(1) Sleeping with the enemy: Two men–an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian Muslim–risk harassment, jail and death for their love.
After nuns kissing rabbis and wolves necking with sheep, Ezra and Selim could feature in Benetton’s next advertisement campaign. Ezra, an Israeli Jew, and Selim, a Palestinian Muslim, live, sleep–and hide together.
The gay couple faces arrest at any moment: Selim for being illegally on Israeli soil, Ezra for helping, hiring and sheltering him. They took time off, on Valentine’s Day, to describe their personal hell.
“We feel like rats. They run after us all the time,” says Ezra Yitzhak, the head of a successful plumbing business where Selim also works. “We have to think carefully about where to go, who to go with and always have papers ready to explain our situation.”
Their situation is unusual in the extreme. At a time when even sympathizing with the other side is enough to be called a “traitor,” an “Arab-lover” or a “collaborator,” Ezra and Selim broadcast their love for one another. And in conservative societies where sexuality is rarely discussed, the two are openly gay.
When Ezra accompanies Selim on family visits in the West Bank city of Ramallah every other week, Selim’s parents greet Ezra warmly, sometimes even arranging for armed security men to stand guard by the door. (Palestinian neighbors are not so open-minded about homosexuality and Israeli friends, so Selim chose a pseudonym for this article to avoid embarrassing his family.) Selim is also welcome in Ezra’s family in Jerusalem. Ezra’s mother would prefer that he see a nice Jewish boy, but “it’s a Jewish mother’s problem,” he says, and his brother and nephews accept Selim wholeheartedly.
“For me, it feels normal. I’ve been working with Arabs since 1967,” says Ezra. “But of course it’s totally unusual. In Israeli society, it’s normal for Arabs to be janitors or garage workers. But here we are on par, living together, going to restaurants and movie theaters together.”
“When people ask me [about Ezra] I say yes, I have an Israeli friend,” says Selim. “They accept me as I am.” Perhaps because he fought and was jailed during the first intifada, Selim has never been accused of being a collaborator.
Selim, 26, is tall, shy and doe-eyed. He was locked up for two years for throwing stones as a teenager during the first intifada, released when the Oslo peace accords were signed and thrown back in jail for stealing a car. Ezra, 50, shorter and bald, has striking eyebrows, sophisticated tastes and fluent English. The pair met in the streets of Jerusalem and had a fling about six years ago. Three years later, Ezra and Selim bumped into each other again and became a steady couple. They’ve been living together in Ezra’s Jerusalem apartment ever since.
“Selim was a product of the occupation: no school, nothing to look forward to, put in jail automatically,” says Ezra. “Since he’s been with me, it’s been the best period of his life: He’s working, his health has improved, he’s more relaxed.” Ezra’s love opened new vistas for Selim: steady employment, clubbing in Tel Aviv, movies in Jerusalem – activities that Palestinians often don’t have access to, but the current armed uprising abruptly ended all that.
Repeat terrorist attacks in downtown Jerusalem mean people with Arab complexions can’t walk two blocks without being carded these days. “I can’t count the number of times we’ve been stopped together,” says Ezra. Usually Ezra’s eloquent patter, a few documents (including a precious letter from the Israeli security services that states Selim presents no known security risk) and well-placed phone calls solve things on the spot.
In October 2000, at the beginning of the current conflict, Selim was sentenced to eight months in jail for residing illegally in Israel. He was released after three months when Ezra appealed the verdict and the judge recognized that Selim was in Israel due to personal circumstances. The last time they were stopped was just two weeks ago in Jerusalem when security people yelled through a megaphone “Red Toyota – stop!” They were searched down to their shoes and questioned for 30 minutes until Ezra managed to convince the police to let them go.
So, apart from driving to plumbing maintenance jobs around town, they avoid going out as much as possible. “Because of the situation, [Selim] is now 24 hours a day with me. Sometimes it’s fun but sometimes it’s not easy,” says Ezra. They’ve stopped going to Tel Aviv, preferring instead the mixed Jewish-Arab port town of Jaffa, where Selim looks less conspicuous. They watch videos rather than movies. And Ezra tells Selim to wear a coat at all times in case he gets arrested.
Mixed Israeli-Palestinian couples are very rare, but in most cases marriage confers Israeli residency rights to the Palestinian spouse. In Ezra and Selim’s case, that legal option doesn’t exist. Although they signed a notarized document establishing the fact that they are domestic partners willing to share all their belongings, the move hasn’t helped their case so far. Selim’s criminal record is one obstacle; being gay might be another, although Ezra and Selim see their quandary as a case of discrimination against Arabs more than anything else. “If Selim were an illegal resident from Russia, everything would be fine,” says Ezra. “But this guy, who was born here, whose family has lived here for hundreds of years, isn’t allowed to go two to three kilometers [from Ramallah to Jerusalem].”
The Jerusalem Open House, a one-of-kind organization that provides supports for gays and lesbians in Jerusalem and in the West Bank, is helping to publicize their case. “In many ways [Selim] should have been the poster boy of the Oslo agreement,” says Hagai El-Ad, the organization’s director. “He was engaged in terror during the first intifada, and now after a turn-about he’s in love and living with an Israeli.” El-Ad hopes to raise Selim’s plight with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in a meeting that could take place as early as today; the group wants Sharon’s government to blast bureaucratic hurdles and give Selim the Jerusalem ID papers he badly needs. (El-Ad knows of at least one precedent when the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin granted residency rights to a Palestinian from Gaza who wanted to live with his partner in Tel Aviv.)
With residency rights, “I would be more quiet, less anxious. Every time I’m stopped, I get upset,” says Selim. Half Selim’s family was born in Jerusalem and therefore has Jerusalem IDs. But Selim, born in Ramallah a few miles north, has no residency rights and must tiptoe in Jerusalem, moving about like Ezra’s anxious shadow.
“I’m twice his age; I’m realistic. We’re not going to marry or adopt children,” says Ezra. “We just want to lead our life and let it develop naturally. I would like Selim to have the freedom to choose to reduce the intensity of our relationship, look for a wife, whatever. The situation has partly forced us together. I don’t want another jail for Selim. Right now, we’re together whether we want it or not.”
Last time Selim was jailed, “he looked like a caged animal; his eyes were full of terror,” recalled Ezra. “His body and soul wouldn’t survive another stay in jail. He would collapse as a person, and I would feel a sort of Palestinian need for revenge. I would hate those who killed him. I don’t want to hate my country.” Ezra sees himself as a loyal citizen: He’s politically engaged, pays taxes, served three years in the army (like most Israeli men) and fought the 1973 Yom Kippur War. “I don’t want to fight against the state,” he says.
As it is, Ezra frequently finds himself on the Palestinian side of things. He takes communal taxis with Selim and other Palestinian workers, walks through hills and valleys to avoid Israeli-manned checkpoints and has had bullets and tear gas fired in his direction by Israeli soldiers. In addition to helping Selim stay illegally in Jerusalem, Ezra also frequently breaks the law that bars Israeli civilians from entering Palestinian-ruled areas.
Several Israeli businessmen–including men like Ezra, who felt they had privileged connections with Palestinians–have been killed in Palestinian-controlled towns in the recent past. All it takes is a hotheaded Palestinian who wants to make a name for himself by gunning down an Israeli. Crazy enough to wander the streets of Ramallah in a time of war, Ezra would be an easy target. But he feels somehow immune. “Friends warn me not to do it. But unlike those who were killed, I’m not going for business. I’m going door to door. Selim’s family is waiting for me. I say this without modesty: I feel part of them, and I think I know the code.”
He was scandalized when an Israeli policeman took him aside once and asked: Aren’t you afraid Selim will kill you? “The relationship between Jews and Arabs can only be one way. We are the masters and they are the servants,” says Ezra. Most Israelis “can’t imagine an equal relationship. Palestinians are like Indian immigrants cleaning the floors at Heathrow airport – they’re transparent.” Ezra also dismisses the suggestion that right wing Jews might target him for publicly revealing his love for a Palestinian. “I may be gay, but I’m not a sissy,” says Ezra.
By Flore de Préneuf
San Francisco, CA (http://www.salon.com/mwt/feature/2002/02/21/ezra_selim/index.html)
(The writer: Flore de Préneuf covers the Middle East for Salon News)
(2) The Gully
Queer in the Land of Sodom
Although the idea of a vibrant queer community in Israel, reputed birthplace of the biblical condemnation of same-sex relations, may seem far-fetched, Israel today is one of the world’s most progressive countries in terms of equality for sexual minorities. Politically, legally, and culturally, the community has moved from life at the margins of Israeli society to visibility and growing acceptance.
In the Beginning
There is no magic mythical beginning to Israel’s lgbt community, like the 1969 Stonewall riots that spurred American queers into action. Instead, changes in the values and politics of Israeli society over the past twenty years or so created the space in which a gay and lesbian community could coalesce.
The first gay organization was established in 1975, thanks largely to the work of immigrants from the United States and other English-speaking countries influenced by the development of gay liberation and the counterculture of the 1960’s.
The very name of this first organization, the Society for the Protection of Personal Rights (then, as today, known as the Agudah, in Hebrew), reflected the difficulty of organizing sexual minorities at a time when the existence of a sodomy law was thought by many to make homosexuality itself illegal. In its early years, the Agudah functioned more as a support and social group rather than as a political organization.
Lesbians began organizing within the Israeli women’s movement, which provided some space for the discussion of lesbian issues and radical feminism. But for many years, Israeli lesbians funneled most of their energies into feminism, rather than the struggle for gay and lesbian equality.
The development of a gay identity was difficult for many at a time when Israeli society was still in the midst of its Zionist revolution. Zionism, the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, sought to create a “New Jew” as part of the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty. The New Jew would work the land or engage in blue collar jobs, rather than in the “bourgeois” professions taken up by Jews in the Diaspora (the early Zionists were resolute socialists).
The security problems facing the Jewish state also precluded for many years discussion of a variety of social issues and problems. Pleading more pressing issues, the public agenda did not include the place of Mizrachim (Jews who immigrated to Israel from the Arab countries) in a society dominated by European-born Jews, women’s liberation, equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel, or gay rights. Moreover, the collective values preached by the early founders of the Jewish state likewise left little room for exploration of personal identity.
By the early 1980’s, the values of Israeli society began to evolve, and with them, the scope of public discourse. The socialist certainties of Israel’s founders gave way to a consumer society. The certainties of Zionism gave way to a multitude of political and cultural identities: ultra-orthodox Judaism, growing assertion of a Palestinian identity among Israel’s Arab citizens, nationalism, and yearnings for a more Western, liberal society competed for the allegiance of Israelis.
Yet, gay identity and politics still did not go public. The close-knit nature of Israeli society made coming out exceedingly difficult, as did Israeli society’s emphasis on family and reproduction. So it fell on non-gay supporters of gay rights to move things forward.
By the late 1980’s, these efforts began to pay off, laying a road map for future gay political success. As part of a broader reform of Israel’s penal code, liberal Knesset members decided to try to repeal the sodomy law. In 1988, they literally called a vote to repeal the sodomy law in the middle of the night, when it was prearranged that religious Knesset members would not be present, promising not to draw too much attention to the effort. The next day, following repeal, religious politicians screamed to the heavens on the radio and in the press, but it was largely for show. This pattern of doing things quietly, even under the table, would repeat itself.
The next few years marked the golden age of gay political success in Israel. By 1992, lesbian and gay activists had succeeded in getting the Knesset to amend Israel’s Equal Workplace Opportunities Law to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
In 1993, the Israeli military rescinded its few regulations discriminating against gays and lesbians. And in 1994, the Israeli Supreme Court ordered El Al Israel Airlines to grant a free plane ticket to the partner of a gay flight attendant, as the airline had long done for heterosexual partners of employees.
Since then, there has been steady progress, especially in the courts. As the victories mounted, so, too, did the number of people prepared to be open about their sexual orientation.
The reasons for gay and lesbian political success during this period from 1988 through the mid-1990s were many. Chief among them was the fact that gay activists pursued a very mainstream strategy, seeking to convince the wider public that gay Israelis were good patriotic citizens who just happened to be attracted to the same sex.
This strategy, pursued until recently, reinforced the perception that gay rights was a non-partisan issue, unconnected to the major fissure in Israeli politics, the Arab-Israeli conflict and how to resolve it. Embracing gay rights enabled Israelis to pat themselves on the back for being open-minded, even as Israeli society wrestled less successfully with other social inequalities.
Another reason for success was that the only source of real opposition to gay rights in Israel stems from the country’s religious parties. This may seem contradictory, but it is not. While religious parties have played a role in every Israeli government since the establishment of the state in 1948, in recent years, as their power has grown, so has the resentment of secular Israelis. Thus, the opposition of religious parties to gay rights has engendered the opposite reaction among non-religious Israelis.
The Revolution Begins
The mainstream path started to grate on some gay and lesbian Israelis in the late 1990s. The fuse of disaffection was finally lit at what became known as “the Wigstock Riots.” Wigstock is an annual drag festival in Tel Aviv that raises money for AIDS services in Israel. In 1998, a boisterous demonstration broke out when the police attempted to shut down the event as the Jewish Sabbath was beginning. Protesters spilled onto the adjacent Hayarkon Street and blocked traffic for a few hours. Lesbian and gay activists denounced what they saw as police coercion. Sounds like the Stonewall riots, right?
Well, not quite. The police came only because of a bureaucratic mix-up. Organizers had gotten a permit from City Hall allowing the event to continue until 8 pm, but the police permit ran only until 7 pm. While queer media immediately labeled the event “the Israeli Stonewall,” it was perhaps the only Stonewall to result from confusion over a festival permit.
1998 was a banner year for a more in-your-face agenda. A few weeks before Wigstock, Dana International, a popular transgender singer, brought home first place for Israel in the Eurovision Song Contest. Dana’s victory enabled the Israeli gay and lesbian movement to add the “t-word” to its name. Previously, the Israeli gay movement had shunned transgendered people, fearing what their inclusion would do to its public image, but with Dana receiving congratulatory telegrams from the Prime Minister and being made an honorary ambassador by the Knesset, it was now “safe” for the movement to expand its focus.
In November of that year, Michal Eden won a seat in the Tel Aviv City Council, becoming Israel’s first openly lesbian elected official. Her victory was made possible by the growth of “sectoral” parties in Israeli politics, be they religious, Palestinian, or economic. In such a political environment, gays and lesbians could have their own elected political voice as well, although such representation does not yet exist at the national level. That year constituted a watershed in how the community viewed itself, and how its politics would develop.
But the radical critique has not been all-encompassing. The Israeli LGBT movement has not embraced feminism (in fact, sexism and tensions between gay men and lesbians are both quite prevalent), and until recently, the place of gay Arabs in the community was neglected, reflecting the wider society’s indifference to Israel’s Arab minority (some 20 percent of Israel’s population).
Lee Walzer is the author of “Between Sodom and Eden: A Gay Journey Through Today’s Changing Israel” (Columbia University Press, 2000) and “Gay Rights on Trial” (ABC-CLIO, 2002), available at Amazon.com. You can email him at email@example.com.
by Lee Walzer
February 21, 2002
(3) Group fights for Palestinian gays’ safety
As Israel continues with deportations of gay Palestinians to danger and possible death in the West Bank and Gaza, a key Israeli gay rights body has noted some progress in at least one such case. “Tarek, a gay Palestinian whose full name has been withheld for his personal security reasons, went on trial on March 16 for being in Israel without a permit,” Lior Mencher, the head of Aguda – the Association of Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals and Transgendered in Israel – told this correspondent from Tel Aviv. Mencher expressed the apprehension that Tarek might eventually be deported to the Gaza Strip, where he faces imminent death. He quoted Tarek as saying, “I escaped from Gaza and came to Israel to live – not to be returned to be killed. Where is someone to help me?”
Israel’s Minister of Interior, Avraham Poraz, had initially declined to intervene in Tarek’s case, despite being a leader of the liberal Shenui Party that advocates justice for all sections of society, including gays. According to Mencher, Poraz was well aware that Tarek had passed all of the Israeli security checks and posed no danger to the state of Israel. “The Aguda, working closely with international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, International Lesbian and Gay Association in Brussels and New York, and Washington-based Muslim group Al Fatiha, among others, pleaded with Poraz to stop Tarek’s deportation,” Shaul Genon, director of Aguda’s Rescue Project, said on the phone from Tel Aviv Friday. Mencher said Aguda was also filing a petition to the District Court in order to stop the process of Tarek’s deportation. He said Tarek’s recent release on bail “is good news in a way, especially as the presiding judge specifically indicated that his life is at risk if deported to the Gaza. The sympathetic approach of the judge in the criminal trial maybe helpful, but we’ll (have to) see.”
Mencher also revealed that initial low-level talks have already started between Israel’s Ministry of the Interior and the Aguda in the search for a humane solution for gays of Palestinian and Arab origin. Mencher urged, “This pressure (on the Ministry of Interior) must continue in order to impress upon it the seriousness of the situation.” As in many Muslim countries, being gay in the Palestinian territories is treated as a crime against Islam. In most cases non-state actors, like the family, become the judge, jury and juror to decide a gay person’s fate. Reports of Nazi-style treatment of openly gay Palestinians are common. Rescue Project Director Shaul Genon said the Aguda had identified at least 100 Palestinian gays in Israel. “Only 25 of them want us to help them,” Genon said. “The others avoid coming forward, fearful of their family’s wrath more than that of the Palestinian Authority.”
Genon said though his Rescue Project had been helping Palestinian and Arab gays for the last four years and prevented three women and eight men from being deported so far, the situation for Palestinian gays worsened since the 9/11 attacks in the United States. “All the doors had been closed since then. Nobody wants to help them, and most of these young people have no money. The situation is just too bad,” Genon said. Without mentioning the Iraq War, Genon said the Rescue Project’s work gained urgency with an increased stringency in Israel policy in the last three months. Aguda, meanwhile, deplored that despite the protests by the Israeli and international GLBT community, two more Palestinian gays were deported to the West Bank on March 6. The organization did not make the duo’s name public, and said their fate was unknown as the Aguda had not been able to contact them through any means.
by Ahmar Mustikhan, Gay.com / PlanetOut.com Network
April 5, 2003