3 min

Uniting Jewish and Islamic gays and lesbians

Jerusalem Open House practices 'Love Without Borders'

Credit: Capital Xtra files

In most respects, Israel is relatively advanced in regards to gay rights. Homosexuality hasn’t been illegal since 1988.

Gays and lesbians are protected from job discrimination, and serve openly in the Israeli army. In addition, Jerusalem Open House (JOH), the city’s LGBTQ Community Centre, organized the city’s second annual Pride this past June, which was attended by 4,000 people. The slogan was Love Without Borders.

These are poignant words, given the countless borders and travel restrictions in Israel and the Israeli-occupied territories of West Bank and Gaza Strip. In Jerusalem proper, walls are continuously being built within and around the city to separate people of different national identities and religious backgrounds. Despite these borders, JOH was been successful in reaching out to the broader gay community.

Hagai El-Ad is the executive director of JOH, which has been operating for four years in one of the most religious cities in the world. There are very few, if any, such groups in the Middle East outside Israel. Even Lebanon, which boasts a reputation for being more tolerant, does not permit its queer citizens visibility.

“If a gay Lebanese website is put up,” El-Ad explains, “it will inevitably only last for a few months before authorities pull it down. In Egypt as well, police conduct regular raids and arrests against the gay community.”

Without any organizations to support Islamic lesbians and gays, many of them turn to JOH. Information at JOH is available in both Hebrew and Arabic, making the organization an anomaly in the Middle East.

“It’s culturally important for people to see Arabic and Hebrew together, so they get used to thinking that this is the way it should be. It’s very rare in Jerusalem,” says El-Ad.

Jerusalem is one-third Palestinian, one-third Orthodox Jewish and one-third secular Jewish. The number of Palestinians who go to JOH is quite small. Much of this is related to travel restrictions.

“Palestinians may try to visit Jerusalem Open House,” El-Ad says, “but if they look Palestinian, they may be stopped by the police. For someone who’s gay and closeted, coming out to the police may not be the best answer.”

The result is that lesbian and gay Palestinians will often avoid visiting Jerusalem Open House. To cope with this problem, JOH has made information in Arabic accessible online, so Palestinians do not have to access it physically. This project has been hugely successful with one-quarter of the pages viewed on the JOH website being in Arabic. This kind of outreach is fulfilling a need for Islamic gays and lesbians who are finding their community online through an Israeli-Jewish organization.

Those Palestinians who do manage to make the journey to JOH will often attempt to blend with the Israeli mainstream by hiding their accent or speaking Hebrew even if other Arabic speakers are present.

“Many people arrive with the concern, ‘I’m Palestinian, I’m part of the enemy,'” says El-Ad. “They don’t know how they’ll be received. But once they come to JOH and find out that everything’s not in Hebrew, they feel comfortable coming out as Palestinian. It’s really interesting because it’s a closet within a closet.”

To support the needs of those people who seek information, JOH has also undertaken a project with Amnesty International through the publication of a brochure on sexual orientation. More than tolerance for sexual diversity, JOH embraces religious diversity.

Coming out at the JOH is not exclusively about coming out as a gay person, but rather, coming out as an Arab or an Orthodox Jew. JOH currently has one Palestinian staff member. As well, Jewish religious services are held at JOH once a month. The fact that JOH is gay-friendly is not as important as the organization being religious-friendly. In the same way that Islamic gays and lesbians are concerned about how they will be received, so too are Orthodox Jewish gays and lesbians. During their first visit to JOH, Orthodox Jewish men often remove their kippahs (hat or skullcap worn as a gesture of respect to God), because they do not know if people will be accepting of their religious beliefs.

“The gay rights movement has always been considered anti-religious and very secular, but it’s not,” explains El-Ad. “Many people perceive an inherent conflict between religion and homosexuality. This is true for Judaism, Islam, Christianity and other religions. For people of faith, it’s the duty of gay and lesbian organizations to convince them that there’s nothing anti-religious. More and more people don’t want to give up on their identity. They want to continue believing in God, while following their heart’s desire.”