Homosexuality in Israel

Israel is among the leaders in equality for sexual minorities.

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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.

Left Behind

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).

Against the backdrop of clashes between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the 2001 Tel Aviv's Pride Parade, typically a celebratory, hedonistic affair, got a dose of politics when a contingent called "Gays in Black" marched with a banner proclaiming, "There's No Pride In Occupation." A group called "Kvisa Sh'hora" (Dirty Laundry) also sprung up, linking the oppression of sexual minorities to what it sees as the Israeli oppression of the Palestinians.

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Lee Walzer

Lee Walzer is the author of Between Sodom and Eden: A Gay Journey Through Today's Changing Israel and Gay Rights on Trial.