Students greeted each other in Hebrew last night as they entered Salomon 001 for a panel discussion on gay rights in Israel. Around 25 students attended the first event in “Gay Israel Week,” which is co-sponsored by the Queer Alliance and Brown Students for Israel.
“Gay rights is one of the proudest achievements of Israeli democracy,” said Harry Reis ’11, president of Brown Students for Israel.
“Like any human endeavor,” he added, “it’s not been perfect.” But tolerance is a hallmark of Israeli society, he said.
The panel consisted of four gay Israeli men who shared their personal stories and discussed the cultural and legal battles that have surrounded the subject of homosexuality in Israel. The panelists spoke at length about the role that the mandatory nature of military service in that country has played in bringing the gay community out into the open.
Yossi Knafo, the Jewish Agency Representative to Brown-RISD Hillel, said the country’s military allows gay people to be more open than they could be in other contexts.
“Gays in the military are completely accepted,” said Yishai Blank, visiting associate professor at the Watson Institute for International Studies. “You would think that the army is hypermasculine – but the army in Israel is also mandatory.”
He noted that HIV/AIDS drugs and operations for transsexuals were completely paid for by Israel’s national health system, saying the army would not want “to discharge all these really talented gays.”
The panelists also spoke about the cultural differences between life in Jerusalem and life in Tel Aviv.
“There is this big distinction between gay life in Tel Aviv and the rest of the country,” said Moshe Sluhovsky, visiting associate professor of history. “Comparing gay life in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem is like comparing gay life in New York City and gay life in Idaho.”
Blank, who grew up in Tel Aviv, invited the audience to visit, citing its natural attractions. “There’s a gay beach – it’s actually gay, lesbian and tranny, and there’s a gay nude beach a little outside the city.”
Conversely, the homosexual community in Jerusalem is far less open than the community in Tel Aviv, Sluhovsky said.
“Jerusalem is strange,” he said. “It’s about one third orthodox Jews, one third Arabs — 90 percent of which are Muslims — and one third secular Jews, which leaves a very small percentage of the city that’s free to develop gay life outside of the closet.”
Sluhovsky added that for a long time he did not understand how difficult it would be for members of this community to be open about their sexuality. He said he has now realized “what an amazing privilege the option of coming out is and how it’s available to very few of us.”
Katie Lamb ’10, head chair of the Queer Alliance, said that Reis approached her last spring about co-sponsoring the event. “We were like ‘right on,'” Lamb said. “It’s good to hone in on something concrete and be really productive.”
The Queer Alliance isn’t currently planning any other events related to specific countries but “we’d be totally open to it,” Lamb said.