Between Sodom And Eden

Overview

Astonishingly, Israeli lesbians and gays have been able to achieve many political goals that still elude America's gay community. Israel's Supreme Court has mandated same-sex spousal benefits; the military, which never barred gays to begin with, has removed its last official restrictions; Israel's parliament boasts a Subcommittee for the Prevention of Sexual Orientation Discrimination; and school curricula are gay-friendly--all of this in a country where religious interests wield extraordinary power and whose ...

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Overview

Astonishingly, Israeli lesbians and gays have been able to achieve many political goals that still elude America's gay community. Israel's Supreme Court has mandated same-sex spousal benefits; the military, which never barred gays to begin with, has removed its last official restrictions; Israel's parliament boasts a Subcommittee for the Prevention of Sexual Orientation Discrimination; and school curricula are gay-friendly--all of this in a country where religious interests wield extraordinary power and whose identity today is the object of fierce struggle.

Between Sodom and Eden, the first book to explore this rapidly changing landscape, is based on interviews with over one hundred Israelis, as well as Palestinians. Lee Walzer explores how, within a decade, Israel has evolved from a society that marginalized homosexuals to one that offers some of the most extensive legal protections in the world. He traces the political, religious, and social factors that make Israel a gay rights trendsetter, examining the interplay between Judaism and homosexuality, the growing prominence of gay themes in Israeli literature, film, music, and television, and the role of the media in advancing lesbian and gay political progress.

Columbia University Press

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Editorial Reviews

Joshua Gamson
Animated by diverse voices -gay soldiers and kibbutzniks, Palestinian activists, lesbian politicians and mothers, the many tribes of modern Israel -Between Sodom and Eden reveals the startling burst of lesbian and gay politics in Israel and the often painful cultural challenges that accompany it. It is an important analysis not just of gay people but of Israel itself, with all its lively idiosyncrasies, animosities, and delights. This is the definitive ride through gay and lesbian life in Israel, and you couldn´t ask for a better guide than Walzer, who takes you there with an insider´s passion and an outsider´s insight.
David Tuller
A fascinating, provocative and highly readable exploration of the nature of sexual identity in one of the world's most complex societies. With a reporter´s keen eye and a scholar´s critical intelligence, Lee Walzer offers us a compelling look at the tumultuous, joyful, determined, bittersweet, brave, and often surprising lives of Israeli gays and lesbians.
Urvashi Vaid
Between Sodom and Eden is critical to understanding the existence and emergence of movements for gay and lesbian freedom around the world. The evidence of a thriving lesbian and gay movement in Israel is cogently presented in this ground-breaking, readable and fascinating book. Walzer analyzes the roots, dynamics and potential of the Israeli movement and makes visible the elements of the process by which deep social change is made.
Wayne Hoffman
After interviewing more than 100 people—from activists to rabbis to legislators across the political spectrum—about this societal sea change, Walzer has crafted the definitive resource on gay Israel, and an essential glimpse into the country's broader social wars.
Rebecca Alpert
This book tells the story of the development of a gay and lesbian rights movement in Israel. Walzer keenly analyzes this vibrant, if hidden, dimension of Israeli culture.
Michal Eden
Walzer portrays, in amazing accuracy, an entire chapter of Israeli history to date never before documented, and thereby he shatters the Israeli heterosexist ethos.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
If God didn't make Adam and Steve as well as Adam and Eve, somebody did--because they are certainly alive and well in modern-day Israel, along with their lesbian sisters. This engaging journalistic foray into everyday gay and lesbian life and culture in the Promised Land is brimming with surprising information and conclusions. Based on interviews with Israeli gay and lesbian activists, high school students, kibbutz members, teachers and legislators, as well as common citizens, Walzer, an American attorney and journalist, portrays a complex culture that--although deeply divided on many religious and political issues--is reconciling itself to, and even celebrating, gay life and sexuality. Walzer is best at describing the extremes of Israeli culture: the government has banned employment and military discrimination based on sexual orientation and gay issues are discussed in high schools, yet family life and reproduction are so entrenched in Jewish tradition that it remains difficult for many gay people to come out. Still, many of the gay people he interviews claim that Israelis are not homophobic, simply heterosexist. Walzer reads Talmudic law sensitively--in his view, the Hebrew bible condemns homosexual acts, not people--and places anti-gay religious laws in the broader context of social mores and teachings on sexuality. Walzer's observations on the differences between gay life in Israel and the U.S. (such as that Israelis are far more willing to accept gay people if they identify as individuals and not as part of a "community") lend his provocative study additional interest. (Apr.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
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Product Details

Meet the Author

Lee Walzer is an attorney, writer, and former vice president of the World Congress of Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Jewish Organizations.

Columbia University Press

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Read an Excerpt




Chapter One

Together in Pride, Together in Hope: Lesbian and Gay Politics in Israel


A Knesset member who represents only accountants who come from Bukovina is a wasted Knesset member, just as is a Knesset member who represents only himself. Sexual preference similarly does not justify in and of itself representation in the Knesset.
—Israeli historian and journalist Tom Segev, Ha'aretz, 1995


This is another step toward gay or lesbian representation in the Knesset.
—Michal Eden, openly lesbian member of the

Tel Aviv City Council, 1998


Israeli President Ezer Weizman was on one of his many visits around Israel, meeting the diverse citizens of his nation. A former fighter pilot with a roguish reputation and a blunt tongue, Weizman had transformed Israel's previously bland ceremonial presidency into a bully pulpit, serving as the "national seismograph" of Israel's divided citizenry. Not infrequently, his public musings have sent that seismograph off the charts. Chosen by Knesset vote under the government of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (and reelected to a second term in 1998), Weizman managed to infuriate the late prime minister and his successor, Shimon Peres, with his calls on the Labor-led government to slow down, or even halt, the implementation of the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians.

    He surely did not ingratiate himself with Peres's successor, the hardline BenjaminNetanyahu. First, he publicly issued what amounted to an ultimatum to the new Likud prime minister a few months after his election in 1996: meet with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat or he, Weizman, would invite the Palestinian leader to his home in Caesarea, allowing Arafat to make his first official visit to the Jewish state (Arafat did, in fact, ultimately pay such a visit to Weizman's home). In June 1998 he went well beyond the bounds of his ceremonial position when he declared that Netanyahu was not "living in reality" and should call new elections. By the time that the 1999 Israeli elections rolled around, the Israeli president barely concealed his partisan preferences and disdain for Netanyahu.

    Standing at a podium at the prestigious Reali High School in Haifa on the morning of December 20, 1996, Weizman fielded questions from the students: What were his views on the chances of peace with Syria? How could young people contribute to their nation in post-Zionist Israel? Was he interested in serving a second term as president? As the questions had been submitted to him in advance, he could not have been shocked by the one that followed: What did the Israeli president think about gay rights?

    Never one to shrink from airing his personal views, Weizman fixed the student with his gaze and stated: "There are laws in the Bible against sodomy and bestiality. Are you for sodomy?" When the student ventured that he was not "for" sodomy, the president shot back, "Good. I'm glad." Weizman then expounded further on the gay issue: "To turn it into something where everyone comes out of the closet, this I can't accept .... I like a man who wants to be a man and a woman who wants to be a woman, not a man who wants to be a woman and a woman who wants to be a man."

    The type of homophobia expressed by Weizman certainly is not unknown. The reaction, however, is indicative of the new consensus regarding gay rights among the predominantly Ashkenazi and secular Israeli elite in politics and the media. The Israeli media went into high gear, putting Weizman's remarks at the top of the hourly radio news within two hours of his speech. That Friday evening Israel Television's Yoman newscast reported on the remarks with more than a hint of disapproval of the president, for good measure inviting Israel's best-known gay couple, Amit Kama and Uzi Even, into the studio to give their reaction to the president. They proceeded to use the airtime to call on supporters to demonstrate outside the President's Mansion in Jerusalem the following evening.

    That Saturday night something unprecedented happened. The Aguda, the Lesbian-Feminist Community (KLAF), and Gei'ut, a new group of gays and lesbians working within the Meretz Party, got out three hundred people to demonstrate publicly against Weizman. To demonstrate against Israel's president, who wields no real power, was unheard of. Chagai El-Ad, the former chair of the Hebrew University gay and lesbian student group, Ha-Asiron ha-Acher (Asiron), noted to me that "in this country, the president is a national symbol and you don't demonstrate against him." The demonstration constituted the biggest gay demonstration until then in Israel.

    After a daylong hiatus for the Jewish Sabbath, Israel's Sunday newspapers prominently featured the story. Yediot Achronot headlined the warning of Avi Sofer, then chair of the Aguda: "Weizman's Returning Us to the Darkness of the Middle Ages." The paper featured some of Weizman's previous offensive remarks on other issues, most notably the service of women in the Israeli military.

    Two days later Weizman and his wife received a delegation of gay and lesbian leaders at the President's Mansion. He admitted bad judgment, blamed his remarks on being of a certain age (seventy-two years old) and his education as a youth, and hinted that his wife had chewed him out over the remarks. But Weizman did not offer an unambiguous apology either.

    Although no one noticed at the time, the Weizman affair marked a turning point for Israeli lesbian and gay politics. No longer would the community necessarily do things quietly. Rather, it would enter the fray of Israeli politics on its own terms, unapologetic about itself and increasingly demanding of others. The new self-confidence became clear to all eighteen months later when, in a demonstration combining equal parts of Fame and Zo Artzeinu (as one Israeli friend, Dani Kaplan, described it to me), lesbian, gay, and transgender activists blocked Tel Aviv's busy Ha-Yarkon Street to protest the abrupt end of the annual Wigstock Festival. Within four weeks of that catharsis they propelled Michal Eden to second place in the Meretz primaries, leading to her election to the Tel Aviv City Council as Israel's first openly lesbian official in November 1998. They then conducted what no one ever expected to see anytime soon in Israel: the country's first Gay Pride Parade.

    The Weizman affair shows why Israel's gay community has come such a long way in such a short time. Israel is probably the first country to get the gay-rights model in reverse. According to that model, outlined by gay historians such as John D'Emilio, progress toward civic equality for gay people comes years after lesbians and gay men have migrated to urban centers and built their own community and culture. Only after a certain critical mass in community cohesion is reached can broader social and political progress begin in earnest. D'Emilio also ascribes importance to capitalism, suggesting that the industrialization and urbanization it engendered in the early part of the twentieth century contributed to the growth of cities, with their anonymity, which in turn facilitated the development of gay communities. That is certainly a plausible explanation for the way that gay politics and communities have developed in the United States.

    Not in Israel. In a decade that saw Israel take steps toward peace with its Arab neighbors, the murder of a prime minister because of those steps toward peace, economic prosperity, and social transformation Israel's lesbian and gay community has achieved far-reaching political and legal victories under both Likud- and Labor-led governments. From repeal of sodomy laws to passage of a national law banning employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, from gay speakers in the schools to court cases upholding spousal benefits for the same-sex partners of employees, Israel has joined the ranks of better-known gay rights trendsetters such as the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands. Even the country's choice of a slogan for its jubilee celebration in 1998 inadvertently showed how far Israel has progressed on gay issues—"Together in Pride, Together in Hope" would be at home at any gay pride celebration. What is so fascinating about these victories is that so many of them came in the absence of a visible lesbian and gay community publicly mobilized to demand its rights. Instead, those few pioneering activists turned D'Emilio's model seemingly on its head, leveraging their political and legal progress into greater social visibility and community building.


"There Is No Homophobia in Israel, Only Heterosexism"


One of the reasons for the success in orchestrating progressive legislation and obtaining far-reaching judicial decisions is what I'll call The Mantra: there is no homophobia in Israel, only heterosexism. Most every lesbian and gay activist I interviewed for this book repeated this line to me at one time or another. Alon Harel of the Hebrew University School of Law, for example, told me that Israel has virtually no antigay violence. What it does have, he added, is a strong heterosexist outlook, in which one is presumed to be straight. Amalia Ziv, a doctoral candidate in comparative literature at Tel Aviv University (looking at pornography written by female authors), suggests that the absence of antigay violence might have a connection with the wider Arab-Israeli conflict: "Aggression against Arabs perhaps has something to do with the lack of gay bashing. The fact that we're (gays and lesbians) all Jews helps us be adopted into the national consensus." Other activists I spoke with note that there has never been systematic deliberate persecution of gay people in Israel. But this official line is overly simple. In fact, gay bashings in public parks (and even pick-up murders) have at times constituted a serious problem, as has police harassment or indifference.

    Others have a more basic explanation for some of the gay community's successes: the "fluky" nature of Israeli politics. Former Aguda chair Susan Kirshner, for one, points to the importance of connections and personal contacts. "If you know the right people and contacts, you can get things done. If people are open-minded, that's all you need." As an example, she points to Knesset member and former minister of labor Ora Namir, the aunt of lesbian activist Hadar Namir, who worked to amend the Equal Workplace Opportunities Law to include sexual orientation. While not pivotal to the amendment effort, Namir's aunt's role clearly did not hurt.

    That approach—doing things quietly, even sub rosa—defined a period of Israeli lesbian and gay activism that dates from the 1980s through the early 1990s. During that period, fearful of the power of religious parties in the Knesset, gay rights supporters would call votes late at night, with only supporters present. That is how they ensured repeal of the country's sodomy law in 1988. Former Aguda chair Avi Sofer once remarked to me, "We live in a crazy system. We've never gotten a majority of 61 votes (out of 120) in the Knesset on any issue. Our victories are always 8-5, 16-9, 31-17. We sometimes hide Knesset members, or wait until it's a day of fasting. Then we rush our supporters into the room, call a vote, and disappear."

    Kirshner's partner, former Aguda chair Liora Moriel, says that as a small and Jewish country, the Israeli government "wants to keep its [Jewish] citizens happy and content. So, people don't see the big deal in granting gays rights." She also believes that "there's a basic underlying sense of fairness and decency. When we show that there are some citizens who are not getting a fair shake, it helps." And that, she says, the Aguda was successful at doing: "The Aguda managed to get into the public's mind that we are citizens with needs not being met, and that should be met." As shall be seen, Moriel has a point. The way lesbian and gay activism in the 1990s appealed to public support has much to do with appealing to that sense of "We're One People."


The Knesset


The first stop on any tour of lesbian and gay political success in Israel is the modest office of Knesset member Yael Dayan. As someone accustomed to American politicians' imperial trappings of power, I come away from my interview with her convinced that less can be more. Dayan is in the midst of a busy day in June 1997 when I knock on the door of her office, the size perhaps of a large walk-in closet, which she shares with two legislative aides and which is located near the end of a corridor in the bowels of the Knesset. Crammed into the office are three desks and one computer.

    While the offices of American politicians are covered with nicely framed photographs of the famous and powerful, Dayan makes do with a cork bulletin board on which are tacked snapshots of her with Palestinian Authority president Yasser Arafat, President Clinton, and Jordan's late King Hussein. There is one large photograph of her and her deceased father, Moshe Dayan, the one-eyed general who was a walking image of Israel to the rest of the world. On another wall hangs an Arab ceramic plate, inscribed by Mustafa Natshe, the Palestinian mayor of Hebron. As she turns toward me to begin the interview, I notice the white dove pin on her lapel, a symbol of her efforts at dialogue with the Palestinians.

    Having heard Dayan speak before, I am not surprised by her initial bluntness.


There's been no change since Bibi (Prime Minister Netanyahu) came to power. There've been no limitations on the [lesbian and gay] community. We've even amended the Libel Law this year to prevent defamation on the basis of a person's sexual orientation. Laws that didn't pass in the last Knesset won't pass now. I can't do anything right now.


    In 1993 Dayan, a Labor Party member, called the first Knesset conference on gay and lesbian issues in her capacity as chair of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women and proceeded to establish the Knesset Subcommittee for the Prevention of Sexual Orientation Discrimination. She has used her position to serve as a watchdog of sorts for the gay community, intervening with government bodies to rectify cases of discrimination.

    She has championed the lesbian and gay community even since, sometimes flamboyantly. One week after her 1993 conference, she created pandemonium in the Knesset when, during a discussion about the Israeli military's treatment of gays, she declared, "Shmuel ha-Nagid was the chief of staff of the Army of Granada [in medieval Spain]. He was the first Jewish, gay chief of staff." In response to heckling from National Religious Party MK Chanan Porat, she yelled back, "If you let me, I'll get to King David, or at least Saul."


PORAT: "Not everything's legitimate."

DAYAN (reading from the Book of Samuel): "'I am distressed for thee, Jonathan. You have given me great pleasure.'"

PORAT: "Don't do it."

DAYAN: "`Your love surpasses the love of women.'"

PORAT: "Don't do it."


The gay community's most significant legislative successes—repeal of the country's sodomy law and passage of an amendment to the Equal Workplace Opportunities Law to include sexual orientation—took place, interestingly, under Likud governments, and before the establishment of her subcommittee. Dayan states that such changes could occur because "this is an equal society, with certain pockets. The changes came as part of our social-democratic awareness. What I did was bring the issue into broader public consciousness and give it legitimacy." This latter statement suggests a process of political elites working in top-down fashion to legitimize the gay community in the wider public, and even in the eyes of the community itself. Dayan herself estimates that the changes in the Knesset "gave the community self-confidence and enabled it to develop internally and to demand its rights publicly." And, in fact, without that societal stamp of approval, it would have been quite difficult for the lesbian and gay community to emerge.

    Although Dayan is a committed left-winger, Israeli politics do not split so neatly between left and right, secular and religious, when it comes to gay rights. I spent two days in the Knesset in February 1998 going from one end of Israel's political spectrum to the other: from the offices of Tamar Gozhansky, a member of Chadash (basically, the Israeli Communist Party), to those of Beni Elon of Moledet, as far to the right in Israel as one can go without being banned from running for the Knesset on grounds of racism. The terms left and right become meaningful, however, only when discussing the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestinian problem. While the Israeli left—represented by Labor and Meretz—is more vocal in support of gay rights, one can find support—and homophobia—in unexpected places across Israel's political spectrum.

    If Dayan's office displayed the accoutrements of hopes for peace, Beni Elon's displayed somewhat different yearnings—a poster calling for mass prayer at Rachel's Tomb outside of Bethlehem. While waiting for him to arrive, his parliamentary aides, both Orthodox and both immigrants (from the U.S. and France respectively) engaged me in conversation about gay issues as well as idle chitchat. The French-born aide, a woman dressed in a fashionable head covering and long skirt, suddenly brought up the Monica Lewinsky affair and opined that "the difference between Clinton and Bibi (who admitted to an affair while married to his third and present wife) is that women don't complain about Bibi."

    In person, Elon, a big bear of a man, turned out to be charming rather than the ranting extremist I half-expected to encounter. Before we began, he, an ordained Orthodox rabbi, asked me where my Hebrew was from. I replied, "You might be surprised but I'm the product of a good Reform Jewish education." Elon smiled and said that he was not surprised at all. He had recently returned from speaking at a Reform Jewish day school in Miami and said that Israel and Hebrew are what keep Reform Jews Jewish these days.

    In the first issue of the Israeli lesbian and gay newspaper, Ha-Zman ha-Varod, Elon declared that "there's a feeling that the left is for the advancement of the status of gays and the right is against. That's incorrect and I hope that this feeling will pass in the present Knesset." This seeming openness intrigued me at the time, as Elon belongs to a party that, among other things, advocates the "transfer" of Arabs from the West Bank. Elon's fellow Moledet MK in the Fourteenth Knesset, Rechavam Ze'evi (perversely nicknamed "Gandhi"), is not pro-gay at all.

    I asked Elon how he, as an Orthodox rabbi, could take a seemingly positive approach to gay rights in view of Orthodoxy's condemnation of homosexuality. In reply, he asked me, "Where's it written in the Torah that one should discriminate against gays?" True, but the Torah does seem to condemn same-sex relations, I replied. "That's dinei shamayim (laws of heaven)," rather than a law that is rigorously enforced practically or relevant to day-to-day life, Elon told me. The law should protect the civil rights of all people, he continued, as everyone is created in God's image.

    Elon takes a sometimes contradictory approach to gay rights. On the one hand, he said he was against discrimination against gays and claimed he was supportive of laws to protect lesbians and gay men from discrimination in employment, which he defined as a matter of privacy rights. He struck me as quite sincere about that. When it comes to equality for same-sex couples, however, Elon is far more cautious, to be charitable about it. "I don't want the Jewish state to undermine the value of the [traditional] family," he declared to me. Yet he claimed that he wasn't opposed, say, to Adir Steiner's efforts to win a pension as the surviving partner of the late gay IDF colonel Doron Maisel, just to efforts to uniformly amend all Israeli laws to formally enshrine same-sex couples as equal to heterosexual ones.

    Not surprisingly, Elon did not see lesbians and gay men as a community. "To focus on just this one issue is sick. It's like an addiction to drugs," he opined, his rhetoric edging up a notch. In his view, most lesbian and gay Israelis—"the silent majority," as he put it—don't want to change the cultural makeup of society. "They just want to live without being persecuted." As an Orthodox rabbi, Elon also could not abide a gay synagogue, as such a synagogue, being organized around a sin, would be akin to organizing a "synagogue of Sabbath violators." He similarly took a diffident approach to the controversy over the screening of a segment about gay youth on the Open Cards program (which he had not personally seen), a battle ultimately resolved by the Israeli Supreme Court. "It's legitimate to oppose a program that can confuse the development of young peoples' personalities," he patiently explained, "but if it is supposed to help kids who are suffering, and thinking of suicide, I would favor the program."

    An interview the next day with Eliezer "Modi" Zandberg of the right-wing Tzomet Party (which ceased to exist after the 1999 elections) underlined how the Arab-Israeli conflict imposes an artificial dynamic on Israeli politics that would collapse the moment Arabs and Israelis reached a resolution of their conflict. For now, says Zandberg, the issue of the territories is what drives the Israeli political debate, creating odd constellations in the process. Looking at his left-wing rival, Meretz, Zandberg saw a political party that, yes, takes a liberal stance on the Palestinian issue but, when it comes to economics, is made up of a "weird combination" of capitalists from its Shinui faction and dyed-in-the-wool socialists from its Mapam wing. Zandberg, too, is forced into some strange contortions. His party takes a hard line against any concessions to the Arabs ("There won't be peace. The Arabs want to destroy us, eliminate us, in all sorts of ways") yet sits uneasily in a government coalition with the ultra-Orthodox whose religious coercion it opposes.

    As for gay rights, Zandberg says that he supports it as a "liberal," but that it was not a major issue for him. He did everything possible to downplay his involvement in the issue, although I found his reticence puzzling. In fact, he spoke at the festival following Tel Aviv's Gay Pride Parade in 1998, the only figure from the Israeli right to do so that year, and often offers his views on the issue in the Israeli press.


Politicians, Politics, and Pride


Former Aguda chair Itzik Yosha summed up for me the politics of gay rights thus: "There's no great hatred of gays and lesbians in Israel. No huge persecutions. The government didn't arrest us. People consequently didn't come out. Thus, things came from the top. Yael Dayan turned this into a big campaign, a big political issue." And, he notes, as with any big issue, it has attracted a variety of politicians eager to ride the wave.

    Watching Tel Aviv Pride unfold in Gan Meir over the weekend in June 1997, I cannot help thinking that Yosha may be correct in believing that gay rights has become almost chic in certain political circles. Labor Party MK Eitan Kabel takes the stage in front of a throng of perhaps three thousand gays, lesbians, and friends, and declares,


I think that this "happening" is good and reflects something in Israeli society. This is only a beginning. In Israeli society, there still exists much ignorance—some of it comes from education, whether religious or secular. I come here as a Knesset member to identify with you, to raise your spirits, and to reach out.


He spends a quarter-hour offstage, his attractive wife in tow, easily chatting away with gay political leaders.

    An hour later, Tel Aviv mayor Roni Milo, a then-prominent Likud politician, takes the stage. Milo at the time was gearing up for reelection (he ultimately decided not to stand for mayor and went on to help form the new Center Party that ran in the 1999 Israeli elections) and was very much the ward politician that day. Judging from his remarks and their tone, he was in a rather expansive mood: "I want to congratulate this gathering and say to those here that only here in Tel Aviv can such a gathering take place so openly. We're a free city, tolerant, where people can live as they want." Then, he talks tachlis, practicality. "We're among the few municipalities that help the Aguda with funding. More funding will certainly come." The crowd erupts in cheers. He concludes with a rousing "Have fun with your festival. We'll continue to provide funding, and we'll keep Tel Aviv a free and tolerant city." This latter remark has great resonance for his audience beyond the issue of gay rights, for Milo has been at the forefront of efforts to fight the growing power of the ultra-Orthodox.

    Menachem Sheizaf himself seemed as expansive as Mayor Milo that day. Sheizaf, a consultant to a variety of Israeli politicians and concerns, has since become chair of the Aguda as well. A round-faced man in his early forties, he rides into Gan Meir on a motorcycle, a red helmet on his head. We retreat to a far end of the park, to get away from the loud disco music that disk jockey Ofer Nissim is blaring from the stage between speeches.

    Sheizaf himself saw little impact from Netanyahu's victory on the direction of lesbian and gay politics in Israel. "Experience has taught us that the community got big changes under Likud governments." He sees the Israeli situation as unique, telling me that "there aren't such laws in most countries." He sees two remaining political challenges for the gay community—inheritance and pension rights and second-parent adoptions. Perhaps because of the celebratory mood of the day, he puts a positive gloss on the wider social situation for the gay community, insisting that "tolerance is big here. We don't have a big problem with coming out. I'm very out and work with some of the biggest concerns here."

    He takes pains to point out to me the importance of Milo's and Kabel's appearances. "Roni Milo, when I was his adviser, was very liberal and enlightened. No politician [in Tel Aviv] can minimize the importance of the gay vote. Tel Aviv has a higher percentage of gays, because of the anonymity and support that a big city can provide." He sees a recognition of the importance of the gay vote on the national level too. Eitan Kabel, he points out, comes from Rosh ha-Ayin, a poverty-stricken town populated mainly by Yemenite immigrants and their progeny northeast of Tel Aviv. Although he does not say so, the future Labor Party primaries, which will determine a candidate's place on Labor's Knesset list in any election campaign, probably were the impetus behind Kabel's visit to Tel Aviv Pride Day and his congratulatory, supportive remarks.

    Ten months later I had the chance to talk with Menachem Sheizaf again, this time in his new capacity as chair of the Aguda, a position he had occupied for little more than half a year, following the resignation of Itzik Yosha. His election to this position marks another turning point in Israeli gay politics and suggests how gay rights have become a relatively safe political issue among the secular public, very much part of the "Consensus."

    As a lobbyist, Sheizaf counts among his friends a rather unlikely collection of Israeli politicians, ranging from Tel Aviv mayor Milo, to ultra-Orthodox deputy minister of health Shlomo Benizri, to Arab Democratic Party-United Arab List MK Tawfiq Khatib, a religious Muslim. He has lobbied for clients on a variety of issues that, in an Israeli context, would seem quite distant from the interests of the chair of one of Israel's principal lesbian and gay rights organizations: for a jubilee pardon of prisoners (which would benefit Shas leader Arye Deri, convicted on assorted corruption charges in 1999) and for moving Saturday soccer games to a weekday, so that religious Israelis could attend such matches (he counts the Israeli Soccer Association among his roster of clients). The Aguda has never had such a high-profile chair, one with such ready access to the Israeli political elite.

    Sheizaf's status is a mixed blessing, however. While he told me that he would not work for legislation that would hurt the interests of lesbians and gay men, the potential conflict between his career and his chairmanship of the Aguda is always present. In many ways the Aguda is but another "client" of Sheizaf's, albeit one that he is "representing" on a pro bono basis and not without possible damage to his own career interests.

    A small example of the potential conflict lies in a radio interview that Sheizaf gave in which he said that "gays have forgiven Ezer Weizman" for his homophobic remarks. He did not state in the interview that he was speaking as a citizen and lobbyist rather than as the chair of the Aguda.

    At the Aguda's general meeting in March 1998 Sa'ar Natanel of the Hebrew University gay and lesbian student group, the Asiron, raises the issue of Sheizaf's remark and states quite bluntly that not all gays had forgiven the Israeli president his homophobia. At this the meeting begins to dissolve into an approximation of the Knesset, with people screaming over each other and waving their hands. Although the atmosphere is heated, I get the impression that everyone knows they are just acting out a bit, as indicated by the half-smiles on everyone's faces, even as the shouting grows louder.

    Sheizaf tried to minimize the damage by admitting that "I shouldn't have suggested that `as a gay man I support Weizman.'" At the same time, he recounted working for Weizman's candidacy's during the Israeli president's efforts to secure the support of the Knesset the first time around and admitted, "There are many things I like about him," such as the way he pays condolence calls to any family whose sons are killed in combat.

    Someone else yells out that "Sheizaf's remarks increase the alienation of gays from the Aguda" and that the Aguda has to figure out a way to deal with the "conflict" between Sheizaf's lobbying work and his work as chair of the Aguda. At this, Avi Sofer, the Aguda's former chair, yells back that "we should be thanking him (Sheizaf), that he is able to work with Shas."

    A lawyer present at the meeting sums up the issue best: "Menachem Sheizaf is a package deal. People know he's gay, that he's chair of the Aguda, yet he can work with Shas and with Weizman. That you can be a lobbyist and an out gay man is important. It can also be difficult."

    The nature of lesbian and gay progress has varied in recent years, depending on the composition of the government. During Yitzhak Rabin's premiership the gay community got practical recognition in the form of budgets and publication of National Sex Education adviser Chava Barnea's booklet Same-Sex Orientation (Homosexuality and Lesbianism), courtesy of the Ministry of Education. Yet, under right-wing governments, substantial pro-gay legislation has made its way through the Knesset into the law books with their tacit acquiescence and even outright support. In the first quarter of 1998 alone, the Knesset passed a strong sexual harassment law that includes a provision barring sexual harassment on the basis of a person's sexual orientation. Section 3(a)(5) of the law as adopted by the Knesset defined sexual harassment to include "scornful or humiliating responses directed at a person concerning his gender or his sexuality, including his sexual orientation."

    During debate on the law MK Beni Elon raised a reservation about including sexual orientation, since the term sexuality would presumably encompass it. Likud MK Reuven "Rubi" Rivlin stated in response that "if there's harassment concerning a person's sexual orientation, we'll do good if we come and say, Stop it." MK Rivlin then added that,


with all modesty, I've studied and researched, and sexual orientation is something you're born with. We've already been through this issue many times, the question has been asked and it's entered into Basic Law too. If we've asked to let every person, according to his sexual orientation, to live his life, the committee has done good.


Elon ultimately dropped this particular reservation.

    The reason for the greater legislative success under right-wing governments lies in the peculiarities of the Israeli system of government, where no party has ever been able to govern alone, dependent instead on shifting, often unstable, coalitions. Left-wing governments typically must obtain the support of at least one of the country's religious parties to maintain a viable government coalition. Because of their more progressive stances, they also must take greater pains to prove their bona fides with the religious parties. As a result, the left is paradoxically less able to push legislative changes on gay rights when in control of the government than when sitting in the opposition.


Gay Rights and the Ballot Box


Whether gay rights are an electoral plus is a difficult issue to analyze in the context of Israeli politics. Compared to Americans, who elect candidates to local, state, and federal office on a district basis, giving them a person to turn to for solutions to political problems, Israelis traditionally have not had much direct influence on the day-to-day governance of the country. There is no "personal" representative in the Knesset, or even on city councils. Rather, Israelis vote for a party slate. Susan Kirshner, for one, thinks that this makes it easier to advance gay rights: "MK's don't have to worry if their decisions are popular—citizens don't have a direct voice." Thus, Knesset members are not subject to the direct citizen lobbying pressures that legislative representatives can face in a direct representational system. The contrast with the American system is obvious. As Canadian professor David Rayside could note in his look at gay participation in mainstream politics in Britain, Canada, and the United States,


The United States system multiplies the sites from which progressive and regressive initiatives can emerge. Even though many favorable openings are thereby provided, the work required to ensure success is monumental and the outcomes unpredictable. Initiatives to block or undermine progress are given just as many opportunities, and often emerge without warning. Proponents of progressive change thus confront a task more daunting than that faced by activists in virtually any other political system."


    It is not clear yet, however, whether support for gay rights can advance a candidate's chances of electoral success. MK Dayan made a point of telling me of the "high price" that she had paid personally and politically for her support of gay issues. Dayan's contention is a bit disingenuous, however. It is more likely that she has paid a political price for her unstinting support of the Palestinian cause and her outspokenness on issues of religion and state.

    Another factor perversely benefiting Israeli lesbians and gay men is the marginality of gay issues to Israeli political discourse. Gay issues are simply not central defining ones for the Israeli political system. The marginality has more to do with the sheer weight of issues on the Israeli national agenda, rather than any deliberate view of gay politics as somehow not counting, although that is also a factor. Even for someone as committed to the issue as Yael Dayan, gay rights is only one of many issues on which she concentrates.


The Politics of Israeli Identity Politics


As Israel has become more powerful economically and militarily, and the chances of a peaceful settlement with the Arab world have increased, Israel has had the luxury of beginning to define just what type of society it wishes to be. While Israel's more secure regional position has opened the door to discussion of women's rights, the environment, and lesbian and gay rights, the most salient issue on the national agenda after peace and security concerns is the identity of the state. The state's identity boils down, in turn, to the question of what kind of "Jewish" state Israel is to be, or whether it should be a "state of all its citizens," as the country's Palestinian minority and portions of the Israeli Jewish left would prefer.

    That identity today is up for grabs. There are no more eternal truths in Israeli society. The socialist, secular certainties of the Founders have given way to a cacophony of clashing visions—religious nationalism, Palestinian irredentism, secular liberalism. But the growing divide in sociopolitical identity among Israelis impacts lesbians and gay men in another way: the almost desperate desire to create the semblance of unity in Israeli society. Where once Zionism provided a common vision, many Israelis today feel that their society is coming apart at the seams. Thus Matan Vilnai, abruptly passed over for the position of IDF chief of staff in 1998, could decry the changes in values in Israeli society in recent years in an interview with Ha'aretz:


The society into which I was born was a mobilized society. Spartan. A society in which people were ready to sacrifice. A society in which the interests of the whole were everyone's interests.... Thus, when I look at today's Israel I see on the one hand an extraordinary start-up country, but on the other hand a country whose social bonds have frayed. And these bonds are what held us together ... we knew we had no choice but to be united.


    In 1998 Israelis were treated to a billboard campaign called "Different Views, One People" (more accurately, one Jewish people). Leading antagonists from the Israeli left and right—from its most vociferous secular spokespeople to some of its leading religious politicians—posed together with smiling faces under this slogan, attempting to create the facade of national unity as the country's jubilee, the subject in its own right of a national quarrel, approached. While the campaign sought to encourage different views within the Israeli family, it had a more sinister side—to tranquilize the public into believing that such radically different viewpoints could happily coexist.

    The country's jubilee encapsulated the tension between the desperate desire for national unity and growing estrangement between different segments of the Israeli public. Israel Television broadcasted a series on Israel's history called Tekuma ("Rebirth"). Yet the telling of the national narrative did not lend itself to celebration. Instead, because the series gave voice to points of view long suppressed (Israeli Arabs, the Mizrachim, and even Palestinian terrorists), the Israeli right denounced the series in increasingly vitriolic terms as calling into question the country's—and Zionism's—very legitimacy. The series narrator, singer and actor Yehoram Ga'on, himself a potent symbol of the Consensus, resigned in protest over one segment dealing with the Palestine Liberation Organization's terror campaign against Israel in the 1960s and 1970s.

    The retelling was long overdue. The certitudes of the founding parents no longer hold up under scrutiny, nor does the history they constructed. Groups long marginalized by the state's Ashkenazi secular founders—be they Palestinian citizens of Israel, Mizrachim, feminists, the ultra-Orthodox, or gays and lesbians—are clamoring to tell their version of the Israeli story.

    It is the growing fragmentation of Israeli society that in turn has created the beginnings of a gay voting bloc. Marc Tennenbaum, an immigrant from France, is among the founders of Gei'ut. Gei'ut represents a new innovation in Israeli gay political strategy—trying to bring about political change by organizing a gay and lesbian presence within Israeli political parties. In the early 1990s he, along with Hadar Namir, founded Otzma as the Aguda's political lobbying arm, which played an important role in passage of the 1991 amendment to the Equal Workplace Opportunities Law that banned discrimination in employment on the basis of sexual orientation. In perhaps the first visible gay political activity in Israel, Otzma started a petition campaign on the streets of major cities to gain support for that measure.

    Gei'ut was not the first effort in Israeli politics to try to turn gays and lesbians into a political bloc, although it represents the first gay effort at doing so. But these early efforts were premature, coming before a visible gay community had taken root. In August 1991 the Labor Party's Young Guard published an advertisement in the gay magazine Maga'im asking, "What have you done for yourself today? And what are you doing for the community?"

    The advertisement, the first of its kind in Israeli politics, created a minor storm at the time. Within the Labor Party itself opinions were split. MK Chaim Bar-Lev called the advertisement "tasteless" and added that he wouldn't run an electoral appeal in a newspaper for nudists either. But both MK Shlomo Hillel and MK Michael Bar-Zohar failed to see what all the fuss was about, although they, too, in an era in which narrow appeals to an ethnic or other social group were suspect, questioned the need for advertising directed at the gay community.

    Activists laid the groundwork for Gei'ut after the last national election in 1996, following Professor Uzi Even's campaign as an openly gay man in the Meretz primaries (he failed to place high enough for a realistic chance at a Knesset seat). What is murky is whether clear alignment with one political party, particularly one that raises the hackles of the Israeli right like Meretz does, ultimately benefits gay interests.

    The Meretz leadership has been supportive of this intraparty gay organizing. MK Yossi Sarid, one of the leading figures of the Israeli left, told me in an interview that the establishment of Gei'ut is a positive development, because "we respect [the gay community] and want to help it—culturally, politically, and civilly." In Gei'ut's first newsletter Sarid wrote that "the public activism of the community itself is critical today more than ever. At any time and at every opportunity, it's appropriate to rouse public opinion in support of the repair of Israeli society and its attitude toward those who are different within it." The party provides Gei'ut with support, with MK Sarid admitting that the support may be "more than the numbers might warrant."

    Gays and lesbians have had to fight the perception of some elites that there is no need for gays and lesbians to have one (or more) of their own in public office. What clearly irked MK Dayan during my interview with her is the possibility of having an openly gay or lesbian Knesset member, a development that is most likely to occur because of Gei'ut's work within Meretz. When I raised the issue of openly gay representation in the Knesset, Dayan was dismissive: "The meaning of a gay Knesset member is useless." She pointedly added that "a gay Knesset member would end up doing less for the community" than she had been able to accomplish. Moreover, she contended that sexual orientation is not a sufficiently unifying basis to qualify for Knesset representation, stating that "gays are quite varied [politically]." MK Sarid, in contrast, told me that he welcomed a gay representative in the Knesset.

    Dayan's views are not unique. In December 1995, when Professor Even announced that he was running in the Meretz primaries, Israeli historian and journalist Tom Segev wrote an opinion piece about Even's candidacy titled "One-Issue Politics" in Ha'aretz. Segev stated that "a Knesset member who represents only accountants who come from Bukovina is a wasted Knesset member, just as is a Knesset member who represents only himself. Sexual preference similarly does not justify in and of itself representation in the Knesset." While most lesbian and gay activists disagree with Segev's analysis as patronizing, it was unclear until very recently whether there was a sufficient mass of lesbian and gay voters who could be persuaded to vote primarily on the basis of a candidate's sexual orientation. This task is that much harder when the political system has been responsive to many of the demands of the lesbian and gay community.

    Those questions ended in June 1998 when Michal Eden, a twenty-nine-year-old lesbian and Meretz activist, came in second in the Meretz primaries for the Tel Aviv City Council elections and then won a seat in the November municipal elections. I first read of Eden in the July 1997 issue of Ha-Zman ha-Varod. She brings an interesting background to the electoral field: lesbian, feminist, and Mizrachit, the latter notable only because most Mizrachim, alienated by their treatment at the hands of the Ashkenazi establishment in the early years of the state, tend not to vote for Meretz or other left-wing parties. She comes to politics with years of activism in KLAF and two years as a member of the Tel Aviv Meretz leadership. In her personal life she did not have a rosy coming out: Her parents threw her out of their home when they learned of her lesbianism and, six years later, still do not speak with her.

    I got to observe some of her campaign up close and initially was uncertain whether she would place high enough in the primaries. I first met Eden in March 1998 at the festive opening of Pet Café, billed as "a café for pets and other people," which became a popular gay gathering place (a rainbow flag hangs from the building). She had set up a booth outside the café encouraging residents of Tel Aviv to join the Meretz Party and vote for her in the June 23, 1998, Meretz primaries. With some of her campaign volunteers, she was working on a draft manifesto of gay-related demands that she would raise if elected. The twelve-point manifesto tackled the full range of lesbian and gay needs, including demands for an office of multiculturalism, establishment of an emergency shelter for gay youth, and promotion of gay and lesbian culture.

    Apart from her specific policy goals, her aim is to create greater visibility for gays and lesbians both broadly in government and also by serving, in her own words, as a "role model" for the Israeli lesbian and gay community. As she complained to me when we met a few days later at Tel Aviv's Café Nordau, "There are no role models, and so people don't come out. We have nothing authentic. We imitate culture from abroad."

    In line with the general approach of Israeli lesbian and gay politics, Eden takes a very practical approach to gay representation in the Tel Aviv City Council: she wants to see gays and lesbians get their fair share of the city's fiscal resources. The community's organizations only recently began receiving 100,000 shekels per year (roughly $25,000) from the municipality and Eden deems this a drop in the bucket. She throws out a figure of 2 million shekels per year as what the community deserves based on its putative size. Such a sum would be comparable to what religious institutions receive from the city government.

    Eden was not a one-issue candidate by any means. Her general publicity materials stated her goals as equal opportunity in education—in all parts of the city and in all population sectors, battling religious coercion, equitable distribution of resources—to women, pensioners, the disabled, Arabs, lesbians, and gays, and environmental protection. It is her ability to appear multifaceted that may explain her success, even as Uzi Even in 1999 placed thirteenth on the Meretz Knesset list, not high enough for a realistic shot at election. One difference between the two of them may lie in Israeli society's unease with the notion of distinct gay identity. The public, and even some in Meretz, tend to see Even first as a gay activist, despite his many accomplishments and talents. In his 1999 effort he claimed that he could bring Meretz three Knesset seats worth of votes from the lesbian and gay community. Eden, in contrast, while very active in KLAF, worked within Meretz as a party activist rather than as a lesbian. Moreover, as a Mizrachi woman, she also could put a more diverse face on the party's public image. Yet it is unfair to label Even any more one-dimensional on the issues than Eden. His military background and work in higher education would bring important contributions to the Knesset.

    Despite Eden's multiissue candidacy, it is clearly the lesbian and gay issue that propelled her race and it is on the community that she was pinning her hopes for election, strategizing how to get out a large gay vote on her behalf. As she put it to me, "I have an advantage over other Meretz contenders—I have a community to turn to."

    Whether Eden in fact had a community behind her was the Million Shekel Question. Her strategy depended on convincing sufficient numbers of gay and lesbian residents of Tel Aviv to join Meretz, and then turn out to vote on Primary Day. At a Saturday night meeting with gay male volunteers at Pet Café, Eden asked them to gather names and addresses of gay friends so that her campaign could contact gay voters more easily. She also hoped that these gay volunteers, several of them board members of the Aguda or otherwise active in gay community affairs, would gather their friends at parlor meetings and sell them on her candidacy. She pursued a similar strategy in the lesbian community. As she told me some months after her victory, "I did a lot of work, going house to house. I showed that my candidacy was realistic and that it could benefit gays and lesbians." In addition, she had her own monthly column in Ha-Zman ha-Varod, which gave her added community visibility, even if the column contained little more than platitudes about the necessity of coming out.

    On June 23, 1998, she scored a stunning second-place finish, placing only twelve votes behind veteran Meretz Tel Aviv City Council member Michael Ro'e. If the Israeli political class had doubted that a gay voting bloc existed, Eden's primary victory provided a clear answer.

    That Eden was able to do so well in her first shot at elective office points out how Segev's and MK Dayan's views suddenly no longer reflect the reality of Israeli politics. In an Israel where the Knesset is increasingly a collection of special interest parties—be they Russian, religious, or Arab—there is no great ideological justification for denying gays and lesbians their own elected voice.

    Journalist Daniel Ben-Simon, in his 1997 book A New Israel, noted that "until not so long ago, an ethnic party was considered a negative phenomenon, an existential undermining of the unity of the people, a danger to the Zionist enterprise. No longer." The 1999 Israeli elections took this new factionalization to new, even absurd levels. Two Russian parties, a "men's rights" party, a party representing Israel's south, and one advocating for marijuana legalization were slated to compete at the ballot box.

    Had Eden tried to run even two years earlier, it is not certain she would have done as well as she did in the Meretz primaries. The 1996 general election in Israel symbolized a revolt of the marginalized against the Ashkenazi, secular sabra elites of Israeli society. That climate helped her two years later, the barriers against sectoral interest parties having tumbled down.

    Although gays and lesbians themselves once were marginalized, Eden, and the lesbian and gay community, are allying themselves with the traditional pillars of Israeliness rather than the ethnic/religious rebellion against the Old Order. The traditional elites in Labor and Meretz today embrace gay rights and other progressive causes, their previous collectivist impulses having mellowed. Yet, it is the revolt of other once marginalized groups, like the Mizrachim or the religious, who have created the climate in which lesbians and gay men could coalesce as an identifiable political bloc and have this seen as increasingly legitimate.

    Eden's victory also shows how fast-paced Israeli political life is. A year before her victory Amalia Ziv presented me with an analysis that would have seemed to doom Eden's chances. She noted to me that nongay Israelis often ask, "Why do you need to separate yourselves? Why do you need a ghetto?" Identity politics is not viewed positively in Israel, she told me. Although individualism is growing, she continued, the prevailing ideology still works against difference and says, "We're all Jews." Moreover, Ziv added, "at the ideological level, there's still the fiction of collective identity."

    The emergence of a distinct gay identity became clear with the 1998 Pride Day. In 1998 the community was no longer content to have its nice fair in a park. It decided to take to the streets in a parade under the slogan "Together in Pride, Together in Love," a takeoff on the already pro-gay sounding jubilee celebration slogan "Together in Pride, Together in Hope." This was an unheard-of step. Many activists had previously told me that Israelis do not "do" parades. Clearly, times had changed. Just as previously marginalized groups were redefining what it meant to be Israeli, so, too, was the lesbian and gay community. Part of the decision reflected a desire to be part of the worldwide gay phenomenon of Pride parades. Radio Tel Aviv, one of the sponsors of the 1998 Pride Festival, broadcasted ads declaring, "This year, Tel Aviv joins New York and Amsterdam." Menachem Sheizaf echoed that sentiment by phone a few weeks after the parade, saying, "We want to be like the entire world." While the 1997 Pride events I attended were different from what I, as an American, was used to (relatively few organizational and business booths, lots of heterosexuals in attendance), the 1998 parade would have been at home anywhere. Leading off the parade were lesbian-feminist motorcyclists, followed by activists and politicians carrying a giant Rainbow Flag the width of a city street. The parade featured an eclectic mix of youth groups, parents, children of gay or lesbian parents, and, of course, drag queens—all the requisite ingredients for a "real" Gay Pride Parade, be it in San Francisco, New York, Paris, or, now, Tel Aviv.


The Shift to Activist Tactics


What else might help build a community? After years of doing things quietly and behind the scenes, some suggest greater public activism in the form of more Weizman-like demonstrations. As Asiron chair Sa'ar Natanel commented to me, "People make noise in this country—that's how you win." Avital Yarus-Chakak from KLAF similarly posits that "demonstrations could help us build a community. The Weizman demonstration was the first time so many people were ready to come out." Because large gay communities overseas all seemed to use public demonstrations as a political tool, the Israeli lesbian and gay community, despite its impressive political and legal victories, must be lacking something, many activists seemed to feel.

    Natanel got his wish for greater militancy in 1998. On May 22, 1998, a huge crowd gathered in Tel Aviv's Independence Park for the Wigstock Festival, an annual drag extravaganza to raise money for AIDS services. The Aguda had a police permit allowing the event to continue until 7 P.M., but City Hall had issued another permit good until 8 P.M.

    At 6:45 P.M., the emcee came on stage and announced that the police had ordered the event to end, as the Jewish Sabbath was about to begin. Some in the audience were outraged and began voicing their protest. Veteran community activist Hadar Namir was in the first row, and she was angry. As she told me by telephone, "I went backstage and began arguing with the organizers. The drag queens had spent hours putting on makeup and were ready to perform." She took to the stage and declared that "we haven't struggled for fifteen years for the police to stop our event." A tense standoff ensued. Michal Eden strode onto the stage and declared that if the music did not resume, the crowd should block the adjacent Ha-Yarkon Street, a major seaside thoroughfare. Behind the scenes Menachem Sheizaf was arguing that the Aguda had gotten caught up in a bureaucratic snafu and Wigstock organizers should ask the crowd to behave responsibly and disperse peacefully.

    That is not what happened. The crowd, spontaneously angry and egged on by some activists, did indeed block Ha-Yarkon Street for two hours. Several people were arrested, including Natanel, who whiled away several hours in a Tel Aviv jail. Eventually, the crowd did disperse, and a group of participants marched to Rabin Square and hoisted a Rainbow flag up the City Hall flagpole.

    There were a variety of explanations for the events, which Ha-Zman ha-Varod melodramatically labeled the "Israeli Stonewall." If it was a Stonewall, it was the first one to take place because of an ordinary bureaucratic gaffe. Natanel, along with several others, told me that Dana International's victory in the Eurovision Song Contest two weeks earlier had filled Israeli gays with pride and that the riots constituted a "release" of pent-up energy. Hadar Namir, along with former Aguda executive director Gil Nader, said that those present were fed up with religious coercion. Why should such an event have to end because of the Jewish Sabbath, she asked me, when the park was in a relatively isolated part of the city and the event would not disturb the religious? Namir was hoping that activists might engage in more direct action in the future. She added that "people are tired of always playing good boys and girls."

    The Aguda, which put on the festival, had a mixed reaction to the events. While Sheizaf called it "a mistake" when we spoke by telephone, even he conceded that some good might come from it—here at last was proof that gays and lesbians would take to the streets. Nader similarly felt that the stormy demonstration proved there was now a community coming into existence.

    Echoes of the new self-confidence have continued through the end stages of writing this book. In September 1998 singer Meir Ariel gave a wide-ranging interview in which he proclaimed his frank homophobia. In response, both the Aguda and KLAF organized demonstrations outside Ariel's concerts, leading the singer in late September 1998 to cancel the remaining performances of his concert tour.

    The Aguda's Sheizaf, in a demonstration of the new gay assertiveness, declared, "I'm sorry about the depths to which Meir Ariel has sunk. He's playing the role of the robbed cossack, but no such game will cover up the fact that he's a sick person, who sank out of an urge for publicity and other reasons into the abyss of dark racism." Activists similarly disrupted an Education Ministry-sponsored fair on tolerance in December 1998 after KLAF was excluded on the grounds that religious attendees might take offense!

    It is clear that some elements in the community, led by Ha-Zman ha-Varod, wish to canonize the Wigstock riots as some magical turning point. Academics Dori Spivak and Yuval Yonai captured the dynamic of minority struggle well in a recent article about Israeli legal discourse on gays, noting that "organization of a social struggle and recruitment of members and supporters requires the creation of `an imagined community' of gays and lesbians with a shared mythical past of oppression and struggle with heroic heroes with whom they can identify." But in a country where it took top-down messages of acceptance and legitimization to create a more open gay population, the Wigstock riots could only occur in a climate of growing public acceptance rather than public repression.

    The Wigstock riots marked the first time that Israeli activists did not care about presenting a nice image to the wider public. The type of people who have come out in Israel is an interesting topic in its own right, one that had positive repercussions for the community at the political and legal levels. Although no one suggests it was deliberate, most of those who have waged public battles and noted their homosexuality or lesbianism seem to be very "straight-looking, straight acting."

 &nbs p;  Chagai El-Ad noted to me that "in Israel, it was the very `straightest' gays, like [Professor] Uzi Even, who came out and fought for their rights." Whenever I raised the issue of community image in interviews, Even's name usually surfaced quickly. Many activists pointed to his masculine demeanor and his respected position in the Tel Aviv University Chemistry Department as pluses for the community. Others, less enamored with some of his political stances and tactics, were less complimentary, with one activist snidely labeling Even's image as that of a "gay shabaknik (internal security officer)." This strategy made sense at the time that the community was trying to change stereotypes about gays. As veteran activist Dani Lachman could write in the July 1998 issue of Ha-Zman ha-Varod, "I'm not sorry that that's the line I put in place. It was right for its time. It was important first of all to bring the community closer to the world and the world [closer] to the community."

    Dan Yakir, counsel for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), also noted this phenomenon. Choosing his words carefully, Yakir admitted that, in gay-related court cases, "It probably was important that the couples in those cases were living according to a certain model." While he admits that he would like to see other models of family recognized by the Israeli court system, he says that he recognizes, as someone who must select winning test cases, the importance of presenting sympathetic plaintiffs to the courts. Tal Yarus-Chakak similarly admitted that "when you come out, you want to show the similarity. You need role models. We need to show in the long-term the diversity [of the community]."


Limitations to the Mainstream Approach


While the mainstream approach brought great success in a short time in the political and legal worlds, it has had its costs. In looking at gay political strategy, two disconnects—the relative status of gay versus AIDS issues and the progress of gay rights versus feminism—quickly emerge. Moreover, some would argue that there is an unseen ethnic divide—between Mizrachim and Ashkenazim—afflicting the community.

(Continues...)

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Table of Contents

1. Together in Pride, Together in Hope: Lesbian and Gay Politics in Israel2. Yotzim m'ha-Aron: Coming Out3. The Personal Is the Political: Judaism and Gay People in Israel4. Gays with Guns: Gays in the Military, Israeli Style5. Media, Culture, and Visibility6. Hereinafter the Boyfriend: Same-sex Families in Israel7. Out on the Farm: Gay Life in the Kibbutzim8. Twice Marginalized: To Be Gay and Palestinian in Israel

Columbia University Press

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