Me and an Israeli drag queen in Tel Aviv

A Reflection on Israel from a Queer Perspective.

My recent travels to Israel where enlightening in many capacities. I had the opportunity to experience various regions of this beautiful country through Taglit Birthright, a Zionist organization that brings young adult Jews to Israel. My group of immediate travel comrades was all members of UC Berkeley’s Hillel. I was thus lucky enough to not only travel to Israel, but also to get to experience this trip with other open minded, Berkeley college kids. The social element of this trip was an important factor in making it the amazing experience that it was- which especially contributed to how I experienced Israel from a queer perspective.

In any social situation, I tend to be wary about expressing my sexual identity until I get a good sense of how open minded and understanding the people I am with are. Luckily- or unluckily- my appearance tends to not give anything away about being gay; coming out is generally something I always have to do with a new group of people because I don’t fit any physical lesbian stereotypes on which people can base any assumptions. Because my trip to Israel began in the context of the immediate Berkeley group of travelers I was with, I instantly felt comfortable with being open about my sexual preferences- and with college kids, conversation tends to head to a sexual place pretty quickly! My comfort level with the group of Americans I was traveling with definitely played a huge role in my comfort level abroad, regardless of how socially conservative any given area we visited was.

Feeling supported by and comfortable with my beautiful group of liberal Berkeley hippie travelers allowed me to feel safe in every place we visited throughout Israel- and allowed me to really feel comfortable experiencing Israel from a queer perspective not only on my own but with others as well. I was one of three gay students traveling with our group of forty, but everyone we were with was as open minded about sexuality as we are so it wasn’t difficult to have a queer Israel experience with them. With that said, we visited a variety of different locations throughout the country that each had its own social flavor and level of diversity.

The Galilee region of Israel

The first region we traveled through was the north of Israel. We stayed on a kibbutz near the Sea of Galilee and focused on archeological and nature aspects of the country because of how nature-oriented that part of the country is. We did various hikes and visits to ruins which was so beautiful because there really was a sense of connection to natural beauty in the north. Because of this, this first part of the country and part of the trip was more touristy but also more laid back on a local level. Most of the other people we were around were also traveling from abroad and the Israelis we interacted with were extremely low key and mellow- neither extremely liberal like in some of the bigger cities nor extremely conservative like in the religious areas.

The one major city we stopped at was Tsfat, which is home to the mystic Judaism and Kabbalah movement. Though it had a strong inviting and tourist presence, Tsfat is definitely a religious city and felt relatively conservative because of its die-hard religious presence. However, Tsfat has always been relatively alternative from a religious standpoint because of its focus on mysticism and progressive religious perspectives so the social manifestation of this vibe was a little hard to digest at times. Other nature-oriented places we visited like the Golan Heights, Mount Arbel, Tel Dan, and the Dead Sea were all places I felt comfortable expressing and focusing on my queer identity because of the international diversity and global vibe present there. Any place where multiple cultures are coming together is a place that not only invites diversity but also one that holds the potential for great cross-cultural understanding. The beauty about queer culture is that although it manifests differently all over the world, it is something that truly knows no national boundaries and thus has a universal presence and bonding factor. Needless to say, I was proud to represent my identity as a gay American and a gay Jew.

Jerusalem

After traveling to the North, our trip took us to Jerusalem where we remained for the majority of our stay in Israel. Jerusalem is definitely an urban environment with lots of native Israelis, but because it is such a high-profile travel destination there is a huge tourist presence as well. Walking through the streets of Jerusalem was an extremely interesting social situation because the majority of the locals are Orthodox Jews and thus is extremely conservative. Because of this, it was hard to feel comfortable not only expressing my queer identity but also expressing my female and American identities. There were places I definitely felt self-conscious about the clothes I was wearing and the amount of skin I had exposed; luckily it was wintery and the cold weather didn’t leave a lot of room for exposure but my normal clothes felt alternative and provocative compared to the local dress. There were times I even felt self-conscious about wearing pants instead of a skirt or dress. Because of the various degrees of differing social elements coming to a head in Jerusalem, the way I experienced the expression of my queer identity was very tied up in my expression of my female, American, and tourist identities. Needless to say, certain areas held more social tension than others. The Old City of Jerusalem, though touristy, is more religiously charged and thus more socially conscious. Many regions of Jerusalem are extremely progressive and urban so it didn’t feel any different than being in any other city in the world.

Tel Aviv

The most cutting edge and trendy place we visited was Tel Aviv. This city has always reminded me of Miami: extremely urban and contemporary, and right on the beautiful water of the Mediterranean. We definitely got a sense of open mindedness and forward thinking in Tel Aviv, as well as an inviting vibe of cultural and identity expression. I definitely felt the most comfortable socially here, not only because of the rich cultural presence of the tourists but also because the locals who live in Tel Aviv are notoriously open minded and colorful themselves. Though Jerusalem does have a growing LGBT presence, Tel Aviv is absolutely the gay mecca of Israel and the entire Middle East. This city not only accepted queer identity expression of all sorts, but also encouraged it and prides itself on its high level of diversity and support of the gay community. Any time of day or night, I felt completely at home in my queer skin in and around this incredible gay hotspot.

Gay Israeli culture from an Israeli’s perspective

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One of the most incredible aspects of the trip was not just getting to travel around the country but getting to experience Israel alongside Israelis. For a segment of our trip, we were joined by eight Israeli soldiers on leave- they were rewarded for their service with the chance to travel with us and supplement our Birthright experience while also getting to be tourists in their own country. The soldiers were the same age as us- between 19 and 21- but had had extremely different experiences of maturity and coming into adulthood because they were drafted into the Israeli Defense Force right after high school. Both groups, the group from Berkeley and the group from Israel, were extremely mature and adult in their own ways. While we had come into our own- and also come out- in a progressive and alternative liberal academic environment in the United States, they had engaged in a powerful institution of honor and Israeli nationalism while serving their country with anything from intelligence to combat. Getting to see Israel through the eyes of our soldier friends was extremely enlightening and engaging, especially because they were able to give us inside scoop about the various places we were visiting.

The Israeli I bonded most with is a 21-year old named Jonatan who is serving in an intelligence unit in the Israeli Defense Force. I was drawn to him because he was sort of shy and had a gentle giant energy about him, with the absolute sweetest face I had ever seen in my life. Even before we connected I loved watching him watch all of us; I really got a sense that he was soaking us in and truly absorbing all of the social and cultural quirks we take for granted in one another as fellow Berkeley students and Americans. Once Jonatan and I started talking, we quickly bonded over our sexuality- he is gay too but has been less open with his peers and mentors than my gay friends from home and I have always been. We talked a lot about our coming out stories, how our families feel about our sexual orientation, and the various ways it manifests in our lives on a daily basis. Many elements of our queer experiences were similar- for example, the support he gets from his family reminded me a lot of my own. However, Jonatan explained to me that even though the Israeli Army is open to and supportive of all sexual orientations because of the nature of the draft, he doesn’t feel comfortable opening up about his sexuality because he is afraid it will impact the way he would be treated by his peers.

Jonatan also told me that his base, which is focused on intelligence, is notoriously gay and has a variety of LGBT members. Beyond this aspect of demographics, the Israeli Defense Force is openly against homophobia and has never had anything like our horrific “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. Because of his own social upbringing and wariness about being out in such a controlling institution that dictates the terms of his life for three years, Jonatan has still been uncomfortable being completely open about his sexuality to more than just a few friends. Even in the context of our trip, where the other Israeli soldiers were people he had never met and worked in different units, Jonatan didn’t really want them to know he was gay in case it got back to his supervisors on his base. This level of secrecy and insecurity was new for me to experience because luckily enough I have always lived and worked and learned in spaces that are extremely liberal on an institutional and social level. However, I was reassured by the fact that Jonatan did at least have a sense of support from his friends and felt comfortable with the people he lived and worked with immediately on his base. Though different than mine, his experience was an important reminder that there are definitely circumstances that warrant social and emotional discretion regarding sexuality of any and every form.

In spite of his more conservative experiences in the Israeli Army, Jonatan has definitely indulged in the Israeli gay culture and was so thrilled to share that aspect of Israel with us during our travels. He pointed out the main gay bars in Jerusalem as well as in Tel Aviv, and he confirmed the appeal Tel Aviv has as the gay mecca of the Middle East. He even participates in Israeli drag culture that is housed in Tel Aviv, which is a huge outlet for the LGBT community in Israel- especially those who are in service. In the United States, many people come out when they go away to college and have a chance to reinvent themselves while getting some distance from their home and their past. This sense of sexual and emotional liberation has been extremely inviting and supportive for me as someone who chooses to actively and openly identify as gay in spite of my distaste for labels of any sort. I cannot imagine existing in a world any less liberal and accepting and open minded than the world I have found in Berkeley—especially during such a rich and transitional time in my life. The fact that Jonatan has had to find an LGBT community so far removed from his own day to day environment is hard for me to grasp, and is that much more impressive to me that he has thrown himself into drag and gay culture full throttle- in the most classy and genuine way I might add!

Getting to share my experiences about being gay with Jonatan was as powerful as getting to hear about his. Throughout our travels I really got a chance to see my friends and peers through his eyes- and I completely take for granted how open and accepting everyone in my life is about sexuality but also about gender expression, feminism, and various other aspects of this liberal and alternative lifestyle we live as UC Berkeley students. Jonatan was constantly shocked at how open we all were, at how casually me and my gay friends talked about our sexuality—and how there was completely no discomfort, tension, or reaction from anyone else involved. During one night of group bonding, Jonatan turned to me and exclaimed, “that boy just talked about never having kissed a girl, and nobody even flinched or had a second thought about it!”. Something that has been so much a part of my existence was so incredibly new for him, and getting to witness him experience a group of young open minded individuals who choose to support the LGBT community with every action, reaction, phrasing of a statement was one of the most beautiful experiences I have ever had.

By the end of my trip throughout Israel I had learned so much about myself as a Jew but also as a queer Jew and queer American. My sense of self and how I relate to my community was absolutely enhanced upon having to experience it in a new and different environment. The most life changing aspect of this trip, especially in regards to experience it from a queer perspective, was getting to meet Jonatan. When we finally had to part ways, his normally composed self fell to pieces as he grieved the loss of this accepting and supportive group he had so quickly come to love. Being surrounded by such understanding and open mindedness had given him hope about his potential to feel supported by a community, but also made having to go back to the reality of his base and the Israeli Army bitter and intimidating. I can tell that I had changed him as much as he changed me though, and by the end of the trip he told me many times with a smile on his face that observing us in all of our gay glory made him want to be more open about his sexuality to the people on his army base.

With tears in his eyes, Jonatan gave me his dogtag from the army as we were saying our goodbyes- as if I needed anything physical as a reminder of the impact he made on me. My life has truly been changed by his presence in my life those few days in Israel, and I know we are destined to know eachother beyond the confines of our Birthright trip. I wear Jonatan’s dogtag around my neck every day now to honor my fabulous gay Israeli brother serving in an army of a heavily targeted and extremely hated country in the Middle East- of a country who has its own conflicting social history surrounding sexuality but that has still proven to be a safe-haven for persecuted gays in a region of the world where social standards of sexual and gender expression are crippling and often fatal. I wear his dogtag to honor my fabulous gay Israeli brother who is expressing himself and his queer identity to make social change in circumstances of persecution and stigma that I cannot even conceive of. It is because of Jonatan that I am proud to be an active member of the LGBT community, and it is because of my relationship with and affect on Jonatan that I choose to be openly gay about my own identity expression and way of experiencing the world… from Berkeley to Israel and beyond.