Israel is the most gay-friendly nation in the Middle East. But it’s not perfect. Listen to two activists discuss their work to uphold gay rights in Israel.
By Claire Ji
Interested in identity and gender, Giuliana Nicolucci-Altman spent a summer studying in Jerusalem trying to “understand how communities of fundamentally differing ideologies can potentially find compromise and live together in harmony.”
At Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School in Jerusalem, Nicolucci-Altman met Student Life director and LGBTQ+ campus representative Ira Kirschner to learn about resources and support available to the city’s gay community.
That led her to the Video Hub, the only gay bar in Jerusalem and a place where anyone, of any religion, can be themselves. Ira introduced Giuliana to local gay rights activist Eyal Lurie-Pardes, who identifies as bisexual and used to work at the Video Hub.
An active member in the gay community, Eyal spoke about being open in deeply conservative and religious areas of Israel.
Welcome to The Kids Are Alright, the podcast that explores big, global issues from a young and fresh perspective.
I’m Nolwazi Mjwara. Originally from South Africa, I moved to Paris, France three years ago to pursue a master’s degree. I’m a news enthusiast and have always been interested in what young people think and are doing to address some of the things I read about in the news.
Before we begin, here’s a message from my colleague Megha Thomas who helped me produce this podcast.
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Nolwazi Mjwara: Tel Aviv is one of the most gay friendly cities in the world, and it’s seen as the center of LGBT rights in the Middle East.
However, if you go about an hour and 15 minutes inland to Jerusalem, the atmosphere isn’t quite the same. Not every sector in Israeli society embraces the gay community.
Over the summer, an amendment was made to Israel’s surrogacy law, allowing single women to use the surrogacy process, but failed to provide the same right to single men and homosexual couples due to ultra-Right parties in Parliament.
For gay communities around, there is still work to be done and rights to be achieved.
Today, we’ll hear from Giuliana Nicolucci-Altman as she reports on how the LGBTQ community is advancing in Israel.
Giuliana Nicolucci-Altman: My name is Giuliana Nicolucci-Altman. I’m 19 years old, and this episode is called Pride and Prejudice.
I was living in Jerusalem this past summer of 2018, and I had arrived right after the Pride Parade in Tel Aviv in June, and I remember being amazed at this very progressive city in a Jewish state, a state affiliated with a religion. And then I got to Jerusalem, which definitely feels worlds away from Tel Aviv, and that it’s this ancient city that animates this sense of conservatism, it’s incredibly holy for three of the world’s major monotheistic religions, and I just asked myself, you know, “How is the gay community able to exist, much less thrive, alongside religious conservatives in a city like Jerusalem?”
Eyal Lurie-Pardes: My name is Eyal Lurie-Pardes. And grew up, born and raised in Jerusalem. And I’m agnostic, religion-wise, but I live a secular life, and I’m bisexual.
Giuliana Nicolucci-Altman: Awesome. So do you think that Jerusalem is a welcoming place to the LGBTQ community. And, like maybe, how does it compare to a city like Tel Aviv?
Eyal Lurie-Pardes: I think in most of the liberal places, the secular neighborhoods and the university, I never felt intimidated by my sexuality. But compared to Tel Aviv I think it’s definitely a different atmosphere. I definitely need to check when and where I hold hands with my partner, I need to check twice which neighborhood I am, if there’s light, if it’s too dark. I mean, I am aware of where I’m around. It’s not as simple as Tel Aviv.
Giuliana Nicolucci-Altman: So how was it for you kind of growing up in this deeply religious city as a member of the LGBTQ community, like, were there any challenges that were posed to you that maybe someone else wouldn’t face?
Eyal Lurie-Pardes: I only came out when I was 20, 21, in the army, in the military. And it’s not that I was in the closet, it’s just I wasn’t aware yet to my sexual orientation. Maybe I was afraid to ask. I think that in a lot of, in all of the spaces, within the secular space, you need to realize that gay is still, it’s still like a curse.
Giuliana Nicolucci-Altman: Do you, just personally, consider yourself to an LGBTQ activist?
Eyal Lurie-Pardes: I am. I’m actually, I’m running for city council.
Giuliana Nicolucci-Altman: When I first sat down to speak with Eyal over the summer, he was still campaigning. The results of the municipal elections came out on October 30th. Eyal did not get the necessary number of votes to serve on Jerusalem’s city council.
Eyal Lurie-Pardes: I think that a major reason that I did that, that I decided to run is, because I wanted to make the LGBTQ community in Jerusalem feel like they have a home here, and they have a voice here. So, I do, I’m an activist for the last two years in a very intense way in the LGBT community. It’s a struggle that I very much identify with. I think of politics as kind of bridge that connects problems to solutions. It’s our duty to do that. It’s our duty to think how can we make this place more like home.
Giuliana Nicolucci-Altman: So maybe, what are some things that you’ve done in the past that you can talk about that you may have done for the LGBTQ community here?
Eyal Lurie-Pardes: I think that the two main things that I find were very much activist is when I guided a group of teenage LGBT in Beit Shemesh, which is a very conservative suburb next to Jerusalem, and to guide a group of 20 teenagers that deal with a lot of difficulties around gender, around their sexual identities, in a very conservative place that is similar to the atmosphere in Jerusalem, I think that you really understand the cliché that, “when you change a person’s life, you change like the whole world.” It is accurate. It’s a cliché for a reason. It’s incredible.
The second thing is when I worked in the only gay bar in Jerusalem. And a lot of people, when they’re questioning themselves, they look for the gay bar because they understand this is the place that they might find someone. And if they’re not getting that atmosphere that the community is a community — as in a safe community without sexual harassments, without violence, that they can be themselves — I think that this was a crucial point to understand while I was working at the bar for a year.
Giuliana Nicolucci-Altman: What do you think are some major changes that could be made in Jerusalem to make it more of an open and inclusive society?
Eyal Lurie-Pardes: I think education, it’s the first, it’s the first tool, and I think that you need to make programs that include all kinds of families and all kinds of orientations in every system of education because you have four — you have Arabic education, you have ultra-orthodox education, you have religious education and you have secular education. And in secular education you have some conversation about it in most places, but is should be it should be across every kind of sector in society to make this message clear. And I think this is a challenge that we need to face.
The second thing I think to one of the main thing in the platform for me is to ensure that the Open House would have a permanent place in Jerusalem.
Giuliana Nicolucci-Altman: Could you talk to me a little bit more about that? The Open House?
Eyal Lurie-Pardes: The Open House is an organization that was founded 21 years ago and who gives services to the LGBT community in Jerusalem — from youth groups to elderly groups. I think that to give it a permanent place, it’s good, first of all, in a practical reason to make, to allow more things to happen inside the house. Today it’s a very small apartment.
And the third thing is that we need to, kind of, we need to change our parroting, our state of mind, where diversity in Israel, in Jersualem specifically, is considered some kind of, a bad thing. It’s something that divides us.
Giuliana Nicolucci-Altman: So what would you say to a young person who is struggling here in Jerusalem to find members of their community and who feel ostracized by the religion?
Eyal Lurie-Pardes: If you know your identity, you’ve already been through the toughest challenge you can have, and this is something you should cherish.
Nolwazi Mjwara: At Rothberg International School of The Hebrew University, the faculty and staff are dedicated to providing LGBTQ students with a friendly and supportive environment to live and study.
Ira Kirschner is one of the staff members committed to supporting diversity on campus. Kirshner is Director of the Office of Student Life and serves as the Diversity and Inclusion Officer.
Giuliana reached out to him to get a better understanding of the gay community in Jerusalem.
Giuliana Nicolucci-Altman: So I was hoping just to start off, if you could recap like what exactly do these resources provide — like the Video pub and the, I think you mentioned like the Bat-Kol, or different groups like that. What do they do for the students that you work with at the university?
Ira Kirshner: So first of all, we have I think the same secular resources that exist all over the world, whether if it’s the one gay bar/pub, which is yes the Video, which I don’t frequent because it’s less my style, although I do appreciate its value. And what’s cool about it is it definitely attracts a very diverse crowd.
We also have a, let’s see, there’s a queer café and also a queer-owned diner. And a few other queer-friendly locations, but that’s the, the way that the resources exist – at least the social, the social ones.
Beyond that there’s the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance. They’re a very important space, and there are spaces like it in other cities in Israel. The Tel Avis one also being called an Open House. I don’t know if in other cities it exists in the same format.
The other resources that I think are unique for Jerusalem but definitely not only in Jerusalem are the religious resources for queer people. Most significantly Havruta, which is for queer men, and Bat-Kol, which is for queer women. And those are groups for people that associate both with their queer identity and their observant Jewish identity.
What’s interesting is the straight religious supporters.These are straight people that come from a modern Orthodox background, and what they’re saying is, “We recognize the complexity of religion and queer identity, but we also recognize the fact that the queer community is comprised of our brothers and sisters, our cousins, our friends, our neighbors, our children, possibly. And we support them.”
I think it’s more important and more of a challenge to speak to the people that aren’t our allies. And it’s impossible to ask them for anything really, because even the ones that are accepting of us and tolerant of us — gee, thanks — they’re afraid of how we are threatening the Jewish family, the normal family, the natural family. They’re terrified of that.
Giuliana Nicolucci-Altman: So, what do you think can be done — and this doesn’t only apply to the situation of the LGBTQ community in Jerusalem — but to facilitate these kinds of dialogues in such a polarized environment?
Ira Kirshner: I mean, as an educator I believe that education is the tool that leads to real change, but it’s slow change and it’s frustrating change, but it usually is a longer lasting change once it happens. And I also think that it’s, there’s like a snowball effect here. Every queer person that comes out inspires another queer person to come out, and every queer person that comes out and then shares his or her story with their families, with their community, with their friend, that’s — unless of course there’s a negative reaction but usually there’s either a positive or at least a neutral one — that’s one more person that knows a queer person and can say, “Hey, they’re human! It’s someone I know.” It’s not just the title “queer person.” It’s Ira. It’s Eyal. It’s a lot of people, and they’re good people, and maybe I disagree with some things, but ultimately, they’re good people.
Giuliana Nicolucci-Altman: I learned a lot from living in Jerusalem and from speaking to Eyal and Ira, but what stuck with me the most was something Eyal told me after our interview. After turning off my voice recorder, I asked Eyal if he was afraid of being out and relentlessly fighting for the rights of the LGBTQ community and for the equal treatment of those living in East Jerusalem. He replied simply that he could not live in fear, because living in fear was not living at all.
Nolwazi Mjwara: You’ve been listening to an episode of ‘The Kids Are Alright’. It was a production from Podium.me and News Decoder. Tell us what you thought of this episode by tweeting us @kidsalrightnews.
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