Tel Aviv gay Pride: paradise or pinkwashing?

Israel’s gay-friendly haven is nothing if not complicated

Alberto Lukacs-Böhm dabs a handful of birds onto the sunny sea-to-sky poster he’s painting for Tel Aviv Pride.

To live openly as a gay man in today’s Tel Aviv is to be free, he says. “It’s like to drink a fresh, clean water. That’s freedom.”

The 65-year-old is one of seven seniors gathered around a table at the Tel Aviv gay centre on June 11. The members of Golden Rainbow (Keshet Zahav) are chatting and painting as they finalize their plans to march together in the city’s 17th annual Pride parade the next day.

For Lukacs-Böhm, the path to freedom was somewhat complicated. Though he knew he was gay from a very young age, he married a woman in Hungary to avoid upsetting his mother, a circus illusionist who cried when he told her he’d kissed a boy at age 13.

He returned to Israel in 1988, the same year the country decriminalized homosexual sex. It was time, he says, “to take back my life in my hand.”


It’s day two of a five-day press trip to Israel, sponsored and entirely funded by the Israeli tourism ministry to show off Tel Aviv Pride to 43 journalists from around the world.

Day one began with an exuberant tour of gay Tel Aviv, led by Shai Doitsh, chair from 2012 to 2015 of the Aguda, Israel’s national LGBT task force. For the last decade, Doitsh has also been working with the tourism ministry and the municipality of Tel Aviv to market the city as a gay destination, a project he initiated in 2005, according to his LinkedIn profile.

Doitsh paints a rosy picture of Tel Aviv as one of the most accepting cities in the world, a year-round gay haven, where as much as 25 to 35 percent of the population may be gay, he claims.


Doitsh may have a vested interest in trumpeting Tel Aviv’s gay appeal, but every gay, lesbian and transgender Israeli I’ve interviewed in the last few weeks has echoed his assessment. The city genuinely welcomes and supports its LGBT community, they say, or at least those members who more closely match mainstream norms.


It’s also a bubble that bears little resemblance to the rest of Israel, they all agree.

“Being in Tel Aviv is a bit like being in New York and pretending you see the entire United States,” says Moshe Zvi who, with his partner Eyal Alon, has joined the crowd gathering in Meir Park for the city’s Pride parade June 12.

“It’s a state within a state,” Alon says.

“I call it a bubble of sanity,” Zvi says.


Then there are the more obvious, if less willingly broached, tensions.

Of course Tel Aviv is a bubble, says Tal Jarus-Hakak who, with her partner Avital, was a lesbian feminist in Israel long before their nine-year legal battle successfully set a precedent allowing gays and lesbians to adopt their partners’ children.

Tel Aviv may be a cheerful, colourful, tolerant city with beautiful beaches, clubs, an increasingly well-established gay community with more and more families and businesses, and “an amazing, vibrant” gay culture, they say, but 60 kilometres away there is war, violence and poverty in many areas of Israel.

I’m sitting with the Jarus-Hakaks on the deck of their Vancouver home a few days after my return from Israel, a country they left in 2006 because, despite all their attempts to change its policies, they still found life there too traumatic, especially raising three sons.


One commonly repeated narrative in Israel and around the world is that Arab communities kill gay people, further distinguishing Israel as a gay oasis.

Most of the Israelis I met in Tel Aviv hesitated when I asked them if gay Palestinians would be marching in the Pride parade.

There must be some gay Palestinians here, Zvi and Alon say, after a brief pause.

“I don’t think it’s easy being a gay Arab anywhere,” Zvi offers. “As in everything, I think life in Israel is easier than life in Palestine.”

Alon mentions a gay Palestinian party in Tel Aviv, and some gay-known coffee shops in Ramallah. But they’re discreet, he says.

Karl Walter, one of our tour guides, says there likely are Arabs participating in the parade, but quietly. They wouldn’t be able to go home, he tells me, “because the Arabs would kill them.”

Arabs “crush” gays in Gaza and in Ramallah, he asserts.

The reality, says Samira Saraya, is more complicated.

Saraya lives in Tel Aviv as an openly gay Palestinian woman. She is also an actress, an activist and a nurse who, in 2003, co-founded Aswat, a group for gay Palestinian women. She also attended the first monthly gay Palestinian parties in Tel Aviv.

“It’s complicated to live in Tel Aviv and be an Arab as well,” she tells me by phone, a week after my return from Israel. “Living in a kind of militaristic society . . . On the other hand, I really love the people around me. But the moment we get into politics, it’s complicated.”


I ask Namir what she thinks of the Israeli tourism ministry flying me and 42 other journalists from around the world to Tel Aviv for Pride.

Tel Aviv is a genuinely gay-friendly city, she says, and the municipality really does support the parade, the community centre and even a shelter for LGBT youth. “I do believe the credit it there,” she says. “I’m totally respectful that the minute that we decided to go out of the closet in 1993, they were opening the doors to us.”

But it’s still “pinkwashing,” she says.


Back in the seniors’ room at the Tel Aviv gay centre, Lukacs-Böhm cheerfully cleans up his paints and prepares for another day in his gay paradise.

“For me, be free is to drink cold, clean water when I want and how I want,” he says, with a smile.

Robin Perelle can be reached at or tweet her @RobinPerelle.

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