Years ago, during a family trip to Israel, I remember arriving at our seaside Tel Aviv hotel before the city was awake. I had taken a red-eye from Los Angeles and was as bleary as the sky. There was a rainbow flag hanging across the street, limp in the morning stillness, and it struck me as both entirely out of place and yet natural and welcoming. It surprised and thrilled me. I was 25 at the time, and had been out for several years, but the image was startling because of how swiftly and significantly it altered my perception of Israel.
As a Diaspora Jew growing up in California, I thought of Israel as a museum filled mostly with antiquities. It was a place you inherently respected, and knew you were supposed to visit – a meaningful but not a pulsing place. Then I spent two weeks there one summer in high school, during which I bought a Coca-Cola T-shirt in Hebrew, had an awkward fling with a girl named Lindsay and developed a serious crush on a boy named Matt. In that way, Israel played a small role in my blossoming self-awareness, and I started to think of the country differently: a place where you might discover new parts of yourself. But I also assumed exploring one’s sexuality wasn’t included; for Diaspora Jews, Israel is often placed on too sacred a pedestal to accommodate feelings that then felt so profane.
I had intended to study abroad in Jerusalem, but the second intifada foiled my plans. So it was eight years before I next returned to Israel to find those rainbow flags heralding the annual Tel Aviv pride parade. I didn’t get to participate in the festivities that year – our itinerary took us to some ruins in the north instead – but the image was enough to make me feel as if the country could recognize, and even celebrate, that aspect of my identity.
In the following years, I returned regularly – for a cousin’s wedding, for work, because I needed my fix. Gay bars became a kind of secret portal to penetrate the social scene and make Israeli friends. In 2010 I received a one-year fellowship and moved to Tel Aviv. When the program ended, I made aliyah. I did so because Israel inspired and challenged me, and because it allowed me to fully express every part of myself: my curiosity and my creativity, my adventurousness and my ambition, my spirituality and my sexuality.
The Israeli LGBT community became an important component of my life in Israel – not just as a dating pool but also as a microcosm and entry point to understand other social and political issues. I befriended a group of religious gays and lesbians who insisted that one can be out and observant, even in a country in which organized religion largely discounts them. I went to the monthly gay Palestinian parties in a graffiti-filled alley near my apartment and met queer Israeli Arabs who shared with me their complicated relationship with nationality and sexuality. A gay Israeli of Ethiopian descent, one of my closest friends in the country, helped me understand the unique struggles of coming out in that culture, and also the broader struggles of the Ethiopian community to fully integrate into Israeli society. And I dated a prominent media personality, whose humor, intelligence and insight helped me hone a critical and questioning approach to politics, both within and beyond the LGBT community.
As I started to write about Israel’s LGBT community, for this and other publications, I had the opportunity to meet with pioneers who fought for recognition and visibility before Tel Aviv became an international gay mecca. I had Shabbat dinner with Uzi Even, who lost his job in the Israeli military for being gay and then was instrumental in reversing the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly. I visited Yael Dayan, the influential politician (and daughter of the famed military leader Moshe Dayan) to discuss her early advocacy of LGBT rights in the Knesset, despite opposition, even from her fellow feminists. I had coffee with Nora Grinberg, who for years has tirelessly advocated for rights and government services for the transgender community.
Of course, I’m not naive about the obstacles that LGBT Israelis still face politically and socially. Much of the periphery of the country is lacking in support and resources, particularly for LGBT youth. Despite winning rights in the courts, few protections for the LGBT community are enshrined in legislative law, and a right-wing government looking for a scapegoat could easily roll back gains. And the transgender community remains excluded from much of the recent progress and attention (though the theme of this year’s Tel Aviv pride parade – “Tel Aviv Loves All Genders” – is a welcome correction of that trend).
A few years ago, I wrote an article about young immigrants who, like me, came to Israel in part because of its dynamic, multifaceted LGBT community. Call it a queer Zionism – a love of Israel informed by one’s sexual orientation or gender identity. And it can complement any other form of political, religious or cultural Zionism to which one may subscribe. Sexuality is not ancillary but intrinsic to the way some of us understand our relationship with, and contribution to, Israel.
Folks abroad can (and should) argue about how Israel’s record on gay rights is discussed internationally, but for those of us who at one point in our lives wondered whether being Jewish and being gay were incompatible, Israel has come to offer a strong – and surprising – answer: They most certainly are not.
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