What It's Like To Be Gay In Israel

Photo: Omer Messinger/AP Photo.
A woman waves rainbow pride flag with the Star of David on it during a rally to condemn recent violent attacks against members of the gay community in Jerusalem.
Several days after a man allegedly stabbed six people at the Jerusalem Pride Parade on July 30, two men walked hand in hand down Jaffa Road, a main thoroughfare that cuts across the city from east to west.

A hidden camera filmed people's reactions as the couple walked by.
"You gay sons of bitches," two teenagers can be heard sneering as heads turned.

"Look!" a middle-aged man can be seen telling his wife. Then, shaking his head: "You missed it."

This is what it is like to be openly gay in 2015 in conservative Jerusalem. Although only 36 miles from the more progressive Israeli capital of Tel Aviv, it feels a world away. And the tensions between the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community and the city's gay population don't always hide below the surface.

On July 30, Jerusalem’s small but determined LGBTQ community and their supporters were assembling in Independence Park for the parade. The plan was for the crowd to march down the mile-long route, and then end with a pride rally and a party.

But as the parade reached Keren Hayesod Street around 6:30 p.m., Yishai Schlissel allegedly pulled out a knife and started stabbing people. As marchers tried to flee, Schlissel reportedly lunged at them with his knife. Before police apprehended Schlissel, Associated Press photographer Sebastian Scheiner captured the terrifying attack on camera.
Photo: AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner.
Yishai Schlissel allegedly attacks a woman in the back with a knife during Jerusalem's 2015 Gay Pride parade.
It wasn't the first time Schlissel had staged such an attack. An ultra-Orthodox Jew, Schlissel had served 10 years in prison after being convicted of stabbing three people at the city’s 2005 Pride parade. Just three weeks after being released from jail, he returned to the scene of his original crime. Police officials are still investigating why he was not being monitored more closely after his release.

Sixteen-year-old Shira Banki died after being stabbed at the parade.

"Our magical Shira was murdered because she was a happy 16-year-old — full of life and love — who came to express her support for her friends' rights to live as they choose," her parents wrote in a statement following her death.

But the right of gay people to live as they choose isn't one that is respected by Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox community, or by the country's laws surrounding marriage.

It's a bitter reality that Michal Shneiderman and her partner, Adi, know too well. Adi was just feet from Schlissel's knife during the 2015 parade.

Michal is an openly gay woman serving in the Israeli Defense Forces. Staying beyond the mandatory two years Israel requires of all young people, Michal rose to the rank of commander during her five years of active-duty service. She continues as a reservist today.
Photo: Courtesy of Michal Shneiderman.
Michal Shneiderman, an openly gay woman, served as a commander in the Israeli Defense Forces.
In her first years in the army, Michal dated men, and says she never sensed any homophobia among her comrades. Now, as an openly gay woman, her frustration lies not with her fellow Israelis but with the stringent and antiquated religion-based laws that prevent couples like her and Adi from having equal rights as same-sex married partners.

Michal says that after years of military service and sacrifice, she expects equal rights for both herself and other LGBTQ people in Israel.

"I pay all my taxes and I do everything, but when I need to get my rights, I don’t get them. It feels really, really bad when I’m not equal to all other citizens in Israel," Michal told Refinery29. "It really, really, really hurts."

As a Jewish state, Israel does not allow same-sex marriages, and there is no alternative, such as civil unions, either. Jews, as well as Israeli Arabs, can get married by religious leaders in their respective communities, but interfaith marriage is also prohibited.

These restrictions are why the Worldwide Freedom of Marriage Project gives Israel a zero for "severe restrictions" on a scale rating marriage rights across the globe from zero to two.

Michal and Adi celebrated their marriage in Israel three months ago, "which doesn’t mean a lot, it's just a party," Michal clarifies.
Photo: Courtesy of Michal Shneiderman.
Michal and her partner, Adi. The couple cannot be legally married in Israel, which does not allow for same-sex unions.
Even though Michal and Adi consider themselves spouses, they would need to obtain a foreign marriage license to make their union official in Israel and allow them the opportunities afforded heterosexual Jewish couples, including having both of their names on their children's birth certificates.

But despite the challenges of being gay in Israel, Michal says she is proud of the place she calls home.

"I love my country. I really love my country. I know all the aspects, the good and the bad aspects in Israel, and I still love my country. I love all the citizens in Israel,” Michal says. "Not all the conservative people think like that and want to kill us and want to stab us. It’s the same specific person, and I think there is something to comfort us in that."

Nevertheless, Schlissel was sending a message to the gay community in Jerusalem with his brutal attack: You're not welcome here. It's a message that is frequently echoed by right-wing protesters of Jerusalem's Pride events; in 2010, a group held signs that read: "Gay: Play in Hell, Not Jerusalem."

Our magical Shira was murdered because she...came to express her support for her friends' rights to live as they choose.

family of shira banki
According to the tenets of Orthodox Judaism, homosexuality is a sin. The Torah — the central text of the Jewish religion — prohibits relationships between people of the same sex: "If a man also lies with men, as he lies with a women, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them," reads Leviticus 20:13.

In a more modern context, conservative rabbis have upheld the Torah's stance. In an essay titled “Homosexuality in Orthodox Judaism,” Rabbi Nachum Amsel, who holds a doctorate from New York’s Yeshiva University, groups homosexuality with “pagan customs of the societies whose values are antithetical to Judaism.”

Of course, many Jews — Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform — resist this antiquated principle and embrace LGBTQ people. Many liberal and openly gay Jews maintain that the goal is for Judaism to adapt to include them, instead of forcing them to abandon their faith.

And acceptance of and support for LGBTQ rights among the Orthodox Community is a growing phenomenon.

The Hebrew-language Facebook group “I am an Orthodox Feminist with no sense of humor” has nearly 10,000 members. The group is composed of both men and women, many of who changed their Facebook profile photos to rainbow colors after the United States Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide.
Photo: AP Photo/Bernat Armangue.
Conservative Israeli Jewish activists protest against Jerusalem's Gay Pride parade in 2010.
After Schlissel's alleged second attack, many of the group's members took to Facebook to discuss their feelings.

“Friends: Attack at the parade. Is everyone okay?” a member named Noa wrote.

“I was far away…. We started running (we were mostly worried about the baby, who was exposed). But I couldn’t sleep all night.... How do you feel?” someone named Yael asked.

“I don’t know how to describe what I feel. I don’t even know what I feel.... I feel the need to sit down and mourn with the people I love,” a woman named Ariella responded.

Rabbi Naamah Kelman, the dean of Jerusalem’s Hebrew Union College and Jewish Institute of Religion, is the first female rabbi ordained in the state of Israel. Traditionally, women are not allowed to be rabbis, and the ultra-Orthodox community does not recognize Kelman.

But Kelman was exuberant when she spoke about the coexistence of Judaism, feminism, and LGBTQ rights.

"There is a vibrant, liberal, progressive, civil society in Israel that is fighting hard to keep us a democratic state. A democratic, Jewish state,” Kelman told Refinery29.

I pay all my taxes...but when I need to get my rights, I don’t get them. It feels really really bad when I’m not equal to all other citizens in Israel.

Michal Shneiderman
Kelman also marched in this year’s parade. Like Michal, she is adamant that Schlissel does not represent the Orthodox community as a whole.

She is proud of the wave of progressive change she sees in Israel; at the same time, the rigidity of the ultra-Orthodox community concerns her.

“It’s not easy. There’s no magic solution,” Kelman says.

She explained that the Reform Movement in Israel — often considered the most liberal branch — has established a religious action organization that acts as a watchdog, reporting the words of "state-funded rabbis spewing and inciting racism and hate."

"Once they spew [this hate], young teenagers, bored, bordering on juvenile delinquents, just pick this [message] up and they firebomb. They’re imbued with all this passion. They want to be more radical than their parents," Kelman says. "But I’m talking about the extreme, extreme, extreme."

We will not survive...unless more and more Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Jews take more moderate and inclusive and pluralistic positions.

Rabbi Naamah Kelman
But extreme though they might be, outliers they are not. According to a 2013 Brookdale-JDC study, ultra-Orthodox or Haredim Jews make up 18% of the total population of Israel. In 2010, they were just 11%.

"If we continue on the path of ultra-Orthodox families having many, many children, keeping them Orthodox — ultra-Orthodox — I am fearful for our future. At the moment, it’s a very oppressive society, it’s a very extreme society,” Kelman adds. “We will not survive...unless more and more Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews take more moderate, inclusive, and pluralistic positions."

Pluralism would benefit other groups in Israel, too, Kelman says.

Within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, young, gay Palestinians struggle with what they feel is a dual marginalization: They are subjugated because they are Arab, and shunned because they are gay.

is a forthcoming documentary that depicts the lives of three gay Palestinian men, who are friends and live in Tel Aviv. Khader, Naeem, and Fadi all grew up in traditional Muslim families and banded together to create a group called Qambuta, which advocates for "gender and national equality."

The men's stories are captured onscreen by director Jake Witzenfeld. For his part, Witzenfeld told Refinery29 that he wanted to subvert the trope of the "Jewish white man who saves the Palestinian person," which characterizes some Israeli LGBTQ films.

"It’s a shame that the gay Palestinian is always instrumental in the Israeli Jewish story, rather than inherently valuable in a story to be told by itself," Witzenfeld says.
Throughout the film, the trio grapples with deep conflicts: As young Palestinians, they want to protest what they consider a Jewish occupation of their homeland, but they also want to date Jewish men.

"I moved to Tel Aviv to start a revolution," Fadi, who identifies strongly with Palestinian nationalism, says in the film. "To change my society and change my community."

"To find Jewish guys!" Khader interjects, laughing. Then, he turns serious.

"The problem is not the ultra-Orthodox people," Khader explains. "The problem is that from day to day, almost every day that passes, the right-wing party of the Knesset [Israel’s parliament] gets stronger."

I moved to Tel Aviv to start a revolution...to change my society and change my community.

Fadi, Palestinian gender-equality activist
Khader says one conservative member of the parliament referred to this year's Pride parade as "the beast parade."

"When you have ultra-Orthodox people inside of the Knesset that call the parade the 'beast parade,' don’t be surprised when somebody gets encouraged and stabs somebody inside of the parade," Khader says.

"This guy stabbed somebody 10 years ago," he adds. "How can it be that this guy was released from prison two weeks before the last parade in Jerusalem? This is a question that everybody needs to ask.”


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