and later studied at Bard College in New York with noted photographer Stephen Shore. After winning a Watson Fellowship, she traveled the world, taking pictures.
“It looked like my talent would take me a long way in this life, but unfortunately my complex identity and uncompromising work made me a target for all kinds of violence and for systematic discrimination,” she lamented, including in Europe. “I learned that no place is safe for people like me. And even though my work has been well-received and exhibited in New York, Korea, Japan and many other places, my criticism of governmental and cultural forms of official violence makes me unwanted.”
“When your body itself is political, every moment of your existence is a political act. Being trans in the world today is a political act in itself. Every day of survival is resistance, especially if you’re not white or you’re disabled or not straight, as so forth. I’m sad to say that the strongest influence that my being trans has had on my work is that it keeps me out of exhibitions. Transgender women artists are consistently excluded from major art institutions around the world,” she stated.
Garbasz also believes that the fact that she doesn’t focus solely on the subject of being queer, that it also serves to have her raise other political issues, has been to her detriment.
“Transgender artists are often encouraged to have their work be all about their bodies and the transgender experience. And although I have done art in the context of my gender identity, I have also done work in the context of my identity as a Jewish woman, a daughter of Holocaust survivors. In my work in Korea and Northern Ireland and in the photographs of the separation barrier in the West Bank, I used my queer sensitivity as a way to see the world outside. Being trans is one of many intersecting identities that allow me to better understand the systematic and intimate forms of violence. Just because laws exist doesn’t ensure any protection for vulnerable populations when governments and communities routinely treat them violently. My combination of identities gives me my voice and my sensitivity, but also ostracizes me.”
When Haaretz contacted the Interior Ministry for a response for this article, it transpired that the issue of Garbasz’s problem with the gender identification on her passport had been resolved that same day.
“This is a case of a transgender Israeli citizen who applied to change her gender classification in the population registry. Such a change must be made in accordance with the registry law and an application request on its own is not sufficient. Our review found that the Health Ministry committee that considered her case granted her request, and confirmation of this decision was relayed to our ministry on October 26, 2019. As soon as the decision was received, her new gender was updated on October 27, 2019. The Israeli mission in Berlin was informed of this as well,” the Population Authority stated.