“Come on, sweethearts, get on the bus,” a young man called to his friends on Saturday evening, as they sat on a sidewalk in south Tel Aviv.
“Don’t rush us, honey,” they smiled defiantly, a moment before joining the long line for a ride to Jerusalem. It was clear they’d come well prepared for the outing: Pride flags adorned the shirts of some; others carried small bicycle horns in their pockets. One even bragged to a girlfriend about a wig he had concealed in his bag (“for later in the evening, after we’ve warmed up”).
Despite impressions to the contrary, this was not a trip to a Pride Parade or some other LGBT event. It was one of seven “gay” buses in the “Going Up to Balfour” group, which left Tel Aviv and made straight for the bustling site of the demonstrations outside the prime minister’s official residence in central Jerusalem. The 300 or so protesters on these buses were all imbued with a collective spirit.
“We’re going up to Balfour, we’re fighting against corruption,” was the slogan on the shirts being sold in the lines for the bus. A topical T-shirt featured the provocative statement “Hit me Nisso one more time” – combining the Britney Spears party anthem with Police Chief Superintendent Nisso Guetta, who was caught on film beating demonstrators during the previous week’s demonstration.
Saturday’s gay mobilization was not a one-off event: For the past seven weeks, the LGBT community has been flocking to Balfour by bus. “We saw the start of what’s happening at Balfour and said, ‘Great, let’s get a bus and travel together,’” says attorney Yossi Besson. “We’ve grown at an exponential rate each week,” he adds.
The organizers say that over 30 full buses have traveled to Jerusalem in recent weeks, most of them filled by protesters from the LGBT community. (“We don’t carry out inspections at the entrance; everyone is invited,” it was explained.) They’re also joined by many demonstrators who don’t come by organized transport but are very much identified as part of the community by flags, placards and colors.
This sends a real message, community leaders tell Haaretz. They say this is the first time their members are openly mobilizing, on such a large scale, for a protest that doesn’t specifically relate to battles over LGBT rights (such as equal rights in areas such as adoption, surrogacy and marriage), but is a broad and general civil struggle. And along with the Pride flag, they also carry the Israeli flag.
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‘We’re a force’
“I’m demonstrating as a gay person and a citizen,” says Barak Gaon, 43, when asked which of his identities comes first in this protest. “Some of what defines my political protest is my identity as a gay man,” adds the Tel Aviv resident, who traveled on the bus with his partner. “It’s impossible to sever the connection between human rights, proper administration and the independence of the courts – it’s impossible to be gay in Israel and not fear for the rule of law.”
Writer and activist Gal Uchovsky also recognizes this inherent connection. And now, he says, many are connecting the dots. “This is the first time in Israel when there are general demonstrations and our group participated without concealing its identity – on the contrary, even emphasizing it,” he says. “We understand that we’re discriminated against twice: like all citizens, and in particular as LGBT people, and we’re coming to demonstrate as such.”
This change was preceded by other protests in recent years that were community-based but changed something, according to Uchovsky.
“The protest two years ago was the community’s largest street battle ever,” he says, describing the July 2018 demonstration by some 100,000 people in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square over surrogacy rights for same-sex couples. “We realized then that we’re a force and we’re a group – and that realization has now affected the size of the mobilization to Balfour,” he adds.
The difference is particularly evident when the present protest is compared to the social justice protests of the summer of 2011. Then, Uchovsky says, many members of the LGBT community arrived as private citizens. Not now. “In this decade, our identity as a fighting community has become even stronger, and today we’re coming to protest against everything together,” he says.
The importance of protesting together is not alien to Chen Arieli, former chairwoman of the Association for LGBTQ Equality in Israel (aka the Aguda), and now deputy mayor of Tel Aviv.
“When you’re part of a minority community, it’s clear that, relative to the rest of the population, it’s easier for you to join struggles for justice – it’s been part of the DNA of the LGBT community for the past 50 years,” Arieli says. “One could always see LGBT members at lots of protests in recent decades. So, we were always present – but not in an organized way, only privately, due to an identity that is oppressed and in solidarity.” And now all of Israel’s oppressed have united.
An amicable split
The community’s strong representation at the Balfour protests is also due to the fact that many of the dominant forces behind the protests are young LGBT members. One of them is Yaniv Segal, 30, of Tel Aviv, a member of the Pink Front movement. About a month ago, during one of the protest’s stormier evenings, Segal and his friends came prepared for an encounter with the police water cannons and hoses: Their attire included pink wigs, tutus and shirts with the slogan “I’m a squirter,” featuring a water cannon with pink wings attached.
When one of the police officers called on his subordinates to close ranks, Segal responded with a similar call of his own: “Ladies, close ranks!” He then declared: “Only we will decide when we want to be hosed.” The policeman opposite him burst out laughing, but pulled himself together a few moments later to resume his serious expression.
For Segal, the laughter, pink wig and skirt are his most effective weapons. “I’m a fighting princess with pink hair,” he says.
The decision to use the color pink was a deliberate one. “On the one hand, pink represents the desire for an optimistic future, and on the other, all the weak elements of society, like women and gay people,” Segal explains. “We ostensibly take the weakness and use it like war paint on our faces. It’s clear to me that we need this feminine and queer energy in order to be healed. I’m waiting for us to establish a matriarchal society here – the time has come.”
Segal is already a relative veteran of these protests. He began it as part of the Balebatim movement (roughly translated as “Those in charge,” and recognizable by their use of pink bandanas), and while the organization to which he now belongs is newer, the two cooperate, he explains. Perhaps the increase in gay protest groups is a logical step in light of the increased LGBT presence at the demonstrations, which Segal says he senses from one week to the next.
For many of them, this is – geographically speaking – a local protest. As opposed to the general image of the community, which is sometimes “Tel Aviv and all the rest,” the Balebatim are mainly Jerusalemites (even if not native-born). “The Jerusalem Municipality had a policy in recent years of bringing young people from the ‘creative class’ to the city, in the belief that it pays off economically to bring such a population,” says Ofri Ilany. “Some are students in art schools like Bezalel, Sam Spiegel, the School of Visual Theater, Musrara. There are many LGBT students among them, who have also participated in protests.”
Ilany studies the history of the Zionist movement’s attitude toward homosexuality (and also writes for Haaretz). He says that in a historical irony, given the present circumstances of the coronavirus “the group that was meant to create capitalistic activity has become the core of the protests. They were joined by many young Tel Avivians from the music and nightlife scenes. They come in groups, and the form of the demonstration is also somewhat reminiscent of a party in a nightclub. The LGBT community is not only political, but a social, sexual and partying community as well. That’s also why it comes to protests as a group of partygoers and not only as concerned citizens.”
Wigs for protection
The people widely seen as being responsible for the bacchanalian nature of the protests are the party organizers at Kok Schok. Week after week they call on their regulars to visit the capital en masse. “Night animals from the Tel Aviv bubble have become angry activists,” explains Haim Vitali, one of the Kok Schok organizers. “Instead of parties, we’ve started to attend demonstrations, and instead of ordering another chaser in a bar, from now on we’ll say ‘Enough corruption!’ and demand a revolution.”
Indeed, anyone who logs onto Kok Schok’s Facebook page these days might think they have come to the wrong place by mistake. But only for a moment. “In advance of the important demonstration on Saturday night in Jerusalem, here’s a detailed guide for livening things up like the gay activist you are!” the main post says.
The guide humorously explains how to make a noise (for example, using pots and wooden spoons), how to make music (a tambourine or ukulele), and what else you should bring: wigs (which will remain in the hands of any officer who pulls your hair), soap bubbles for effect – oh, and a dildo.
And it’s not only organized groups who are showing their colors at the protests. For example, about two weeks ago, three Pride flags were seen at Paris Square, raised by various people without any coordination. One of them was held by Asaf Rosenheim, from Ra’anana, who attached the Israeli flag to his Pride colors.
Aya Arbel Sharif of Pardes Hannah was standing on the other side of the square. She has been coming to Balfour for several weeks, each time with a different symbol. “The state uses the Pride flag outwardly as a symbol of its ostensibly liberal policy – when in fact it’s ashamed of us, discriminates against us and doesn’t give us rights,” she says, explaining her reason for raising the flag.
“So coming to Balfour with the flag is saying that they don’t represent me – neither Bibi [Benjamin Netanyahu] nor [openly gay Likud minister] Amir Ohana. Just as I’m here now with the Pride flag, I was here with a sign of justice for Eyad [Hallaq, the unarmed autistic Palestinian man shot to death by the police in May] and with the struggle of the disabled and the struggle of the women. All the struggles are connected, and we all have to lend a hand.”
The third Pride flag was carried by a different kind of protester: a tiny Lego doll, with a sign in her other hand saying “We’re tired of corrupt people.” But the doll was not the main attraction. It was resting on a large sign that said: “Alien, hooligan, crack snorter, weirdo … the ‘homo’ also goes out to demonstrate.”
Asaf, a regular demonstrator from Haifa, is responsible for this particular presentation: “They’ve said everything about us protesters. All the curses and the condemnations – except for the fact that we’re ‘homos’ – so I jumped the gun,” he explains.
These voices that don’t separate their sexual identity from the need to protest now, at such intensity, were heard in a series of conversations with other demonstrators. But here too there were exceptions. For example, Erez, 34, from Tel Aviv’s Florentin neighborhood, who was on one of the “LGBT” buses from his city to Jerusalem two weeks ago. “I come to demonstrate as a concerned citizen,” he said. “I reject the popular discourse that whenever there are protests they tell minority groups ‘Why aren’t you here? How can you not protest with the Palestinian women?’ I come to demonstrate as a citizen of the world; I’m a socialist first. I’m afraid that Israel will become a place where it’s intolerable to live, for everyone.”
But if you ask Vitali, you don’t have to agree on everything in order to protest together.
“The community has many faces that sometimes raise questions such as ‘What’s the connection among everyone here except for the complex gender identity itself,’” he says. “What do I have in common with Public Security Minister Ohana? Nothing at all. What do I have in common with a gay person who beats up someone who raised a Palestinian flag at the LGBT rally in Rabin Square? Nothing at all.”
So what’s bringing the community to demonstrate this time? Vitali says they’re all united by the feeling of “We’re sick and tired of it.”
Something to aspire to
This is apparently what led to the relatively swift organization among the community in the protest’s early days. One of the key figures here is Roi Neumann, a spokesman for the Black Flag anti-corruption protests seen on the country’s bridges and intersections every Saturday evening. In effect, he’s the one who initiated the transportation project for members of the LGBT community.
“It originated with a discussion in a WhatsApp group called the Gay Communications Underground,” he says, recounting the events of late July. “The discussion was about how it’s possible that we, who fight against what we see as morally rotten, are staying home at a time when the young people are fighting for us too on Balfour.” Several messages later, the first bus was already full. “It makes no difference if we grew up on the right or the left, Jews or Arabs,” he says. “From early childhood, we know that we’re different and oppressed.”
Neumann was joined by Besson, 38, a lecturer and real estate lawyer from Tel Aviv. “Beforehand, we didn’t attend demonstrations in Tel Aviv. Maybe some of us went occasionally as private individuals, but now we’ve reached the conclusion that it’s impossible to distinguish between the struggles,” Besson says. “I can’t protest about the rights of my community and not protest about the rights of women or Palestinians. The LGBT struggle is a general one for liberalism and equality.”
He says that, now more than ever, the community is beginning to understand that “even a presumed representative of the community, like Ohana, isn’t helping us to progress if he sells democracy out and gives us surrogacy. All the weakened populations are weakened by a specific group for a specific reason – and that’s why they have to unite,” Besson said.
If Neumann, Besson and many others are pleased with the mobilization of the LGBT community, there are others who think that the objective is still far away.
“I’m trying to arouse the community to come to Balfour more – we all have to be there,” says Itzik Nini, 52, who for years has been considered one of the leaders of the community’s nightlife scene. “We’re dominant, but not enough. I remember the beatings I used to get on the street because I’m different, I know firsthand the meaning of a less liberal and less democratic state. And I know that if it continues this way, young members of my community will be much more afraid to walk in the street. I know how much worse things could be.”
He also warns that the achievements the LGBT community has made in recent decades could be erased and that the battle isn’t over. “There’s a corrupt and improper system here that must be replaced – before we all pay the price, LGBT or not LGBT.”