The prevailing material image of Jerusalem is stone—the “only stone that can feel pain,” as the poet Yehuda Amichai tells us. As a metaphor, it represents so much of the city: from the way that Jerusalem stone, part of nearly every building, seems to reflect a light that originates somewhere beyond this world; to its unique connection to the local landscape; to its solidity and beauty which can mask, even briefly, the cracks and divisions within.
Tel Aviv, on the other hand, is built of different stuff, both literally and figuratively. The mid-century poet Shlomo Skulsky describes Tel Aviv as a “vision poured in concrete.” Like concrete, Tel Aviv is a city that was intentionally manufactured, yet invested with the complex hopes of its Zionist founders. If Jerusalem is a city given to us by God, or history, then Tel Aviv is a city made by people, for people—for café dwellers and dog-walkers, office workers and beach-goers. Concrete, a humble building material, is found here in everything from the gorgeous curves of the Bauhaus architecture to the gritty working neighborhoods of southern part of the city. It is also—for a long part of the building process—agitated, constantly in motion, fluid as it is poured into its mold, impressionable until the critical moment when it hardens.
This fluidity, this sense of a city always being built—all this became even more apparent a couple of weeks ago, as Tel Aviv welcomed a reported 100,000 tourists, mostly from Europe, for the annual Pride Parade. The festivities began early in the week. It’s difficult to convey just how much Tel Aviv—and much of Israel, by extension—now embraces this annual week of LGBTQ activity. Rainbow flags hang from all the major thoroughfares. Cafés up and down Dizengoff Street have signs of welcome and solidarity. Even the national TV channels are in on the act, with news shows and announcements and one movie channel running all-day programming under a banner of ‘Pride Cinema,’ with promo clips airing on all its sister channels. (The most popular one, for some reason, featured Michael Douglas-as-Liberace in bed with Matt Damon. “I’m bisexual,” Matt Damon says, eleven times a day, on Israeli television. “Well, good for you!” Michael Douglas chirps.)
As more and more people arrived, the city became a roving series of Pride-themed events. At Hilton Beach in northern Tel Aviv, music popped from a rainbow tent located, not coincidentally, to an open-air gym. (Hilton Beach is known as a gay gathering place even in quieter times. In a classic Israeli odd combination, it sits directly across the water from the religious beach, just far enough away to make the two groups anonymous to each other. In between is the dog beach, where long-haired Israelis frolic with their chosen community.) Tel Aviv beaches have distinct personalities, but are rarely exclusive; even here on the gay beach, women and families mixed with the overwhelmingly male crowd. There were women in bikinis and naked children and many, many men in barely-there bathing wear (what my son, who has been coming to this beach with us for many years, calls ‘not-shorts.’) There was plenty of sun and skin but a sense of flirtatiousness, rather than sex. Next to our blanket, a group of men with fashion model-level looks lounged and laughed in French. A few feet away, a young, thin Israeli man sat alone in his Speedo, nursing a beer, looking at all the groups of men around him with a mix of eagerness and longing. But something made him unable to connect. There’s always some loneliness in a crowd.
The next day, tens of thousands of these tourists, joined by tens of thousands more Israelis, gathered downtown for the Pride Parade—less an organized procession than a rolling street party of dancing, rainbow flags, full cups of beer and cheap margaritas, and banners with so many acronyms of LGBTQ groups it was impossible to keep track of them all. The policemen looked bemused—they’ve performed crowd control in far more difficult circumstances—and rooftop dwellers sprayed water down on the sweaty and grateful crowd. People stepped in to the parade to celebrate and wave, stepped out to hug their friends or refill their drinks, and stepped in again, as the whole cheering throng headed up Ben-Yehuda Street and across Frishman Street to the beach. In Tel Aviv, where else could such a party go?
Of course—because we are speaking of Israel—such moments of joy are paired with questioning, accusations, and lack of clarity. Most prominent is the claim of “pinkwashing,” i.e., that Israel’s promotion of its relatively progressive stance on LGBTQ issues (including long-standing policies welcoming gay soldiers into the Israeli Defense Forces) and its embracing of gay tourism serve to distract from the occupation of the West Bank and the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians. From here in Tel Aviv, things are much more nuanced, especially for Palestinians themselves.
A recent discussion among Palestinian activists in GLQ: The Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies illuminates the complexity of the situation. For Palestinians, queerness and occupation are not issues to be played against each other, but ones that overlap and inform each other. Haneen Maikey, founder and director of Al-Qaws (Rainbow), says, “LGBTQ Palestinians have to deal with the burden of being a double minority—as LGBTQ persons in Palestinian society and as Palestinians living in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.” For them, Tel Aviv serves as a relatively safe space to experience their identities, as a staging ground for resistance against Israeli policies, and as a place of intimate contact with the supposed Israeli ‘other.’ Maikey continues, “Most all of our activists live in Tel Aviv or Jaffa, we all have Israeli Jewish friends and, hmmm…. we all sleep with Jews, otherwise we would not have a sex life!” None of this is easily washed in any color.
Tel Aviv has always been a city carrying both burdens and possibilities. Though a city without the deep historical weight of Jerusalem, from its beginning it nonetheless had to bear the memories, dreams, and losses of its European Jewish founders, who carried Europe with them as they landed, made their homes here, and fiercely imagined a future. Built as an intentionally Hebrew city, right against the majority Arab city of Jaffa, it has now become one city encompassing both—the municipality of Tel Aviv-Yafo—where one can find a dozen different languages spoken within a few blocks. Tel Aviv’s status as a queer city is neither fad nor propaganda; rather, just another layer on a complex space that has evolved continually since its founding just over a hundred years ago: a city both permanent and, somehow, always shifting.
Notes: Yehuda Amichai selection from “Jerusalem, 1967,” available in his Selected Poetry and elsewhere. Shlomo Skulsky’s sonnet cycle, Ashirah Lakh Tel Aviv, has not been translated into English, but portions are available in Aminadav Dykman’s essay, “A Poet and City in Search of a Myth: Shlomo Skulsky’s Tel Aviv Poems,” Israel Studies, Vol. 14, No. 3 (2009). Haneen Maikey’s comments can be found in GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, Vol. 16, No. 4 (2010).