Guest Opinion: Beyond the bubble: Pride in Israel from the North to the South

  • by Matan Zamir
  • Wednesday June 22, 2022
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People celebrate at Haifa Pride. Photo: PR-Israel Gay Youth
People celebrate at Haifa Pride. Photo: PR-Israel Gay Youth

Located at the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea, Israel is internationally recognized as the LGBTQ+ capital of the Middle East. Its nightclubs, bars, beaches, and premier Pride parade attracts millions of LGBTQ+ tourists from across the world. The beating heart of this community is the city of Tel Aviv, which could be viewed as the equivalent of San Francisco.

Much like San Francisco, Tel Aviv has long been a safe haven for the region's queer citizenry, where the LGBTQ+ community could thrive and people could celebrate their identity. Its status as a center for arts, fashion, and culture has attracted many diverse people for decades.

Even though Tel Aviv may hold the most notoriety as the LGBTQ+ capital of Israel, other cities throughout the nation have also given birth to thriving communities. It might be surprising to learn that the country now boasts the most Pride parades per capita than any other nation on earth — about 50 parades in a nation of 9.2 million. Beyond Tel Aviv, the cities of Haifa, Jerusalem, and Be'er Sheva all claim thriving LGBTQ+ communities that welcome members from all of Israel's various demographic populations.

Haifa is the third-largest city in Israel and is proud to be San Francisco's sister city. Resting by the bay in the north of the country, Haifa celebrates Israel's diversity and pluralism every day. It not only has a thriving Jewish community but also well-established Muslim, Christian, and Baha'i communities as well. The rolling hills of Mt. Carmel and its fantastic sea views give way to a robust LGBTQ+ mosaic that is as diverse as those who call the city home. For these reasons, Haifa has proudly earned the honorary title of capital for the LGBTQ+ Arab community in Israel.

According to Mariano Carcabi, an Arab trans man who was born in the city of Haifa, the local community has seen immense change in the last 21 years. When he first came out of the closet in the year 2000, no one spoke about being gay in his Catholic, Arab community. His uncle lived with a "roommate" in the U.S., but no one was willing to call him what he truly was — his partner. Upon returning home from visiting his uncle in the U.S., which included a trip to San Francisco and a walk along the famous Castro Street, Carcabi was ready to let the world know who he was, which, at that time was a lesbian woman. But the Haifa conservative Arab community was not yet ready for him. Facing rejection, he considered fleeing, but that was just not "in the cards'' for him since living alone as a woman was simply not acceptable in this community. Moreover, Carcabi felt a deep attachment to his hometown and a need to advance the conditions of the local queer community.

After coming out to his family caused a rift, he became involved with a group known as Aswat, which means "voices" in Arabic. A group of eight Arab lesbian women founded Aswat in 2001 in order to help the Arab LGBTQ+ community succeed through social action. It was the first organization in the world to give assistance in Arabic to the LGBTQ+ community.

Carcabi said that they would receive messages from queer youth far beyond Israel's borders, including from Jordan and Egypt.

After working with Aswat, Carcabi went on to work with Beit Dror, a unique LGBTQ+ youth hostel in Israel dedicated to housing homeless queer youth and youth in distress. Carcabi was the only coordinator there who could speak to the Arab youth who came to seek shelter.

After being exposed to seven months of hardship, Carcabi needed a bit of a change, so he went to work with IGY, Israel's national LGBTQ+ youth group, which enables Israeli queer youth to connect with people who are like them. He then became the coordinator for the queer Arab youth group in Haifa and in Tel Aviv called "Alwan" which means "colors" in Arabic.

Carcabi has seen a dramatic change in the Israeli LGBTQ+ community in the last 10 years — especially in his hometown of Haifa, whose bustling Arab queer community has been thriving in the last decade, driven by a bustling queer Arab nightlife. It was a bit of an uphill battle, according to Carcabi, as the neighbors at first did not like having LGBTQ+ bars next door, but "over time they got used to it," he recalled.

Beyond the major metropolitan areas, Israel has seen a massive change in the acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community in the broader society. In the political world, Israel has a multitude of openly queer political figures, including Amir Ohana, who was Israel's first openly gay cabinet minister and served as its minister for homeland security. In Israel's parliament, called the Knesset, one of the most prominent parties in the country, Meretz, chose Nitzan Horowitz, who is a gay man, as its head. Furthermore, the city of Ra'anana, one of Israel's largest cities, elected Eitan Ginzburg in 2018, making him the country's first openly gay mayor.

The April 2020 elections were some of the queerest in the country's history. Six members of Israel's LGBTQ+ community won seats in Israel's 120-seat legislative body, making the country the fourth queerest parliament in the world by percentage at 5% (This compares to the British Parliament at 8.1%, Lichtenstein at 8%, and the Scottish at 7.7%). The newly-chosen Knesset members come from across the political spectrum, from both the left and the right.

Israel has also been making major advancements in equality among its armed services. Members of the LGBTQ+ community have been serving openly in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) since the early 1990s, and in 2012, Israel welcomed its first transgender officer, Lieutenant Shachar Erez, who underwent gender-affirming surgery during his service, which Israeli law mandates be paid in full by the IDF. Erez is a trailblazer for trans equality in the military. Though Israel has had full equality for its trans population since the early 1990s, it was not seamless. Policies had to be made to fit the moment, and Israel met this challenge to ensure the positive military experience of all of its young draftees irrespective of gender.

Israel is the leader for LGBTQ+ equality in the Middle East, and we are proud to boast that title. This has not come easily; it came through the hard work of generations of trailblazers who have paved the way for the inclusive society that we know today. During this Pride Month, we look forward to further advancing this cause in the coming years and rededicating ourselves to being a global leader for LGBTQ+ equality.

Matan Zamir, a gay man, is the deputy consul general of Israel to the Pacific Northwest.

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