Compared to the world famous gay community in Tel Aviv, the city just an hour down the road seems to be its polar opposite. Because of its reputation as one of the most religious cities in the world, many expect Jerusalem to have a virtually non-existent LGBTQ+ community. And as a result, students and workers often hesitate when considering moving to the city, expecting the residents to be unwelcoming. However, despite its conservative nature, there is indeed a noticeable openly gay community within the city’s culture.
As one example, in West Jerusalem there is Video Bar, a gay-friendly venue only a few feet from the main commercial corridor. More so, every August the city hosts a Pride March that reached 20,000 participants this past year. It is organized by the Open House Center, an organization the provides support to Jerusalem’s LGBTQ+ community.
Despite this openness, in ways, Jerusalem meets its conservative expectation. Because the strong religious presence, being a part of the LGBTQ+ community can be challenging at times. The orthodox attitudes of the Abrahamic faiths can add to the social pressure. Homosexuality remains very much a taboo in certain circles and still is not accepted as a legitimate lifestyle, forcing closeted members of the LGBTQ+ community to remain discreet or in denial of their identity.
More so, the government is not as progressive concerning some LGBTQ+ issues as compared to the rest of the Western World. For example, gay Israelis are not allowed to adopt, pushing Israeli couples to relocate or travel to foreign countries in order to start their family. And despite the hopeful presence of the Gay Pride Parade, during the event protestors line the blocks to speak out against this liberty of expression.
With both the good and bad in mind, I wanted to receive a more personal perspective of being a part of the LGBTQ+ community here. So I talked with an openly gay friend, Asher Allen, a fellow classmate from New Jersey studying in Jerusalem for the year. Through our talk, I pleasantly found his experience has fared far better than I would have expected. In fact, when I asked him if he has had any negative experiences due to his sexuality while living here, he proudly told me there had been none at all. I was curious if he ever felt restricted or judged but he replied with an encouraging answer, “I can walk hand and hand in the street and feel fine.”
He went on to say like anywhere, it depends on where you are. In ultra-Orthodox or very religious Muslim neighborhoods he has to be more conscious of his lifestyle. Though he is comfortable, he is still cognizant of his sexuality and its relationship with the different subcultures within Israeli society. Around certain people and areas, “It’s one of those things you don’t talk about” he said.
But he believes this has not hindered his time here, even with those who have different beliefs. He compares his experience to life in America and mentioned the struggles of LGBTQ+ communities within the borders of Israel’s neighbors, saying they should be of far more concern.
His description as being “very comfortable” in Jerusalem I can imagine is encouraging to those who might have doubts about studying or living in the Holy City. The United States is certainly no Utopia for the gay community, so a country as complicated as Israel might seem daunting. My talk with Asher was enlightening but also reassuring. Yes, there are without doubt issues of intolerance within Israeli society, but things seem to be getting better. And from what he told me, life is not as different as it seems. The parade is only growing, and the hearts and minds of people here seem to be shifting towards the better. And I hope that continues.
Jon Stormer Pezzi is a Global Politics major with an Arabic and Poverty and Human Capability Studies Minor at Washington and Lee University. He studied abroad with IFSA at the Diversity and Coexistence program in Jerusalem, Israel in the fall of 2018. He served as an International Correspondent for IFSA through the Work-to-Study Program.