B.C. Lt.-Gov. Janet Austin addresses the July 27 Shabbat Dinner with Pride Colours event. (photo by Matt Hanns Schroeter)
On July 27, the Metro Vancouver Jewish community celebrated Jewish Pride with guests ranging from B.C. Lt.-Gov. Janet Austin, to government officials and representatives of faith-based and nonprofit organizations, as well as Jewish community leaders, LGBTQ+ Jews and friends in a sold-out, community-wide, family-friendly, gender-inclusive Shabbat dinner at VanDusen Botanical Garden. The festivities continued on Aug. 5, when the Jewish community hosted its annual booth on Sunset Beach during the Pride Parade and Festival.
These events were organized by the Jewish Pride planning committee and made possible by the support of a record 31 Jewish participating organizations, led by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, Pacific Region, and the work of numerous volunteers and community members. Funds raised at the Shabbat dinner will go towards supporting future Jewish LGBTQ+ events over the coming year.
While B.C. Premier John Horgan could not attend the July 27 Shabbat Dinner with Pride Colours, he sent his “warmest greetings,” noting, “For some, tonight may be their first introduction to observing Shabbat, and it is through sharing our lives and traditions with others that understanding and acceptance grows. Events like this are essential in ensuring that B.C. is a vibrant, diverse and welcoming place to live.”
Selina Robinson, minister of municipal affairs and housing, commented in a post on Facebook, “While I was proud to be there to bring greetings on behalf of our government … I was most proud to be there as a member of the Jewish community. I am grateful to see just how much has changed over the past number of years to create and facilitate space in our community … space for everyone regardless of gender identity or gender expression.”
“This was a really powerful moment for me last week,” said attendee Aaron Robinson, also on Facebook. “My mom spoke about being the Jewish parent of a gay Jewish man and how wonderful it was to see that there was space being made in the Jewish community for queer Jews. She spoke of the struggle and fear about making sure that your children have the space to be who they are in all of the ways they identify, and this Friday gave both of us so much hope. I’m so very grateful to the people that put on this Shabbat Pride dinner and all the organizations that were represented there for taking a huge step forward in creating a space for Jewish LGBTQ+ folks.”
Attendee Jill Beamish especially enjoyed talking with other women there “about parenting, queering and Judaism.”
“I loved the gathering, and send heartfelt thanks to the organizers,” said Beamish. “In 30 years of being out – and only four of being Jewish – I never thought I’d feel this welcomed and celebrated.”
Dr. Aaron Devor was another invitee who could not attend the Shabbat dinner, but who sent his remarks to be read at the event. Devor is, among other things, founder and inaugural chair in transgender studies at the University of Victoria, as well as a past president of the Jewish Federation of Victoria and Vancouver Island and a former board member of Hillel BC.
“I’d like to express my sincere appreciation to all who participated in making this fine event happen,” said Devor in his speech, “and especially to [CIJA’s] Carmel Tanaka, who I know from her years of dedicated service to the Jewish communities of Vancouver and Vancouver Island. Yasher koach to all of you!
“I, personally, have been attending Pride celebrations since 1971, when I was there for the second-ever Pride march, which took place down New York City’s Fifth Avenue. It was a breathtaking and exhilarating experience to see 10,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people marching together in the bright sunlight…. To be out and proud was something new and bold back then. And, I want to remind you that many of the people who took the risks to fight back against shame and oppression in those early days – and in all the days since – were gender diverse people: trans people, non-binary people, two-spirit people, genderqueer people, transsexuals, transvestites, drag queens and drag kings, and queers, many of whom were also Jews.
“We’ve seen huge progress since then,” said Devor. “It would be easy to get comfortable and enjoy the benefits of all that LGBTQ2+ people have accomplished in the decades since the birth of Pride. The fact that all of you are here tonight is a beautiful testament to the progressive thread that runs through much of Jewish life and culture…. I thank you for all that you have already done to bring us to this moment, and I look forward to continuing the work. There is much still to be done to make the world truly inclusive of gender and sexual diversity in all its glory.”
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu with David Malka, father of Border Police officer Hadas Malka, who was stabbed to death by a Palestinian terrorist outside Jerusalem’s Old City on June 16. (photo by Kobi Gideon / Israel Government Press Office via Ashernet)
Last year, Yad b’Yad, Hillel BC and others joined the Pride parade. This year, they will host a booth at Sunset Beach, which will allow them to engage more in discussion with festival-goers. (photo from Hillel BC)
The Jewish contingent in this year’s Vancouver Pride celebration is inviting everyone to participate. Yad b’Yad, the Jewish LGBTQ organization, will have a booth at the festival site on Sunset Beach, from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 2.
The parade runs from noon until 3 p.m., culminating at the Sunset Beach site. Jonathan Lerner, who is coordinating Yad b’Yad’s participation, said the decision was made to participate as a booth rather than to march in the parade, as the community has done beginning in 2010.
“We have messaging we want to get out,” said Lerner. “While it’s great to march in the parade, you only get to pass people by for a few quick seconds and maybe, if you’re lucky, you get to hand them something. For us, we wanted to be able to have conversations with people, meet people, introduce ourselves, tell them where they could come find us, have discussions with members of the queer community and the Jewish community. So, we felt like a booth would better serve that purpose.”
Yad b’Yad will be giving away items, offering face painting, a spinning wheel with prizes and an educational component, he said.
The presence of the group on Pride day has a dual purpose, he added.
“It’s incredibly important for LGBTQ Jews to see us there and know that resources do exist for them,” Lerner said. “It’s also important to show that the Jewish community supports the queer community. There are a lot of other ethnic and religious groups that participate. It’s important for us to have a presence there and show that we stand in solidarity with other minority communities and support them when they need it.”
Yad b’Yad is Hebrew for hand in hand, which is meant to symbolize the two communities working together and the two identities that many people have, Lerner said. Yad b’Yad is just about a year old and represents a solidification of the community’s approach to LGBTQ issues, which until now was more ad hoc.
The community’s first participation in the Pride parade, in 2010, was spearheaded by Hillel BC, with support from the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver and other community groups, including synagogues. Lerner, who is director of operations, administration and finance for Hillel BC, explained Yad b’Yad’s mandate.
“We started out to provide resources to queer members of the Jewish community and to advocate for the Jewish community within the LGBTQ community, because we still see a lot of antisemitism within that community,” he said. “Once we established the group, Yad b’Yad, it was a decision among the organizations that had been involved before – including Federation, CIJA [Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs], Hillel – that Yad b’Yad as a group should sort of lead the charge” in organizing Pride day events.
“We encourage all the agencies to come out to the booth, be part of the celebration,” Lerner added. “If an organization wants to come and be part of the booth, maybe bring with them a couple of pamphlets about their organization, they are absolutely welcome to do so.”
Potential volunteers, or anyone seeking additional information, can email [email protected].
Organizers estimate 180,000 people marched in the Tel Aviv Pride parade, June 12. (photo by Robin Perelle)
Alberto Lukacs-Böhm dabs a handful of birds onto the sunny sea-to-sky poster he’s painting for Tel Aviv Pride.
To live openly as a gay man in today’s Tel Aviv is to be free, he says. “It’s like to drink a fresh, clean water. That’s freedom.”
The 65-year-old is one of seven seniors gathered around a table at the Tel Aviv gay centre on June 11. The members of Golden Rainbow (Keshet Zahav) are chatting and painting as they finalize their plans to march together in the city’s 17th annual Pride parade the next day.
For Lukacs-Böhm, the path to freedom was somewhat complicated. Though he knew he was gay from a very young age, he married a woman in Hungary to avoid upsetting his mother, a circus illusionist who cried when he told her he’d kissed a boy at age 13.
He returned to Israel in 1988, the same year the country decriminalized homosexual sex. It was time, he says, “to take back my life in my hand.”
“From very young, everybody knows I’m a gay,” he explains, “[but] it was always complicated to be gay.”
“Is it still complicated to be gay?” I ask.
“Nooo,” he says, his face lighting up in an ear-to-ear smile.
“To speak about homosexuality or lesbian or transgender – it’s absolutely normal in Israel,” he says.
* * *
It’s day two of a five-day press trip to Israel, sponsored and entirely funded by the Israeli tourism ministry to show off Tel Aviv Pride to 43 journalists from around the world.
Day one began with an exuberant tour of gay Tel Aviv, led by Shai Doitsh, chair from 2012 to 2015 of the Aguda, Israel’s national LGBT task force. For the last decade, Doitsh has also been working with the tourism ministry and the municipality of Tel Aviv to market the city as a gay destination, a project he initiated in 2005, according to his LinkedIn profile.
Doitsh paints a rosy picture of Tel Aviv as one of the most accepting cities in the world, a year-round gay haven, where as much as 25 to 35 percent of the population may be gay, he claims.
Tel Aviv is a gay hub, both in Israel and throughout the region, he says, pausing repeatedly on Rothschild Boulevard and its surrounding streets to point out gay-friendly venues and the abundance of rainbow flags flying throughout the city for Pride.
He lists the many rights and benefits enjoyed by gay Tel Avivim, such as protection from workplace discrimination (introduced throughout Israel in 1992); the right to serve equally in the military (considered deeply important in a culture that requires military duty and prioritizes serving one’s country); the right to adopt your same-sex partner’s children (though surrogacy and marriage remain off-limits under the purview of ultra-Orthodox rabbis who frown on gay families); and Tel Aviv’s gay centre and Pride parade, both supported and funded by the municipality.
The gay community has a strong presence in Tel Aviv and in the city’s secular politics, Doitsh says.
“Our movement and our fight for equality is definitely the most successful in Israel” among the country’s minority groups, he says.
* * *
Doitsh may have a vested interest in trumpeting Tel Aviv’s gay appeal, but every gay, lesbian and transgender Israeli I’ve interviewed in the last few weeks has echoed his assessment. The city genuinely welcomes and supports its LGBT community, they say, or at least those members who more closely match mainstream norms.
It’s also a bubble that bears little resemblance to the rest of Israel, they all agree.
“Being in Tel Aviv is a bit like being in New York and pretending you see the entire United States,” says Moshe Zvi who, with his partner Eyal Alon, has joined the crowd gathering in Meir Park for the city’s Pride parade June 12.
“It’s a state within a state,” Alon says.
“I call it a bubble of sanity,” Zvi says.
Organizers tell us that 180,000 people are expected to gather in Meir Park to march in this year’s parade, making it the largest Pride in the Middle East and Asia.
As the marchers begin to file out towards Bograshov Street, Alon and Zvi tell me about some of the tensions that simmer beneath Israel’s seemingly gay-friendly surface.
Though Tel Aviv is a more liberal, secular city, Israel’s relatively small ultra-Orthodox Jewish community wields a disproportionate amount of political power in the national legislature due to the nature of Israel’s coalition politics, which rely on small-party support to pass most initiatives.
The ultra-Orthodox hold “almost a monopoly on power concerning marriage, cemeteries, conversion,” David Goldstein says.
Goldstein, 73, moved to Tel Aviv five years ago from San Francisco, fulfilling a lifelong dream. Now a member of the Golden Rainbow group, he says he feels much safer here than in the United States. But Tel Aviv is a bubble, he readily agrees.
It’s a secular city founded by Jewish businessmen who wanted a city of their own, he explains. Jerusalem, in contrast, is a holy city. Tel Aviv is anything but, he says, though it’s holy to the gay community and others who encourage diversity and a cosmopolitan lifestyle – anathema to the ultra-Orthodox community’s strictly religious worldview.
“They’re a very closed community,” Zvi says.
Being gay is “illogical in their way of thinking,” Goldstein says. “They would say, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that you’re this way.’”
Though he doesn’t consider the ultra-Orthodox mean-spirited in their anti-gay views – it’s “not the hatred that I find among [the] American right-wing,” he says – their steadfast repudiation of gay families makes life outside Tel Aviv less hospitable.
In one of Israel’s few headline-grabbing anti-gay hate crimes, an ultra-Orthodox man notoriously stabbed three people in the Jerusalem Pride parade in 2005, as protesters, mostly religious Jews, lined the route. Jerusalem Pride persists, I’m told, but it’s both more political and more tense than Tel Aviv’s cheerful take on the event.
It is getting easier to come out in other parts of Israel, Alon says. But it’s still easiest in Tel Aviv, where the ultra-Orthodox community is smaller, wields less power and seems more resigned to surrender the secular city to its wicked ways.
* * *
Then there are the more obvious, if less willingly broached, tensions.
Of course, Tel Aviv is a bubble, says Tal Jarus-Hakak who, with her partner Avital, was a lesbian feminist in Israel long before their nine-year legal battle successfully set a precedent allowing gays and lesbians to adopt their partners’ children.
Tel Aviv may be a cheerful, colorful, tolerant city with beautiful beaches, clubs, an increasingly well-established gay community with more and more families and businesses, and “an amazing, vibrant” gay culture, they say, but 60 kilometres away there is war, violence and poverty in many areas of Israel.
I’m sitting with the Jarus-Hakaks on the deck of their Vancouver home a few days after my return from Israel, a country they left in 2006 because, despite all their attempts to change its policies through protest and democratic means, they found the pace of change too slow and life there too traumatic, especially raising three sons.
Staying inside the bubble of Tel Aviv is “a survival mode,” Tal says. But it can get uncomfortable, too.
“Is that why you moved here?” I ask.
It’s hard to live outside the bubble – with consciousness – but it’s hard to stay inside the bubble, too, she says. Many people would call us traitors for saying this, she adds, but we’re not speaking against Israel. We’re speaking for Israel, to try to do things differently, she says.
Hadar Namir says she doesn’t want to go back to Israel either. One of Israel’s pioneering lesbian activists, Namir has been on vacation in Vancouver since April.
“I’m not wishing to go back,” she says. “I’m not comfortable with the human rights situation in Israel. That, for example, Arab-Israeli citizens are remote from being equal – and this is authorized by the government for years.”
Namir, who spent 15 years working with Israel’s Association for Civil Rights, draws me a map of the country. She places Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean coast, adds Haifa further north and Jerusalem about 45 minutes east, inland. Then she adds the occupied territories.
The map, unlike anything I saw during our ministry-sponsored tours of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, fills with fences and checkpoints, until it’s a messy, convoluted ink-blot puzzle. She tells me stories of families divided, cut off from each other and their land or forced to take long detours to tend their olive trees, if they can tend them at all. She says there are different legal systems in the occupied territories: one for Jewish people accused of committing a crime and a different system for Arab people. She talks about inadequate government support for Arab cities, and difficulty accessing health care.
“Some gay men say, ‘let not interfere our fight for LGBT rights with other fights.’ Not me. I don’t believe it,” she says.
“I don’t want to simplify things,” she hastens to add. “It’s much more complicated” than good Israelis and Hamas terrorists. “And I do understand the desire for a Jewish state,” she says.
But different people have different narratives, she says: Independence Day for some is considered a disaster for others.
* * *
One commonly repeated narrative in Israel and around the world is that Arab communities kill gay people, further distinguishing Israel as a gay oasis.
Most of the Israelis I met in Tel Aviv hesitated when I asked them if gay Palestinians would be marching in the Pride parade.
There must be some gay Palestinians here, Zvi and Alon say, after a brief pause.
“I don’t think it’s easy being a gay Arab anywhere,” Zvi offers. “As in everything, I think life in Israel is easier than life in Palestine.”
Alon mentions a gay Palestinian party in Tel Aviv, and some gay-known coffee shops in Ramallah. But they’re discreet, he says.
Karl Walter, one of our tour guides, says there likely are Arabs participating in the parade, but quietly. They wouldn’t be able to go home, he tells me, “because the Arabs would kill them.”
Arabs “crush” gays in Gaza and in Ramallah, he asserts.
The reality, says Samira Saraya, is more complicated.
Saraya lives in Tel Aviv as an openly gay Palestinian woman. She is also an actress, an activist and a nurse who, in 2003, co-founded Aswat, a group for gay Palestinian women. She also attended the first monthly gay Palestinian parties in Tel Aviv.
“It’s complicated to live in Tel Aviv and be an Arab as well,” she tells me by phone, a week after my return from Israel. “Living in a kind of militaristic society…. On the other hand, I really love the people around me. But the moment we get into politics, it’s complicated.”
I ask her if Tel Aviv’s gay-friendly embrace extends to gay Palestinians.
“If you are willing to bargain your identity, if you are willing to be more Israeli, less Palestinian,” she says. “It depends.”
I ask if she has faced discrimination within the gay community.
“Of course,” she replies. She recalls one experience doing outreach to high school students with a mostly Jewish LGBT organization and hearing a fellow presenter say he wouldn’t date an Arab.
In the gay community, she says, “they don’t see that there is a connection between being oppressed for your sexual identity and your ethnic identity.”
As for the common refrain that Arabs kill gays, she says it’s too easy to paint Israel as democratic and gay-friendly against a backdrop of Arab homophobia. She says she enters the occupied territories as an openly gay Palestinian and no one has ever hurt her.
“I go as a lesbian to Ramallah, as well, and to Nazareth, and do not face homophobia or somebody cursing me because I’m a dyke.”
Palestinian society is “chauvinist and homophobic,” she says, but there are Palestinian people in the occupied territories living their lives as openly gay and nobody is killing them. Some of her friends are even out to their families, she adds.
Though Saraya says many Palestinians who live in Israel go to Tel Aviv Pride, it’s almost impossible for gay people from the occupied territories to get permission to attend. “Less and less people are permitted to come to Israel,” she says. “There are checkpoints and restrictions and protocols.”
* * *
I ask Namir what she thinks of the Israeli tourism ministry flying me and 42 other journalists from around the world to Tel Aviv for Pride.
Tel Aviv is a genuinely gay-friendly city, she says, and the municipality really does support the parade, the community centre and even a shelter for LGBT youth. “I do believe the credit is there,” she says. “I’m totally respectful that the minute that we decided to go out of the closet in 1993, they were opening the doors to us.” But it’s still “pinkwashing,” she says.
Tal Jarus-Hakak agrees. The ministry brought you over to show “the nice part of Israel, how tolerant we are,” she tells me.
It’s “part of their propaganda to show Israel as a gem in this area” – the only democratic country in this area, she says.
But Israel is the only democratic country in that area, Avital interjects.
“But even if that’s the case, it does not take off of Israel the responsibility for what it’s doing in the occupied territories,” Tal replies.
“There’s nothing wrong about the parade in Tel Aviv and nothing wrong about people coming to the parade,” Saraya says. “What’s wrong is trying to use the parade to cover the other violations that Israel do every day. This is pinkwashing.”
Zvi isn’t so sure. He doesn’t think showing off Pride necessarily detracts from the Palestinian situation. “I think mindfulness is in order,” he says, “but I’m glad people are coming to Tel Aviv. God knows Israel could use some good publicity. Should Tel Aviv not get this kind of feedback? I want tourists to come here.”
Walter, our guide, vehemently rejects any suggestion of pinkwashing.
“The thing to understand is that the gay parade and all that we’ve accomplished is for us,” he says, “not for tourism. It’s not for show. It’s not a PR stunt. It’s the most visible expression of freedom in the world – the only free gay community in the Middle East. People tend to forget that. We don’t.”
Gay rights in Israel have nothing to do with the Palestinian situation, he says. “If anyone uses the term pinkwashing, you immediately know that he’s a racist and a homophobe. He doesn’t have the decency to say that my foes – they did something good.”
Tourism ministries in other countries also show off their best traits to visitors, Goldstein points out.
He, too, finds the pinkwashing criticism unfair.
“I think the critics of Israel – they’re really against Israel to begin with,” he says. “People who have an axe to grind and [are] trying to besmirch Israel any way they can. So, any good points, they say they’re doing it to fool the people. I think it’s a bit antisemitic to say that.”
* * *
Back in the seniors’ room at the Tel Aviv gay centre, Lukacs-Böhm cheerfully cleans up his paints and prepares for another day in his gay paradise.
“For me, [to] be free is to drink cold, clean water when I want and how I want,” he says, with a smile.
Robin Perelleis the managing editor in Vancouver of Daily Xtra, Canada’s gay and lesbian news source. This story first ran on dailyxtra.com on July 2.
Last Sunday, I took my two daughters to the Vancouver Pride Parade.
Though I was certain my four- and seven-year-olds would enjoy every ounce of the many colors and sounds, and the energy of the parade itself (few events produce the same level of spirit as a Pride Parade) a day of fun wasn’t my prime motivator.
I had seen a posting on Facebook from Yad b’Yad, a community-based group that rallies local members of all sexual preferences each year to represent the Jews of Vancouver in the parade.
I decided that with everything going on in Israel at the time, combined with the dramatic presence of antisemitism spreading across the globe, never was there a better time for me to teach my children about tolerance, acceptance, diversity and pride.
Yes, there were a few questions I had to be prepared to answer – like when one of the participants handing out freebies to the crowd placed a couple packs of Trojans in my seven-year-old’s hands. I responded to the expected, “What’s this, Daddy?” with an abbreviated version of how she wouldn’t be enjoying this parade if Daddy had those eight years ago. A quick shrug of the shoulders and she was back to watching “princesses” roller skate down the street to roaring cheers.
The value gained in that experience, led by the conversations I had explaining the importance of the parade, was what made me most proud. That’s because one of the scariest things I see when I look closely at Israel’s Middle East problem is the amount of education-themed hatred being passed on to children in the region. Cartoon characters who preach killing Jews and manipulated curricula that offer false truths about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict all but guarantee this crisis is not likely to end until well beyond my days.
Outside of the Middle East, the Hamas propaganda machine – which has clearly become their most powerful weapon – has helped spread hatred and bigotry around the world and, in some cases, just down the street from our own homes.
Like many other people I know, I have found myself walking around my country, my city, wondering how many people around me would like to shame me and my family because of something they once saw on TV or read on Facebook.
I’ll always do all that I can debating with and educating folks via various social media outlets. But the most important thing I can do for the future is teach my kids. Teach them to love. Teach them to accept. Teach them to continuously open their minds to the many choices free people have in this world.
It’s entirely possible that watching half-naked men and women prancing up Robson Street is not for everyone (say, what!?). But I encourage parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends everywhere to do something unique, outside of the box, and, especially, meaningful to provide your youth every chance to identify the difference between right and wrong. They will see it all on Facebook one day. Better they are prepared to figure it out for themselves when they do.