Four nights in Tel Aviv, for the city’s LGBT pride celebrations has changed me in a way no holiday ever has before. My attitudes and perceptions of Israel have changed dramatically and it’s also changed the way that I reconcile my sexuality with my religion.
I’ve only been to Israel twice before: a family holiday when I was ten and when I was 19 as the UK delegate for the World Union of Jewish Students annual conference. Both trips were centred around Jerusalem and both did not live up to my expectations. As a child I was looking for a religious, spiritual experience. While the sights were amazing, visiting the site of the temple, visiting Masada and the Dead Sea, it didn’t really mean anything. The connection I was hoping for didn’t materialise, it didn’t feel how I thought it would. As a 19 year-old, I found Israelis rude, Jerusalem dirty and it was clearly not a place where I would feel comfortable in my sexuality. Tel Aviv was just so different.
Security and safety while in the country is something that has put me off travelling back until now, but the invitation to join the LGBT parade made me reconsider. For all that you might disagree with that Israel does in regards to the peace process, it has an enviable record on gay rights and it’s described by many as an oasis of tolerance and acceptance in a region of virulent homophobia that unfortunately still involves the execution of gays including teenagers.
Israel inherited anti-gay legislation from the British who ruled the country until the foundation of the Jewish state in 1948. Although the law was not actively enforced by the police, it was technically illegal until 1988, although from 1963, the country’s Attorney General declared that laws against homosexuality would officially be disregarded. The country does not have civil marriages (gay or straight) but it does recognise gay marriages or civil partnerships that are held outside of Israel. It is also the only country in the Middle East where it is illegal to discriminate against LGBT people.
My trip began last Wednesday as most visits to Israel do with the rather intense security checks by El Al, the country’s national airline. Who are you visiting? When did you last come to the country? Can you read Hebrew? Who taught you Hebrew? Can you speak Ivrit? The chap seemed to doubt I really was a Jew. As annoying and frustrating as the check was and the queue for El Al to pre-scan your suitcase it did make me feel a lot more confident about the flight, I rather suspect this is the point.
I was met at Ben Gurian airport by an official from the Foreign Ministry who made entering the country pretty easy. When I was 19 I was interrogated for about 15 minutes before they finally let me in! If you’re not going with an escort, then do prepare yourself for quite a bit of explaining to the immigration staff.
My first proper day in Israel began with a tour of Tel Aviv and its Arab neighbour Jaffa. The two cities live side by side to the extent that they are in effect the same place, but like much of what I experienced on the trip are in complete contrast to one another. Jaffa with its large mosque has existed from time in memorial with archaeological evidence of habitation from 7500 BC and was the first place that the Jewish immigrations to what was then Palestine saw when they began to move to the region from Europe in 19th century. They wanted to found a new, New York style city which they did in the desert next to Jaffa.
That desert has exploded into becoming one of the most vibrant and diverse cities on earth, starting with the Neve Tzedek district just outside the gates of Jaffa- home to the Suzanne Dellal ballet school and teeming with artists and craftsmen.
If you’re a fan of eclectic architecture or architecture in general, then Tel Aviv is a place to visit. The eclectic style rather epitomises the diversity of the city, Arabic, Eastern style arches and windows with Greek, western columns.
It’s also home to one of the largest collection of Bauhaus school buildings in the world. These stunning buildings have now more recently had a new lease of life with regulations forcing property developers to maintain these historic buildings when redeveloping an area so you see cute little eclectic houses sitting as the entrance to imposing, all glass sky scrapers. Many of these are on Rotshschild Boulevard where David Ben-Gurion made the deceleration of the Independence of the State of Israel on 14th May 1948.
A tour Tel Aviv’s gay history in the past began at the building where the Aguda literally the “Association”- the city’s LGBT community organisation was founded, back in the days when homosexuality was technically illegal. The building now unfortunately has a new meaning, it was there, last year that a still unidentified gun man stormed the building during a meeting of young people, killed 2 and injured many more. More positively, the organisation’s new home in the Golder Meir park is the first such venue fully funded by city tax payers in the world. The venue hosts everything from community meetings to mother and baby groups as well as an opening, trendy cafe. But we didn’t eat there, instead opting for Kimmel, a Kosher restaurant that quickly adapted their meals for me, a rather fussy vegan.
From Kimmel, we headed to Evita, the most popular gay bar in Tel Aviv for the Pride opening cocktail party. It was buzzing and it was the first time I found myself surrounded by so many people like me, gay and Jewish. But from this rather twinky venue, we headed to Bearplex a venue catering for, you wouldn’t guess it, bears. I felt a little out of place and a little young, but the other British LGBT delegates got stuck right in. So it was home for me, pretty exhausted after a hectic day.
Friday, the day of the main Pride parade and celebrations was a day of contrasts. It began, as it does for many of the Jewish residents in Tel Aviv with the market as they prepare for the impeding Sabbath. It was a real sight to behold, little old ladies haggling down the price of a kilogram of tomatoes or poking their fingers on a cholla (sacramental bread) required for the Friday night Shabbat dinner. The gay pride parade was literally a couple of minutes walk from here, emphasising the contrasts that exist in this city. Religious and modern, gay friendly people seem to sit side by side with each other.
Pride itself began with a party in the park that hosts the city’s LGBT community centre. It felt a little like the gathering in Soho Square after London’s pride march. Stalls from religious groups sat next to those handing out condoms or shots of Smirnoff Vodka.
The march itself was phenomenal, normally I’m taking photographs from the side or interviewing politicians. This time I was there with tens of thousands of fellow gay Jews. It’s hard to describe how that felt, thousands of people you have a real affinity with- not just your sexuality but also your religion. It made the little bunch of 140 or so gay Jews who attend the Gay Jews in London group seem very small.
The march led to a massive beach party with thousands getting more than a little sozzled in the baking heat although it was a little too hot for me. Following a quick shower we headed to dinner at the Dixie Grill Bar Restaurant and on to Evita, a Tel Aviv institution that blends being a café, bar and mini-club. Rammed full with pride revellers, its drinks were ludicrously generous in their strength and were a little too much for me after a day in the sun. So I party pooped back to the hotel. Getting a taxi on a Friday night (Shabbat the Jewish Sabbath lasts from sunset on Friday to sunset Saturday) was a little difficult and I couldn’t persuade my driver to use the metre- him insisting on “Shabbat” prices- although taxis in general in Tel Aviv are hugely affordable.
The next day while my fellow British guests were sleeping off their hangovers, or perhaps returning from someone else’s hotel, I really got to understand the joy of Tel Aviv. I met up with Boaz, a friend from university who is originally from Tel Aviv but was brought up in Brighton. He moved back to Israel a few years ago and I wanted the opportunity of meeting his new wife. But we spent the day together first, starting with a hearty late breakfast at Benedict’s in the Rothschild area of the city. He told me about life in the city, it’s vibrancy, excellent night life, tolerance and diversity. It’s also a pretty exciting place to work with a buzzing and growing technology and internet-start-up scene. We returned to the beach by my hotel to meet his wife and some friends to watch the sun set.
Back with the gays, we headed to Boya Restaurant which is in the recently redeveloped Tel Aviv port where warehouses and docks have been converted into restaurants, bars and night clubs. It’s a pretty trendy place to be buzzing with young people of all persuasions. The food was lovely, they were happy to adapt their menus for two rather fussy vegetarians, although the service was tediously slow. Perhaps their staff were a little exhausted from the parties the night before!
One of Israel’s best known DJs, Ofer Nissim invited us to the nearby TLV nightclub where she was hosting a gay circuit party. While the music wasn’t always to my taste, the light show was one of the best I’ve seen, much better than you’d see at a typical British gay nightclub and still managed to impress me just a week after I returned from the Ibiza summer opening parties. I was probably one of just a handful of men at the club who kept their shirt on all night- it’s quite hard to compete with the buffed up bodies of Israeli gays fresh from three years in the army! And while it wasn’t a surprise to constantly bump into my Jewish friends from London, it was a surprise to bump into Christian lobbyist I’d met at some Westminster events. He was on a spiritual trip around the Holy Land but timed it to coincide with Tel Aviv pride because of the rave reviews he’d heard from friends that had attended before.
At about 1:30 we headed back to the Crowne Plaza which was hosting a closing party in its beach bar. There I was surrounded by just about every gay Jew I know from London, all of whom come regularly for the pride festivities. This slightly smaller affair was relaxed and a nice way to end to the partying and it was just a short walk back to the room.
Before we set off for the airport on Sunday, we stopped in for a huge lunch at Dr Shakshuka Restaurant in Jaffa serving Libyan and Moroccan cuisine with delightful food for vegetarians to visit. As we sat eating salad after salad, a family sung as their 13-year-old son appeared having read his Barmitzvah portion of the Torah at the Western Wall of the Temple (the Kotel) yesterday. It filled me with hope that should he turn out to be gay, he’ll be growing up in a country where it seems as if he may not need be afraid of coming out and lives in a city where, if what I experienced during pride is the norm, then his sexuality will be celebrated.
El Al fly to Israel daily from London Heathrow as well as regular flights from London Luton from around £350 return. www.elal.co.uk
El Al’s package holiday company Superstar Holidays offers both flights and accommodation at the Crowne Plaza from £640 per person based on a three night stay. SuperStar.co.uk
For more information on Israel, visit ThinkIsrael.com
Benjamin Cohen is the founding publisher of PinkNews.co.uk and a correspondent for Channel 4 News