3 min

Deadly attack on Tel Aviv gay centre hits too close to home

Vancouverite's murdered cousin was a centre volunteer

I woke up on Pride  Sunday to the devastating news of the attack on the gay youth centre in Tel Aviv, Israel.

For my friend Carmel Tanaka, the violence struck far closer to home.

The attack, in which a sole masked gunman entered the youth centre on Aug 1 and shot 13 people, claimed two lives. One of them was a 26-year-old volunteer at the centre, Nir Katz — and Carmel’s cousin.

“He truly was a sensitive soul, who really did care about everyone,” Carmel told me. “It was no way for him to go. He was helping youth, who were just figuring out their sexual identity, as he hadn’t gotten such support when he was growing up. I went on occasion with him to the centre. It used to be a safe haven.”

The other shooting fatality, Liz Tarboushi, 17, was at the centre supporting a friend who had just come out.

Of the 11 others shot, four were left in critical condition.

The murderer has not been identified and the chance that anyone will ever be brought to justice seems remote.

Now, the gay youth centre is closed. The gay nightclubs and bars are closed — for fear of more violence.

Tel Aviv is normally an oasis of gay liberation in the sea of repression that is the Middle East. Although there is a strong contingent of religious opposition to gay rights and gay people in Israel, as there is everywhere, Israeli law mandates equality.

Some Israelis have speculated that vitriolic anti-gay rhetoric from some political and religious leaders created an environment in which an act like this was made possible. The truth is, we simply do not know who did it or what beyond pathological homophobia drove his actions.

For me, the news cast a deep pall over Pride here in Vancouver. We live everyday knowing that gay Vancouverites and Canadians may be the luckiest gay people in the world. Elsewhere, oppression, execution and “honour” killings are everyday reality for gays and lesbians.

Gay Canadians are right to celebrate the freedoms and acceptance we have won, but I wonder if we couldn’t — shouldn’t — be doing more for our sisters and brothers globally.

When I returned to my office at UBC’s Hillel House after our Pride long weekend, I discussed what had happened with my colleagues, including Jonathan Lerner, the out gay president of Alpha Epsilon Pi, a traditionally Jewish fraternity housed at Hillel.

Jono and I decided that, at the least, we would set up a Facebook page and a donations link to support the Tel Aviv centre, whose existence is plainly more crucial than ever. We had a connection to the centre, not only because of our Israeli friends and our own orientation. The founder and chair of the centre, a former Tel Aviv city counselor, Etai Pinkas, visited our campus earlier this year and spoke about gay life and rights in Israel .

It was after we set up the Facebook site that I got a message from Carmel. She was a student at UBC when I started working here and, as the daughter of an Israeli mother and Canadian father, has been back and forth between Israel and Vancouver a lot in recent years.

 “I have not good news to tell you,” she wrote. “It has been a terrible nightmare for me because Nir Katz was my cousin, the same cousin I lived with for a year when I studied in Tel Aviv, and off and on when I came to visit.”

Carmel had spoken to Nir only three days before he was killed. He had asked her about cell phone plans in Vancouver, because he and Thomas, his partner of nearly five years, were planning to visit in March to get married.

After hearing the stunning news of the attack, Carmel became increasingly concerned when Nir did not respond to her emails. But the news made it sound like the yet-unnamed male victim was an employee of the centre, not a volunteer.

It was not until Carmel ’s mother arrived from Tel Aviv on the Monday after the attack that Carmel learned the full horror of the news. By then, she had already missed the funeral.

Carmel’s Jewish family is in Israel and she and her parents in Vancouver have been left to mourn largely alone.

But both Jewish tradition and human nature say no one should grieve alone.

We have decided to hold a vigil in support of Carmel and her family. They need the support of a community. We all do.