Recently I was up in Haifa and I met Ahmed, a young Muslim man from Nazareth. He’s open to marrying a Jew, a Christian, or a Muslim. When I asked him to keep his eyes peeled for a partner for me, he laughed and said he didn’t know anyone. And when I said: “that you know of. Maybe they’re afraid to share it”- he said “maybe you’re right.” Without hesitation, just an honest recognition that his preconceptions were faulty and he was willing to listen and learn from others’ experiences. And in the end, he said he’d let me know if he met someone for me.
Sometimes here it can be excruciatingly hard to differentiate between group dynamics and individuals. The fact remains, despite Ahmed’s kindness, that it is much more dangerous to be gay in a Muslim village here than in largely-Jewish Haifa or Tel Aviv. Or even Jerusalem, whose Judaism trends more conservative, but only rarely violent against LGBTQ people. And while these generalizations are important in protecting yourself or at least being aware before entering a place, generalizations they are.
Because individual psychology matters. And bigotry exists in all quarters- so does hope. I personally know straight Arabs from Kfar Qasem, the birthplace of the Israeli Islamist movement, who help gay Arabs in their community come out. In my heavily conservative South Tel Aviv neighborhood, I’ve met neighbors with ultra-Orthodox Shas rabbis pictures all around their houses. Who then set me up with guys on Shabbat. On the other hand, in the middle of the day yesterday I walked by two men who laughed out loud at me as I walked by. At my clothes, my sunglasses, my hair- my “purple shirt”- that’s what they said when I asked. Was it at me being gay or my difference? How easy it is to separate the two? All I know is they couldn’t stop laughing and it hurt. Just like the teenagers shouting homophobic things late at night while I walked home alone. I didn’t feel so safe.
Last night, I went to a hippie Shabbat. I love certain things about my neighborhood and how it can surprise you. And I love traveling to Arab and Druze villages, where people also have surprised me- like the bi-curious Druze boy. Sometimes, I just want to be in a place where I can be queer and gay and laugh out loud and not have to be worried about being judged, being exemplary, being offensive. I can just be me, an individual who is queer and creative and funny and thoroughly myself.
When I say hippie Shabbat, I really mean it. Dreadlocks, incense, candles, namastes- and Jewish prayers. It’s really cool and I have never seen anything like this outside of Israel. Everyone is young, aside from a few 40 or 50 year olds who totally blend in. Nobody cares. In America, Judaism often felt so formalized to me. So ritualized and rigid. Perhaps if trying to maintain a tradition in the face of a society gobbling it up, it’s necessary to maintain some things for the sake of continuity. Or because Americans themselves are more formal, it’d seem out of place for a synagogue to sit in a circle and chant Jewish mantras. There are a few places in American Judaism I’ve seen that are somewhat similar- and they trend older. Mostly people in their 60s and beyond who still have that renewal, hippie vibe. But what I saw last night- people meditating and chanting and dancing and veganing all while people’s kids were crying and screaming and cell phones were going off- that was thoroughly Israeli. And somehow, rather Zen.
A friend of mine brought a guy she was starting to see to the event. I met him- a secular, pretty vanilla guy from the center of the country. He had a kind of gentleness to him, a soft speech, a very bland body frame. His family was American and made aliyah when he was a child. Young, educated, open enough to try a hippie Shabbat. We chatted for a bit- he was excited to hear I was American too- he prefers American culture. Apparently for the politeness which I now find somewhat superficial.
As we were talking, for some reason drag shows came up. He said: “I don’t have a problem with it, but…” which is always a solid sign that someone does have a problem with it. He didn’t like that men dressed as women because it’s not “manly”. And he claimed that that’s because the Torah prohibits it. While the Torah does indeed prohibit cross-dressing, I’ve never- never- heard a secular person use this argument. He felt it was disingenuous for a man to dress as a woman on the street because it could deceive someone. My friend and I patiently- perhaps too patiently- explained to him why this is bullshit- and he just repeated the same argument. With an odd gentleness of speech for someone spewing hatred.
He then also said he was opposed to same-sex couples, also because that’s written in the Torah. I explained it’s not- what’s written in the Torah is about same-sex sex, not marriage, and even that interpretation is challenged by Conservative and Reform Jews like me. Many of whom believe the prohibition was in relation to pagan cults where there was same-sex rape. And who also believe rules evolve with time. We don’t stone people anymore either. It’s also worth noting the Torah does not even mention lesbians, let alone prohibit their relations, sexual or matrimonial.
When presented with these facts- along with the idea that it’s perhaps a bit hypocritical for him to use the Torah to bash gays when he doesn’t even keep Shabbat. A commandment mentioned repeatedly throughout our Bible. His answer: “a prohibition is a prohibition. Where does the same-sex prohibition come from? Who said it?”
At this point, the conversation was futile. He doesn’t like gay couples or cross-dressing yet can’t even point to the Bible verse that deals with it. Nor does he observe anything else in Judaism other than fasting on Yom Kippur. And yet this secular guy found it convenient to bash my identity based on something he doesn’t even know. While I have Orthodox friends who study in yeshiva and accept me as I am. I felt angry, deflated, and sad. Perhaps proud at how calm I remained despite such provocation in a place I thought was safe. And angry that I wasn’t showing more anger.
I don’t know if this guy realized I was gay from the outset. And it doesn’t really matter. Though by the end, I made it clear. The point is anyone could be gay- why would you speak with such cruel audacity? It shouldn’t matter who I am, just that I deserve to be talked to with respect.
I grew up in a deeply homophobic family. And in many cases, society. Which can make it hard to find that adequate middle ground where I’m standing up for myself and neither being overly accommodating nor aggressive. I hope this man takes this experience and uses it to grow and treat others with more kindness than he treated me. In the one place I thought I would be safe on Shabbat.
In addition to trying to find that healthy space where I’m proud and assertive, understanding and protective- I had another thought. Nowhere is totally safe. Even a normal-looking secular guy with a soft voice can use that voice to voice hatred. And an Arab Muslim from Nazareth can show me great kindness and more willingness to learn than the Jew at hippie Shabbat. I’ve met Hasidim who chewed me out for being Reform and others who simply accepted me. I’ve met Arabs who were deeply homophobic and others who were gay themselves. And afraid their families would kill them. And others, who help Arabs come out.
Point is this- there is a reason why we Israelis have to generalize about people. For all the pie in the sky rhetoric I hear from some Americans, the truth is some places- some groups of people- are less safe. It’s a fact. A pride flag in Hebron- either the Palestinian or the Jewish side- is not likely to be well-received. A whopping 4% of Palestinians accept gay people. And I’ve met some who do. More Arabs in Israel are open-minded, but it’s still pretty taboo. And while secular Jews can be ruthless homophobes, it’s usually easier to be gay in that segment of society.
At the same time, I think it’s important to remember we are individuals. Generalizing serves a purpose- often to protect ourselves- and it doesn’t always match up with the facts. As a gay Jew, I felt safer in a baklava shop with Ahmed than I did with a secular Jew at a hippie Shabbat. A sentence I couldn’t have imagined myself saying a year ago. And here I am. Because having in-person experiences with different types of people- that’s what helps me stay rooted and realize that generalizing has its limits. That when it comes to gays, for every society we expect to be safe, there are holes of darkness. And for every community filled with fear, there are rays of hope.
My cover photo is a rainbow-colored mural in the Bedouin Muslim village of Jisr Al-Zarqa: “hope, culture, creativity”. That’s what I believe in.
Here are some other photos that fill me with hope, I encourage you to read the captions:
May you go in peace, wherever you go 🙂