Out in the World: SF gay Jewish business owner caught in Israel after Hamas attack

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday October 11, 2023
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San Francisco resident Manny Yekutiel conducted an interview with KGO-TV from Israel. Photo: Courtesy KGO-TV
San Francisco resident Manny Yekutiel conducted an interview with KGO-TV from Israel. Photo: Courtesy KGO-TV

San Francisco gay Jewish cafe owner Emanuel "Manny" Yekutiel finds himself in an unimaginable situation following the surprise attack by Hamas in Israel October 7. Stuck in Tel Aviv with missiles flying overhead, he is volunteering to get supplies to people directly in the conflict areas in southern Israel around the Gaza Strip, Israeli Defense Force soldiers, and their families.

"I don't know how I'm getting home," Yekutiel, the owner of Manny's, a popular cafe and event space in San Francisco's Mission district, told the Bay Area Reporter Tuesday.

Yekutiel, 34, traveled to Israel October 3 and was supposed to return October 17. Now, with major U.S. airlines curtailing flights to Israel in the wake of the fighting, he is uncertain about when he will be able to fly home.

A week after Hamas attacked southern Israel, Yekutiel arrived home on a commercial flight landing at San Francisco International Airport at 3 p.m. October 14, he texted the B.A.R. It was a long journey home, he told KTVU-TV after exiting the airport's customs and baggage claim, but he's glad he made it. At the same time, he is worried about his family and people in Israel as the war escalates.

Speaking with the B.A.R. from Tel Aviv before he returned to San Francisco, Yekutiel, who's also a member of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency board, described the days after Hamas militants caught Israel off guard October 7, launching brutal attacks from air, land, and sea. The attack happened on two of the Jewish holidays, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, and during Shabbat. It also occurred on the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately declared war and the fighting has continued.

Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are Jewish high holidays celebrated together at the end of Sukkot. Shabbat is the Jewish 25-hour period of rest and fasting from sunset on Friday until an hour after sundown on Saturday.

Hamas is a militant movement that has ruled the Gaza Strip since the 2006 election. The U.S. and the European Union have designated Hamas as a terrorist organization, according to the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations.

Hamas insurgents killed 1,200 Israelis — 22 Americans are among the dead — in more than 20 locations and took an estimated 150 hostages, including some Americans. CBS News reported as of October 11, the Gaza Health Ministry announced 950 people, including 140 children, were killed by Israeli airstrikes in Gaza. An estimated 5,000 people have been injured, mostly women and children.

Israel is home to more than 9.3 million and Gaza is home to about 2.3 million.

Hunkered down under a table in a synagogue with his two sisters and their nine children last Saturday, Yekutiel found himself singing at the top of his lungs with the other adults in an attempt to keep the kids from hearing the sirens going off around them.

Gone was the music, dancing, and joy of visiting his family, and enjoying the Jewish holidays as he was doing Friday night.

"I am in a war zone," Yekutiel said, stating that he was "shaken up" by having to suddenly seek shelter at a moment's notice. "I actually could hear and see the missiles being intercepted above my head."

On Monday, Hezbollah, a militant group at the Israel-Lebanon northern border, responded with return fire after three of its members died following an Israeli air raid in southern Lebanon, reported CNN. Hezbollah is a terrorist organization backed by Iran, according to the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations.

Israel's government also cut off all power and water to Gaza (Israel controls its water and energy). The USS Gerald R. Ford Carrier Strike Group arrived in Israel Tuesday. Netanyahu called up 360,000 IDF reservists.

Yekutiel said that his cousins were called up for duty. He FaceTimed with his gay cousin as he packed for the Israel-Gaza border, he said. He added that he was "nervous" and "scared for them."

Apparent intelligence failure

Hamas' attack on Israel was a catastrophic intelligence failure for Israel with far-reaching and long-term effects, experts said. U.S. and Israeli intelligence have not been able to directly tie Hamas' attack on Israel to Iran despite being aware of meetings between Iranian and Hamas leaders leading up to the incident. Hamas denied that Iran or Hezbollah had any connections to the Hamas attack on Israel, reported ABC News. The Wall Street Journal reported that Iran helped plot the attack.

"The Egyptians tried to warn us a few days before that something big was going to happen in the Gaza Strip," Nurit Shein, a retired IDF lieutenant colonel, told about 100 A Wider Bridge members and allies who attended a virtual hourlong discussion from Tel Aviv October 9.

Shein, a lesbian, was a young Israeli military intelligence officer in the command bunker with Golda Meir, Israel's first and only woman prime minister, during the Yom Kippur War in 1973.


President Joe Biden, the European Union, and other world leaders condemned Hamas' attack on Israel.

Locally, Congressmember Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and San Francisco Mayor London Breed joined other leaders and hundreds of community members to offer support for Israel and denounce terrorism at Congregation Sherith Israel October 8.

Gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) denounced Hamas's attack on Israel speaking to KGO-TV.

"Israel is not perfect by any stretch. I have my own very public criticisms, but what happened today crosses a red line," he said October 7. "Nothing justifies the terrorist attacks that we saw today.

"As a Jew — and I know I speak for my Jewish colleagues in the Legislature — we are all both horrified and terrified about what's happening in Israel," added Wiener, who co-chairs the California Jewish Legislative Caucus.

On Monday, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres condemned "the abhorrent attacks by Hamas," in a statement from the global organization.

"I recognize the legitimate grievances of the Palestinian people," he stated. "But nothing can justify these acts of terror and the killing, maiming, and abduction of civilians."

Guterres called for Hamas to "immediately cease these attacks and release all hostages."

He warned Israel, stressing that "civilians must never be a target," after reports of Gaza apartment buildings, hospitals, and a mosque being hit by Israeli missiles.

Palestinians walk by the rubble of a building after it was struck by an Israeli airstrike, in Gaza City, Sunday, October 8, 2023. Photo: AP/Fatima Shbair  

QUIT's view
Kate Raphael, a Bay Area lesbian and founding member of Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism, is also grieving, and told the B.A.R. Tuesday that she has been feeling "immensely sad" and "horrified" since Hamas' attack.

Raphael, 64, is "empathizing with the people both in Gaza and in southern Israel who are experiencing violence, terror, and loss," she said, adding, "knowing also, that inevitably, it will be worse for the Palestinians."

"The Palestinian people need what they've always needed — what all of us need, security, freedom, and the ability to make things better for the people that they love," she said. The Palestinian people "just don't get it and they never have gotten it since the establishment of the State of Israel," she added.

She doesn't believe any serious change will happen because the will on the part of any decision-makers — Israel and Palestine — "is just not there."

Yekutiel called for politicians and activists not to use the Israel-Gaza war "as an opportunity to score political points" but to "acknowledge the horror of what's happened."

Shein, the founder and immediate past chair of The Aguda, the Association for LGBTQ Equality, said, "We are facing a terrorist regime, a terrorist organization. This is not about politics right now."

The Aguda is Israel's leading LGBTQ organization working toward equality and a safe country for LGBTQ people in Israel, according to the organization's website.

"Hamas is not interested in a political peaceful solution with the State of Israel. That is the truth," said Shein.

The information war
Gay Israeli Deputy Consul General to the Pacific Northwest Matan Zamir told A Wider Bridge viewers that there are two wars happening in Israel. There is a war on the ground between Israel and Gaza and there is an information war between fact-based authoritative reporting and fake news.

Zamir said there were "many lies, so much fake news" spreading online. He said it "is important to present the story as it is to present the truth as it is on the ground. This is an important battle that we all should fight together."

Raphael said that she's heard and seen some stories that "might not be true" and said that sources should be checked, and questions should be asked before sharing information.

"I feel like before jumping to conclusions, we need to really question every source," she said.

However, she's frustrated that the images being shown in the media are mostly only of "Israelis suffering."

"We should see those images," she said, "but I didn't see one photo of the Palestinian families that have been killed. Whole families in Gaza have been killed since Saturday as well. We haven't seen those pictures.

"We see the names of the Israelis kidnapped and killed. We never hear the names of the Palestinians who are being killed and kidnapped," she continued, citing an Al Jazeera article stating there are currently 5,200 Palestinians in jail — including 33 women and 170 children. Their names are not publicly known.

"I myself cannot name one of them and I've been involved in doing solidarity work for Palestinian political prisoners for years," Raphael said.

Getting any information — especially reliable information — about Palestine is challenging, "even for me and I am looking for it," she said.

"I do think people have to understand that there's a whole huge piece of the story that we never get," she added. "People really need to look for better sources of information than the mainstream U.S. media because the story that we're being told is part of the problem."

Getting to the missing piece of the story
That was the purpose of 20 members of San Francisco's LGBTQ synagogue, Congregation Sha'ar Zahav, who were supposed to leave for a learning trip to Israel and Palestine next week. It was canceled after the attack. Now, with the war escalating, they hope to continue the work they started locally until they can go on the trip.

"It's really quite heartbreaking," said Deborah Levy, president of the congregation's board, about the conflict and the postponed learning experience planned with UnXeptable, a grassroots group of Israeli expats.

The delegation had a robust itinerary with a dual narrative tour guided by a Jewish Israeli lesbian and a Palestinian, said Levy, a 62-year-old bisexual woman who is a dual citizen of Israel and the U.S. Participants were going to learn about LGBTQ life in the Middle East as well as climate change efforts and other issues during the trip, Levy said. She said the group is interested in going beyond the headlines and learning first-hand about the Israel-Palestinian conflict and other issues in the region.

Now the group, as well as the congregation, is grieving. The group is figuring out how to send humanitarian aid to Israel.

"I'm sure we will be there within the year, continue to learn, and then bring that message back to our community," Levy said.

Israeli LGBTQ community responds
Shein expressed disappointment about the Israeli government's lack of response to support Israelis.

"I hate to say it, but the government has not responded in the manner that we expected the government to respond," she said about efforts to support and provide basic supplies to Israelis caught in the crossfire, IDF soldiers heading to the frontlines, and their families. "We are seeing [that] citizens are doing it instead of the government.

"We have figured out as individuals and as little communities to come together and to support each other and to give people some respite," she added.

Rather than sit around watching the news and huddling in a bunker every time the sirens sound, Yekutiel said that he acted. On Monday, he left his family and joined hundreds of people collecting, sorting, and distributing basic necessities for those in need in Tel Aviv.

"I've been taking those goods, sorting them, and then working with drivers to get them to soldiers on the frontlines and also family members of people who have suffered from the recent attacks," Yekutiel said.

It's been "incredibly inspiring, and filling me with hope and so much togetherness," he continued. "There's this immense unity right now."

Shein said, "There is [a] compounded kind of drama" for LGBTQ people resulting in "a higher level of anxiety," which is why The Aguda and 18 other queer organizations came together to support LGBTQ Israelis and anyone who needs help with mental health, physical support, and legal support.

"At this point, really, there is no distinction: an Israeli is an Israeli and we are in distress, whether we're LGBT or whether we're not," Shein said. "We have opened our gates to everybody who needs — and especially for our own community."

She added, "We also have some LGBTQ Palestinians who have fled from the territories because they're gay. We are especially reaching out to them because they must be feeling even more so the trauma that's going on."

Added Yekutiel, "There are two very different realities if you're a queer person: one in the Palestinian territories and one in Israel. Israel is a place where I as a gay man have always felt accepted and welcome where the queer community lives openly here.

"I hate to say it, but if you're an LGBTQ person, you're not going to last very long in Gaza — at least not openly," he added.

For more than a decade, Israel has been accused of "pinkwashing" its image to deflect from other human rights abuses, especially regarding Palestine. According to the Times of Israel earlier this year, though Netanyahu said he was committed to protecting gay rights, overtly homophobic remarks by his government ministers set the LGBTQ community on edge.

Asked what he will do if he cannot return to San Francisco soon, Yekutiel said, "If I'm going to be here, I might as well be of good use. I'm gonna keep helping."

The need isn't only in Israel. Shein reminded A Wider Bridge attendees that there are Israelis in American communities who need support too.

"Many of those Israelis have friends and families in Israel and they are anxious," she said. "They will want some support and this feeling of community. This is the time to come together. This is the time to reach out to those Israelis within our communities in the United States."

Congregation Sha'ar Zahav is seeking people to open their homes to Israelis who are unable to return home due to the war, Rabbi Mychal Copeland texted to the B.A.R. Tuesday.

Queer Israeli resolve
Shein is confident in the Israelis' strength.

"It is a very dark and difficult time, but we're gonna get through this," she said. "I have faith in the people and in the citizens of Israel," she said. "Not so much in the government right now."

Shein stated that she sees the "heroics of people, ordinary people who are going out of their way to help, to support, to find, and to fight" daily.

To support LGBTQ Israeli and Palestinians during the Israel-Gaza War, A Wider Bridge launched a designated fund with its Impact Grant Program or people can donate to the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco's Israel Emergency Fund.

Got international LGBTQ news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at WhatsApp/Signal: 415-517-7239, or [email protected]

Updated, 10/16/23: This article has been updated to indicate that Manny Yekutiel returned to San Francisco October 14.

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