The White City
I was flying the safest airline in the world, El Al, from JFK to Tel Aviv earlier this summer when I found myself seated next to Sharon, an elderly Christian pilgrim travelling to the Holy land with a crew from HCJB Global, the first missionary radio station in the world whose mandate is still “to bring the voice and hands of Jesus to the unreached peoples of the world.”
On the other hand, was flying to the Holy Land for quite a different reason, to celebrate Gay Pride in Tel Aviv, one of the most beautiful and exciting cities in the Middle East.
And when I say most exciting, I do not mean because of Israel’s controversial politics – though when I was there, the Turks prevented the departure of the so-called “Gaza Freedom Flotilla II” (reportedly in exchange for hosting a peace summit and restoring relations with Jerusalem), while Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency reported that Iranian military submarines are currently operating in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea “collecting and identifying other countries’ combat vessels.”
Clearly, in the sea, as on the ground and in the air, Israel has absolutely no margin for error. As one Israeli friend told me, “The Arabs know that time is on their side.”
The last time I visited Israel, in 2007, I witnessed where Hezbollah rockets actually landed when I visited the Kibbutz Kfar Blum in Upper Galilee. On this trip I didn’t stray from Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, though I wish I had seen the Israeli Opera’s (in conjunction with Les Choragies d’Orange of France) monumental new production of Guiseppe Verdi’s masterpiece Aida (which originally premiered at the Cairo Opera House in 1871) performed outdoors at the foot of Masada in the middle of the desert.
I also felt the weight of history in Old Jerusalem where I visi-ted the Western Wall, then went inside the Synagogue of the Western Wall. I also walked in the footsteps of Jesus of Nazareth along the Via Dolorosa (“Way of the Cross”) to the 14th station where Jesus was nailed to the cross at Calvary.
I’m telling you, whether you are religious or not, here every stone speaks. As another Israeli told me, “Jerusalem is where we pray, Tel Aviv is where we play.”
So off to Tel Aviv I went for that sparkling city’s audacious and colourful Gay Pride parade, which wound through that city’s downtown core without incident to Gordon Beach where the parade ended (the rest of the time make a point of checking out the all-gay Hilton Beach, or any of Tel Aviv's other stunning Mediterranean beaches). The sun was beating and thousands of revellers straight and gay were being entertained by local drag queens and grooving to Hi-NRG dance music spun by international deejays including homeboy Offer Nissim at a nearby T-dance.
In fact, on the way back to my boutique hotel – the Hotel Cinema on Dizengoff Street, in an original Bauhaus style building –I stopped for a light lunch at a nearby café where the (straight) café owner discovered I was a gay tourist in town for Pride and played Nissim’s fab dance track Be My Boyfriend on the house system.
Tel Aviv’s June 10 Pride parade drew 100,000 Israelis plus an additional record number 5,000 tourists whom Israeli tourism estimates spent an $7.5 million in Tel Aviv alone in June.
“Tel Aviv’s Gay Pride parade has grown from a small local event to a large international event in just 10 years,” says Shai Doitsch, a spokesman for The Israeli Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Association, or “The Aguda.”
The Aguda boasts over 500 active volunteers throughout the country from Kiryat Shmona to Eilat, and the group also organizes Tel Aviv’s Pride parade each year. “When we had our first parade [in 2001], we didn’t have many rights,” Doitsch told me. “Today Israel is one of the world’s most advanced countries when it comes to gay rights. We have become a real community.”
While there were several gay dance parties during Pride, the city – despite a booming gay scene – has essentially just one always-busy gay bar, Evita on Yavne Street. Here, each night, the place is so packed that the testosterone-fueled crowd spills out onto the street with their drinks in hand. The scene is so fabulously dark and cruisy I felt like an extra in a scene from the 1970s film Cruising with Al Pacino!
Even more fabulous was the drag-queen Squeeze Box night at club Zizi (located at Karliback 7) where local drag stars Betty Licious, Talula Bonet and the ubiquitous Osh-Ree sang punk-rock songs with a real live all-women rock band. This place really rocked and attracted a wide cross-section of Tel Aviv’s cutting-edge queer scene.
But if it was more mainstream entertainment you wanted, during the time I was there Tel Aviv boasted a slew of headliners, including Bryan Ferry, Bob Dylan, Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal, Andrea Bocelli at the Masada Opera Festival, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo (though it was unsure whether “anti-apartheid” activists forced LBM to cancel their gig at the opera House of the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center). Also, shortly before I arrived, KISS co-founder Gene Simmons (born Chaim Weitz in Haifa back in 1949) was also visiting Israel, filming two episodes of his A&E reality TV show Gene Simmons Family Jewels.
Locals call gleaming Tel Aviv “The Big Orange” or “The White City” (the latter because of the white-painted Bauhaus buildings that have made Tel Aviv a United Nations World Heritage site). The city has its own Bixi-style public bicycle-rental system called “Tel-O-Fun” which you can use to ride to Jaffa, Tel Aviv’s Old City. Dinners in this ancient Arab quarter are romantic, with the best of Tel Aviv's Middle Eastern fare, and large plates of meze and steaming hot pita bread at restaurants along Etzel Street.
Here, in this old country, gay and lesbian people have long made history, and continue to live alongside their straight friends and neighbours in relative harmony.
Yes, it is true that the ultra-conservative rabbis, priests and imams of Jerusalem – who rarely ever agree or unite over anything – each June together lobby to cancel Jerusalem’s Pride parade. But still Israel remains the only nation – not to mention the only functioning democracy – in the Middle East that supports gay civil rights.
And whether some people in Israel like it or not, in this country everybody is allowed to voice their opinion. As David Ben-Gurion, one of the founding fathers of Israel and that nation’s first prime minister, once famously said, “The test of demo-cracy is freedom of criticism.”
Which is why celebrating Gay Pride in Tel Aviv feels so spectacular and liberating.