Earlier this year, an American Airlines survey crowned Tel Aviv the Best Gay City in the world, beating out the likes of worthy contenders like New York and Sao Paulo. In June, an estimated 100,000 Tel Aviv residents and foreign revelers participated in the city’s annual Pride Parade festivities, during which the White City was draped in a coat of rainbow colors.
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Yet while Tel Aviv may be celebrated as a gay mecca, social acceptance in the periphery can range from curiosity to mere indifference (probably the majority of Israelis) to discomfort and even the potential for hostility in certain areas.
A same-sex couple kissing on Rothschild Boulevard in the heart of Tel Aviv will hardly turn heads but that couple is recommended to exercise discretion and avoid public displays of affection while in the West Bank, Arab villages in Israel, Bedouin communities, and religious Jewish towns and neighborhoods. Holding hands down Emek Refaim in Jerusalem is fine; in Mea Shearim or East Jerusalem, it’s risky.
This doesn’t mean you should sequester yourself in the bubble of Tel Aviv or tone down your pride. But in a country where many populations still adhere to certain traditions and religious teachings that hold antagonistic views of same-sex relations, it’s best to remain cautious when veering off the yellow brick road.
Same-sex relations in Israel were decriminalized in the Knesset in 1988. Since then, Tel Aviv in particular has flourished as a gay oasis in an otherwise unfriendly Middle East. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Israelis enjoy a remarkable number of rights and protections from the government, making Israel one of the most progressive countries in the world on this issue.
For example, in 1993, when U.S. President Bill Clinton was signing into law Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the IDF was changing its policy to allow gay and lesbian soldiers to serve openly. And in 2006, Israel began recognizing same-sex marriages performed abroad, once again besting the United States.
In light of this, LGBT travelers are not just welcome in Israel, they’re recruited and catered to: the Tel Aviv Gay Vibe campaign, a joint effort between the municipality and Israel’s national LGBT organization, offers a robust list of resources and events.