Tel Aviv Is Out: Dozens of New Queer Communities Change Israel's Landscape

'With all due respect to Tel Aviv, LGBTQ community members have a right to live anywhere in Israel': Meet the Israeli queers building new families and communities in surprising locations

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People heading to a pride parade in the desert city of Mitzpe Ramon, in 2021.
People head to a pride parade in the desert city of Mitzpe Ramon, in 2021.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Yossi Mats
Yossi Mats

Harish, in Israel’s north, is generally thought of as a sleepy town. The main streets don’t offer much for its residents, and it’s tough to find anything to do at night.

But in the summer of 2021, something historic happened. More than 20 years after the first LGBTQ Pride parade in Israel – in Tel Aviv – this community of 28,000 residents marked its very first Pride event.

It wasn’t taken for granted. A considerable proportion of Harish’s residents is religious and that the mayor wears a kippah.

“A little more than three years ago, we moved here from Netanya, and we found a void with regard to everything connected to the gay community,” says Ma’ayan Gilad, the LGBTQ community coordinator for Harish and the nearby town of Binyamina-Givat Ada.

“There were individuals here, but there was no work for their benefit,” she says. “I felt the need to bring people together and that’s how it started.

Harish seen from the air.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

"I found myself talking to a woman from the ultra-Orthodox community who wanted to come out of the closet and didn’t have anyone to turn to, and supporting people in extreme circumstances. Last summer, we decided together that we wanted to hold the first Pride event in Harish. We did it with assistance from the Aguda – Israel’s LGBT Task Force, where I have volunteered in recent years.

"We brought in a drag show. We set up stands for children and adults where there were glitter tattoos for children and a henna artist for adults, and a photographer who took portraits for couples and families.

Ma'ayan Gilad.

“I think we started a nice tradition that can’t be taken for granted in a mixed city of religious and secular people,” Gilad says. “We showed that we can live in peace with the neighbors, not to hold offensive events, but still address our needs and mark Pride month with a legitimate event.”

Activities for the LGBTQ community in Harish and nearby Binyamina-Givat Ada are run through a Facebook group that includes advertising for businesses from members of the community and through a WhatsApp group publicizing events and sharing surveys. The community will soon also be resuming meetings in which members of the community host others at their homes and share their personal histories.

“Within the LGBTQ community in Harish, there are families with children, there are singles, there are transgender members of all kinds, of all ages,” Gilad says. “In 90 percent of the cases, the members of the community have two reasons to move to Harish. The first is the low cost of housing, and the second is that there are a lot of other members of the community, which provides a comfortable feeling. I don’t claim that there isn’t homophobia and that everything is rosy. The authorities’ desire to work on behalf of the LGBTQ [community] is very apparent. Tel Aviv is not the only place where LGBTQ people can feel at home.”

A pride parade in Mitzpe Ramon. Credit: Ilan Assayag

60 LGBTQ communities

Harish is not the only such place. In recent years, more than 60 LGBTQ communities have developed, and various towns – including those beyond the greater Tel Aviv area, including Be’er Sheva in the south and Haifa in the north – and that provide funding for the community. Local governments employ 29 LGBTQ community coordinators, and there are 30 social workers specializing in the community – a number that is expected to triple by the end of the year, according to a Social Services Ministry plan. From the perspective of the Aguda, it’s a strategic step that will help support local LGBTQ communities.

Ran Shalhavi.Credit: Ohad Aridan

“Work at the local authorities began a few years ago,” Ran Shalhavi, the Aguda’s CEO, says. “This step began due to the problems from the national government. For many years, we didn’t manage to pass almost any legislation, didn’t manage to make progress on the national political level, and we realized that the national leadership wasn’t reflecting the positions that the Israeli public had regarding the gay community.

“In a lot of surveys, we have been seeing a positive public position toward it, like in the matters of gay parenting and the fight against LGBTQ-hatred,” he continues. “At the same time, we’ve seen that the local authorities are getting stronger and are influencing the residents’ agenda, a process that became even more significant during the coronavirus pandemic. Among many in the community, there was a consensus that living out of the closet required moving to Tel Aviv, and we sought to shatter that argument.

“We began creating a two-part process,” he says. “The first was support for Pride events. We understood that it was a point that in many instances mobilizes the gay community and begins to develop a local activist community that creates change. In 2017, we began helping to fund Pride events around the country – in the first year, for about 15 communities. In the past year, we already got up to 35 Pride events. Even municipal governments that didn’t receive funding from us have referred to the event as an event of tolerance for the gay community and have been funding it – such as in Ramat Gan and Ra’anana.

“In addition to the Pride event, which is usually the first step in establishing a community, we began establishing local communities,” Shalhavi continues. “We got several people in Afula and began meeting with them. We asked them to invite their friends and we created a local community.

“Every local community takes on its own character,” he adds. “There are some who are more religious. There are younger ones. The activism is different in every city. There are communities that are more involved in the local authorities’ various official forms for the LGBTQ community, for example, registration forms for kindergartens and municipal tax accounts. On the other hand, there are those more involved at the social level. We support the communities’ representatives and give them tools. There are WhatsApp groups in which people learn from each other. There is an annual workshop in which they discuss plans for projects.

“In 2020, we launched the municipal pride index, where we checked 50 criteria of how a local authority treats the LGBTQ community in five fields: education, welfare, visibility, infrastructure and organizational structure, and culture. In some places, we saw amazing results. This ranking helped each city see where it is in terms of LGBTQ treatment, and it motivated cities to take steps for the community’s benefit, because that they realize still have a ways to go.”

A racism-homophobia combo

Atara Arussi, 24, has lived in Afula for five years. She arrived in the city as part of national service at the Israel Gay Youth organization, living in a commune with a group of LGBTQ people and volunteered at a local elementary school. “After national service I chose to stay in Afula, partly because I was doing things that were important to the city, like municipal activities,” she tells me. “Establishing an IGY branch in Afula is not something trivial. It wasn’t easy to hold a Pride event. But in the end, it works out. The city is capable of including the gay community.

Atara Arussi at an Afula market.

“When I tell people that I’m from Afula, a lot of people tell me, ‘you look like you’re from Tel Aviv. How do you live there?” Sometimes I found it hard at jobs in town, it comes in a racism-homophobia combo and such. But eventually, partly because I worked at LGBTQ-friendly places, I feel comfortable in Afula and with being who I am, and I like it here. In a certain way, I also wanted to live another life that’s far from my past. If I were suffering, I would leave.”

Like Gilad from Harish, Arussi points at the great diversity of communities in the city as one of the central issues facing the local LGBTQ community. “In the youth department, where I volunteered, there was an amazing department manager with lots of patience and acceptance, who understood what it meant to be LGBTQ,” she says. “It was important to him to offer a place to everyone, from ultra-Orthodox groups and the labor movement’s youth group to IGY and the Bnei Akiva religious Zionist youth group."

Has the city changed in the years you’ve lived here?

“Today I saw that there will be a Purim party next week at the old market, and they’re bringing the drag queen Zohara Platinum. It’s crazy that the city’s logo is on the poster. I’m in shock.”

A pride parade in Ashdod, in 2018.Credit: Ilan Assayag

On the budgetary level, other municipalities still struggle to compete with Tel Aviv, which boasts of allocating 6 million shekels ($1.85 million) for the LGBTQ community in 2022 – including 4 million shekels for Pride Month events, including the annual Pride Parade, some 1.5 million for activities of the city’s local LGBTQ center, and half a million to support NGOs providing services to the community. A separate sum of 30 million shekels ($9.2 million) will be allocated for construction of a new LGBTQ center at Meir Garden – the largest LGBTQ project in Israel’s history, according to the city. Tel Aviv’s investment in the community is evident in broad aspects of the city’s life, from the opening of an LGBTQ health clinic to LGBTQ events for seniors.

Joining the strategy adopted by Israel’s LGBTQ Task Force, which devotes its efforts to supporting local communities, is the Social Equality Ministry, which decided last year to combine various government funds allocated for the LGBTQ community. In total, the ministry allocated 12 million shekels ($3.65 million) for the community in 2021. A ministry initiative that gives an extra 93,000 shekels to each local authority that invests 10,000 shekels in community projects has been embraced by 72 local authorities.

“With all due respect to Tel Aviv, where there is abundant awareness of this community, LGBTQ community members have a right to live anywhere in Israel, and we need awareness in every place. That’s why local authorities are the right platform,” says Social Equality Minister Meirav Cohen. “In the past, there were a few initiatives in the Education Ministry, such as a mandate for teaching tolerance, through which teachers could invite people to talk about the community. Other initiatives at the Social Services Ministry, which bears responsibility for marginalized communities, provided housing for homeless LGBTQ people, but there wasn’t a single, central agency that reviewed the special needs of this community, with no one preparing a holistic plan.”

Social Equality Minister Meirav Cohen.Credit: Yanai Yechiel

Why is the LGBTQ community seen as a group that needs separate budgeting?

“First of all, there are unique expenses, such as having children, which involves a more complex process for the LGBTQ community. Older members of the community experience more severe loneliness than other communities do, often having no children who can support them. Transgender people have great difficulties in finding jobs, something other groups don’t encounter. Roughly half of this group has tried to commit suicide at least once in their lifetime. One could also view it this way: either we take this group under our care, or else we’ll have to invest much more money in it down the line.

“In the last few months, we’ve devised a strategy that serves as the basis for a much bigger plan. As a start, we’ve offered all local authorities a very profitable deal. For every shekel they put into this community, we’ll add nine. A local authority will find it hard to forgo such funding, it’s almost free. Each authority has to choose from activities we’ve defined, such as holding empowerment groups, providing aid for older LGBTQ people, or training people working for the local authority. We’ve reached 72 authorities, in which 60 percent of the country’s population lives.”

According to the Social Equality Ministry, 29 of these municipalities already have a coordinator for the LGBTQ community, working either part- or full-time. Others are still in the process of filling these positions. Most of these recruits are there as a result of the new budget; previously, only 12 municipalities had such a position.

“We’ve reached very homogenous communities, such as the settlement of Efrat,” says Cohen. “That’s a huge achievement, in my view. There were places where we couldn’t break through municipal barriers, such as in Jerusalem, in which we tried to establish alternative routes, forging links with civil organizations in the LGBTQ community. For example, we’ve cooperated with Bat Kol, a group of religious and ultra-Orthodox lesbian women. A religious woman coming out of the closet loses God, her family and her economic backbone. We’ve opened an anonymous emergency call center, staffed by psychologists and rabbis. There are also designated support groups.”

Thousands of people marching in the city of Haifa during the Gay Pride Parade on June 22, 2018.Credit: Rami Shllush

‘The solution to violence is the education of young people’

The results of a survey of the needs of the LGBTQ community in Binyamina-Givat Ada were released this week. This is the first step for authorities that have responded to the Social Ministry’s call for proposals. A similar survey will soon be conducted in Harish. According to Gilad, Binyamina-Givat Ada, like Harish, has a gay community, but there was no agency to link between people. Now, there is a a WhatsApp group they’ve set up."

What does the needs survey include?

“It has two parts. The first is addressed to the gay community, asking for the degree of satisfaction they feel with present conditions and what they would like to receive as part of the services provided to their community. They are asked if they would take part in planned activities, and if so, in what areas. The other questionnaire addresses the families of LGBTQ community members. It contains similar questions, but from the perspective of relatives like parents or siblings. They are also asked about violent incidents they may have witnessed. We plan to distribute a survey of people’s attitudes in which we determine how service providers and ordinary people regard the LGBTQ community, in order to determine what our limitations are when conducting various activities.”

According to Gilad, the main challenge in communities she works in is the education of young people. “The ministry’s call should be eagerly embraced and implemented for people under 18 as well. Ultimately, if there is one way in which we can overcome future violence, it’s by educating young people,” she says. “What I found amazing was the mobilization of educators at the Binyamina-Givat Ada high school. Two weeks after I began, we were already sitting and planning training sessions and workshops we’d have at the high school, and we’re well into it. This is how we create a safe space for students, a place a students from the LGBTQ community can go to, as well as someone wondering about their sexual identity but who cannot talk about it without worrying about being judged or about information about them spreading.”

'We need to break the glass ceiling'

Harel Felder, 34, has been living in Sderot for six and a half years, the last three as the LGBTQ community coordinator in the Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council, a position that is split between the council’s youth section, which covers 9,500 residents, and the area’s community center. “I grew up in Hod Hasharon, and I’m a member of the Dror-Israel educational movement in Sderot,” he says. “I moved here because I believe that this region, close to the Gaza border, is important for the building of a strong society that has solidarity. The story of the gay community here began four years ago as a social activity, with a place for people to meet, culminating in a Gay Pride event in Sha’ar Hanegev last summer.

“The council has grown a lot and has become heterogeneous, and among the newcomers are gay families. Nearly every town or community has at least one gay couple, if not more. We now have 50-60 activists. I don’t think there is any essential difference between my LGBTQ community and ones in Tel Aviv, but I think that here, it is more of a challenge to obtain appropriate services. People often prefer to go to Tel Aviv once in a while in order to see a doctor, for example.”

“Services are gradually improving, in education and in social services. We are marching hand in hand with the local community in order to make progress and provide better-suited services, such as changing official forms so they include ‘Parent 1, Parent 2,’ posting Gay Pride signs at central intersections in the council’s jurisdiction and at the council building during Gay Pride Month, urging council leaders to attend our events, and teaching all kindergarten teachers in the area about different types of families on the LGBTQ spectrum.”

You’ve been living in the south for over six years. To what extent do you feel freer and safer in Tel Aviv in comparison to where you live now?

“I haven’t encountered homophobia, but I also haven’t seen a same-sex couple walking down the street holding hands. Sometimes I think twice before I walk with someone down the street. Once I was walking with someone holding hands, but it didn’t feel good. It felt oppressive, not because anyone did something bad to us, but because of images and stigmas I had in my head. I feel more comfortable in Tel Aviv. I sometimes think twice about what I wear before leaving the house, such as clothes with LGBTQ emblems, or something more exposed, effeminate or colorful. But every coin has two sides.

“Tel Aviv is very important for the gay community, it offers many opportunities and possibilities, and most gay people see themselves growing and raising families in the metropolitan Tel Aviv area. On the other hand, as long as things are as they are, there will be a glass ceiling hindering the development of the community, its ability to find precise and more diverse solutions across the country, and the ability of the community to become an inseparable part of Israeli society. This is a key challenge facing the community: to leave Tel Aviv and shatter the glass ceiling.”

Attracting a specific part of the community

In south Tel Aviv’s Neve Sha’anan neighborhood, people are trying to build an LGBTQ community; more specifically, a gay male one. Gadi Tunes, who lives there with his partner and their baby daughter, is one of the instigators of “New Sha’anan,” an initiative seeking to turn the neighborhood into Tel Aviv’s gay quarter.

“The neighborhood has several brothels, which drive crime and drug trafficking,” he says. “Our initiative is trying to consolidate an already existing trend, formalizing the flow of gay people from the center to this neighborhood. I’m specifically referring to gay men, not members of the entire LGBTQ community, since it’s mainly men who are moving in, either single or as couples. Women don’t feel comfortable here.”

So you want a community here based on gay men?

“It’s not that we only want gay men in the neighborhood. From our perspective, it could be as heterogeneous as possible. I have a young girl, and I’d really like to have family services here, but since there is little personal safety here, this won’t happen anytime soon. That’s why we think gay men could be the vanguard, as happened in San Francisco, New York, London and Madrid, where they came to difficult neighborhoods, their presence improving security in public spaces. The rest of the community followed later.”

What about the claim that the arrival of well-off couples to the neighborhood – gay people in this case – will push people with fewer means, such as transgender people and other members of the community, into prostitution?

“There are authorities whose job that is, let them take care of that. We tried to bring cabinet members, local council members and the mayor here; they should look after these people. Some, like the mayor, never came. The authorities prefer to ignore these things.”

“I moved to this neighborhood because I really love it for its culture and for what it has to offer,” says Barak Krips, who works in marketing. He moved to Neve Sha’anan with his partner a few months ago. “It has a special atmosphere, and it lured me more than living in the northern part of the city. The neighborhood adrenaline, the Indian and Chinese restaurants, the cool supermarkets. In our building there are a language teacher, dancers, writers, screenwriters, actors and musicians. Along with that, we see the flaws and the difficulties some people have, with drugs and prostitution on the streets.”

Are you worried that if the initiative to brand the neighborhood as gay succeeds, weaker people will be pushed out?

A participant in Mitzpeh Ramon’s first Pride parade.Credit: Ilan Assayag

“I don’t think the gay community is of one stripe in socio-economic terms. There are different people there, covering a wide spectrum that is unconnected to their socio-economic status. As soon as Tel Aviv realizes the fascinating cultural diversity of this area – with Indians, Chinese, Philippine and Israeli people – and does something to lift it, it could become a fascinating cultural center.”

“The situation in Neve Sha’anan is a transitional one,” says Dor Zomer, a journalist, researcher and urban planning activist. “Neglect by the municipality led to its image as a neighborhood people want to leave. It includes foreign workers, refugees, women in prostitution, transgender people. There are many drug addicts lying in the streets, entire families of asylum seekers living in ground-level commercial venues with no facilities or relevant infrastructure. This is a frightening neighborhood to walk around in, certainly for women.

“It’s important that people from the LGBTQ community leave Tel Aviv and make additional locations safe and open, but that won’t hide the elephant in the room,” he says. “Under the current development policies prevailing in Israel, particularly in Tel Aviv, affluent gay people displace weaker people from the city. The neighborhood is already changing its character, and there is no declared objective of keeping the existing population here. The people who can afford to live in these new projects are mainly people from the outside. As someone who’s studied this and still deals with the issue, as a gay person and a resident of Tel Aviv, I believe Neve Sha’anan should undergo urban renewal and processes that will fix things. This correction doesn’t necessarily need to employ economic measures that bring profits to developers while kicking out the people who now live there.”

The Tel Aviv Municipality said in response to this story that it is “aware of the distress of Neve Sha’anan’s residents and will therefore, as it has done previously, take action, in cooperation with the police, to close existing gaps and improve the quality of life and personal security of its residents. The municipality is promoting several plans for urban renewal and improvement of public spaces, including the building of affordable housing that will allow resident to remain in the neighborhood.”

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