This summer marked the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the state of Israel, the first modern Jewish nation, the Middle East?s first parliamentary democracy, and perhaps the only country in the region where a viable, visible, and vocal LGBT culture not only exists but also thrives. Founded in the wake of the horrors of the Holocaust and espousing Jewish values, Israel has emerged as a land of unlikely gay-straight alliances and unusual cultural contradictions, and it?s unexpectedly becoming a gay tourism mecca.
Israel?s contradictions are everywhere. The religiously observant live cheek by jowl with out and proud neighbors. Service in a brazenly macho military is mandatory for all men, even if they ask and tell. Tel Aviv?s mayor has actively promoted his city as a gay travel capital while his Jerusalem counterpart has tried to quash that city?s annual pride parade. And despite the very real conflict with its Arab neighbors, Israel?s gay scene has become one of the rare social spheres where Arabs and Jews actually mix in bars, clubs, and saunas. ?Israel has matured just like most Western nations, with extremes at both ends but a large and moderate middle,? says American-born Russell Lord, a marketing and tourism consultant with Kenes Tours. ?There is a very strong ?live and let live? ethos here?at least in Tel Aviv.?
Lord ought to know. In March 2005 he and his partner, Avi Ozeri, were among the five gay Israeli couples who were wedded in Canada; afterward they successfully petitioned Israel?s supreme court for legal recognition of their marriages, and the court ruled in their favor in December 2006. Still, gay and lesbian couples may not marry within Israel?s borders. Israeli law does not provide for secular civil marriages; all Jewish weddings must be officiated by an Orthodox rabbi, Christian weddings by
a priest or pastor, and Muslim weddings by a cleric. But thanks to the court?s ruling, gay nuptials undertaken abroad, like those of heterosexual couples, are now officially binding once the newlyweds return home. ?I am now marked as ?married? on my identity card,? says Lord, who has lived in Israel for almost 30 years?26 with his partner. ?Just like a mixed-sex couple.?
While the marriage equality success is notable, it is far from the only victory since the country?s rapid shift into homo high gear in the late 1980s. Now gay Israeli couples may legally adopt children who are not biologically related to either partner; the government funds gay and lesbian teenage support organizations; and Tel Aviv?s hotel association and city government earmark advertising money specifically to lure global LGBT visitors. ?We think Tel Aviv is a far better city than the typical Mediterranean gay destination,? asserts municipal council member Itay Pinkus, an adviser on gay and lesbian affairs to Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai, who notes a tolerant cultural atmosphere and proximity to key historical and religious sites.
While there are no specific statistics on the number of LGBT tourists in Israel, the country?s overall tourism numbers are up substantially?2.3 million last year, a rise of 25% over 2006 (although it?s still slightly lower than the all-time high in 2000). While much of the upswing is thanks to a relative lull in terror attacks over the past three years, the boost in gay visitors is also the result of the increasing global media presence of Israel?s gays. It began with transsexual singer Dana International?s win of the Eurovision Song Contest in 1998, followed by gay-themed movies such as Yossi & Jagger, The Bubble, and the second highest-grossing Israeli film ever in the U.S., Walk on Water.
In Israel itself, meanwhile, Ivri Lider has emerged as an out local version of Justin Timberlake, while Bubble writer-producer Gal Uchovsky is now paparazzi-famous after having become a star judge on Kochav Nolad, Israel?s version of American Idol. As in America, the closet certainly remains an issue in certain circles, ?but the country has always been too small for gays and lesbians to become their own real subculture,? says Uchovsky, who lives and works with his partner, Bubble director Eytan Fox. ?When people finally come out, they are already integrated into the ?mainstream.??
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