5 min

A house (not totally) divided

Jerusalem's only queer centre crosses the cultural rift

REACHING OUT. Two women walk hand in hand in central Jerusalem. Credit: Joshua Meles

The Jerusalem Open House, the holy city’s first and only lesbian, gay, bi and trans community centre, insists on keeping its door open in an area where more and more doors are locked and guarded.

“In Jerusalem segregation instead of diversity is celebrated,” says director Hagai El-Ad. “There are three major population groups in the city – Palestinian Arabs, religious Jews and secular Jews. The dominant philosophy is that we have to keep these groups as far away from each other in order to co-exist.”

The centre has tried to speak in a different voice since its inception in 1995.

“At the Open House we believe that gays and lesbians share something in common that bonds them together and transcends national identities. Our shared experiences of homophobia provide us with a commonality that is different than other attempts at Arab-Israeli co-existence.”

In the past 18 months, since the beginning of the current round of violence, at least eight suicide attacks have taken place within a few blocks of the Open House and countless more within walking distance.

“I am proud to say we haven’t cancelled a single event,” says El-Ad, “even when they have taken place within an hour of a bombing. It is extremely moving to be here at those times – to see life going on.”

Far from shutting down, the Open House has responded to current events by expanding its programming into areas that few dare to touch in the current climate. The centre recently created a new staff position (the first of its kind) for a Palestinian outreach coordinator and is busily planning Jerusalem’s first ever pride parade coming up on Fri, Jun 7.

Before becoming the director of the Jerusalem Open House, El-Ad studied Astrophysics at Harvard.

“I like to say that I spent nearly a decade studying the galaxy to discover that my place in the universe is back here in Jerusalem,” says El-Ad sitting in his office at the Open House which overlooks a the main drag of Jerusalem.

After finishing a bachelor’s degree at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, El-Ad pursued a PhD at Harvard. “After three years of study I reached a cross-roads in my life, right before my 30th birthday. I decided to not to work in astrophysics, move back to Israel leaving my relationship in Boston behind, deal with turning 30 and begin working at the Open House.”

El-Ad returned to Jerusalem in October 2000 to become the community centre’s first executive director, a few weeks before the current Palestinian intifada [uprising] and the ensuing round of violence.

He chose to return to Jerusalem despite the risks involved and the fact that Tel Aviv is the centre of Israeli queer life.

“I think the Jerusalem community is more honest, perhaps because it is so difficult to live here. It’s terribly sad what’s happening here right now and I wonder whether or not all the violence will ultimately bring the [queer] community closer together or pull us apart.”

On Aug 9, after a suicide bomb ripped through the centre of Jerusalem around the corner from the Open House, leaving 19 dead and more than a hundred wounded, El-Ad sent an open letter to his community.

“And what will become of Jerusalem?” he asked. “Are we still at the Belfast-level – or are we on the road to Sarajevo? How does one know when your city transforms from a place in which you live and love, that you struggle for pride and equality in, into a war zone, in which you struggle to stay alive?”

In the last months the situation has escalated even further and El-Ad’s question remains to be answered.

“Some days when you stand on the balcony [of the Open House] the mall below is deserted, it can be almost oddly beautiful to see such a major street so quiet. Then on other days, when the smell of explosives is still in the air, things are bustling again almost as if nothing happened.”

On one level, El-Ad views the Jerusalem Open House as just a queer community centre like any other, housing support groups, information and services. It is a part of the growing changes in Israeli society over the past decade that have won queers legal rights in adoption and partnership, as well as protection against discrimination in the workplace and army.

Moshiko Moshe has been attending the centre’s transgendered support group for the past two years while serving in the army.

“[Mandatory] army service has been difficult for me, because of having to be in a men’s unit and wear clothes of something that I’m not,” says Moshe, who is out to his unit. The support group gave him the confidence to successfully petition the military and become the first soldier to receive early release in order to begin transsexual surgery.

The location of the Open House is what makes it utterly unique. Tamar Asher, a Swiss immigrant to Israel and the Open House’s volunteer coordinator, was a member of the founding board of directors.

“There was an attempt to make the first board as diverse as possible. There was an Orthodox Jewish woman, a Palestinian man [who fled the country when the recent intifada began], a convert to Judaism from Christianity and a good balance of lesbians and gay men… It’s amazing we didn’t kill each other.”

Haneen Maikey, a young Palestinian woman from the north of Israel, was recently hired as the Palestinian outreach coordinator. “In the four months since she was hired she has revolutionized the situation of gay and lesbian Palestinians in Jerusalem,” says El-Ad.

Before the current intifada began a handful of Palestinians used the Open House every week. It is currently difficult and dangerous for Palestinians to come to West Jerusalem, so Maikey and El-Ad are focussing on resources that can be accessed over the phone or Internet. Maikey is currently working on an Arabic section of the Open House’s website, an Arab language queer literary competition, as well as an on-going Arabic queer newspaper and a hot-line. This month the Open House will host the first ever gathering of Palestinian gay men and lesbians.

The centre has also been successful at integrating religious and secular Jews. Ruth Abrahams who has attended a support group for Orthodox Jewish lesbians for the past two years calls the Open House, “a respite from a religious world that says ‘How can you be gay?’ and a gay world that says ‘How can you be religious?'”

Last fall vandals tried to burn the Open House’s rainbow flag, leaving behind a Biblical quote: God will humiliate those who have pride.

“They were attempting to send a message to gays and lesbians, in particular religious gays and lesbians, to stay away,” says El-Ad. “But it didn’t work – an Orthodox gay man came in afterwards, for the first time, precisely because the partially burnt flag attracted his attention.”

According to El-Ad the centre’s pride flag is a symbol of hope for straight, as well as queer, Jerusalemites.

“It makes them feel like despite the past months [of violence], Jerusalem is moving towards becoming the normal, open city it should be.”

The upcoming Jerusalem Pride parade is also a symbol of that hope. The motto for the day is “love without borders.”

“If you look at a Jerusalem calendar of events,” says El-Ad, “the only day that celebrates the desire to have a normal life – to be free, to walk the streets, to be who you are and to love who you love – is Jerusalem Pride.”