Tuesday 12 June 2012

Gay Pride in the Holy Land

Last week was Gay Pride Week in Tel Aviv, which culminated on Friday in a huge parade through the streets of the city and along the beach front.  Gay pride flags were proudly flying from street lights across the city in anticipation of the event, and it has become a major attraction on the city's calendar of events.

The whole idea of homosexuality in the Holy Land seems to be a contradiction in terms.  For countries which have a strong religious base, the idea of free acceptance of gay rights seems a paradox.  It would be difficult to imagine gay pride parades in the Vatican City or Islamabad.  Many people put Israel into this category, and not without justification.  The sight of the ultra-Orthodox Jew, either with a big black hat or with a crocheted kippa (skullcap) and flowing side locks, is the one that many associate with Israeli society.   This is, after all, a Jewish country.   The Tel Aviv gay pride parade, and the Tel Aviv gay scene in general, shows a completely different side to Tel Aviv, to Israel and to Jewish people.  It is also a side that conjures up much emotion and controversy.

Many may be surprised to learn of the extensive gay scene in Tel Aviv.  The city was voted "Best Gay City of 2011" by readers of a well-known gay website.  With its fantastic climate, wonderful beaches, numerous restaurants and crazy night scene, Tel Aviv is an ideal destination for gay tourists.  The Tel Aviv municipality and Israeli Ministry of Tourism have recognised the value of gay tourism, and have spent a good slice of their budgets in promoting Tel Aviv to the international gay community.  Gay tourists are regarded as high quality tourists who are willing to spend money when on their holidays.  Tel Aviv draws tens of thousands of gay visitors to the city each year, and this has boosted the tourist industry substantially.  This seems to sit fairly easily with the persona of Tel Aviv, which is known to be the liberal centre of Israel.  There seems to be little opposition from Tel Aviv residents to the gay branding of Tel Aviv, and this somehow seems to contribute to the cosmopolitan face of the city.

Attempts to replicate the gay pride parade in Jerusalem have been less successful.  The city's gay pride parades have inevitably been accompanied by opposition and violence from the ultra-Orthodox community, which is not prepared to tolerate such an activity in the Holy City.   The parades held in the city have been a cat-and-mouse game in getting the city council (dominated by ultra-Orthodox councillors) to approve the parade, and then allowing it to go ahead without intervention by groups and individuals opposed to it.  Although the number of participants is substantially smaller, the statement that it makes is much larger.

While the issue of homosexuality is highly contentious and has much opposition within the religious community, it is also a subject that is becoming a greater part of the religious community.  It is reported that more and more members of the religious community are coming out of the closet as gays, despite the fact that it is a concept that is completely taboo within the community.  A number of Orthodox rabbis have publicly announced that they are gay, and this includes some who were openly involved in the Tel Aviv gay pride parade.  For the majority of Orthodox Jews, the gay lifestyle is regarded as contrary to Jewish law and its practices are totally rejected.  Despite this fact, it seems to me that the community is forced to at least recognise the existence of gays and their lifestyle.  This is, in itself, a major change from the attitudes that we seen until now.

In addition to giving a voice to an alienated sector of the religious community, the gay scene and gay pride parade in Tel Aviv also gives an outlet to Arab gays.  Most gays in the Arab community are forced to leave their families and their homes if they come out of the closet.  The Tel Aviv gay scene is happy to accept these people into their midst, and gives them the opportunity to live the life that they cannot live in their home environment.

As much as there are still those who are opposed to open expressions of homosexuality such as the gay pride parades, the city of Tel Aviv has really embraced the parade and the people that come with it.  It is an event like any other, which caters for a different sector of the population.  Not only does it attract much-needed foreign tourists, it is also makes a statement about the tolerant and accepting atmosphere in the city.  In the same way that the religious communities are allowed to live their lifestyle in the areas in which they have chosen to live, so it is true of the gay community of the city.  I think that this is a great advert for the city of Tel Aviv, and for the State of Israel.

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