Gay-o-Meter – (un)official ratings of seven prime locations in Israel
How is it to be a gay traveler or an LGBTQ citizen in a tiny village by the Lebanese border, and where’s the queer scene in Haifa? In the latest issue of Time Out Israel’s English edition I’m taking an imaginary gaydar-gadget to travel around Eretz Israel so you can find out all the secrets about the gay society in the Middle East’s most tolerant nation.
All the beautiful and hot photos are by Israel’s primary gay travel agency, OUTstanding Travel.
Tel Aviv – Gay-o-Meter: 10/10
The White City is well known as the most desired LGBTQ destination in the world, thanks to it’s liberal thinking and professional-bohemian citizens who often refer to their hometown as “The State Of Tel Aviv.” No eyebrows will be raised by anyone if you happen to walk hand-in-hand with your same sex partner. The rainbow flag is just as common on the windows of shops, cafés and restaurants as the trendy ‘Vegan Friendly’ stickers and those who don’t have it are just as queer-friendly as well. The city is at the hottest peak in August when sexy tourists and hunky locals hit Hilton beach and mingle at Shpagat bar on Nachalat Binyamin or hook up at the newest addition to the non-stop naughty clubs – Sauna Tel Aviv by the Cinemateque on Carlebach Street.
Tip of the month: Check out the ongoing events of TLVFest, Israel’s one and only LGBTQ movie festival, holding monthly screenings of gay-themed masterpieces from Israel and all over the world. See: TLVFest
Dead Sea – Gay-o-Meter: 7/10
Don’t hope for gay bars and drag queens singing songs from Priscilla The Queen of The Desert just yet. Sadly, the Dead Sea hasn’t explored the possibility of becoming the next Mykonos. Yet, it could be. Escape to the Dead Sea – at 400 meters below sea level it’s the world’s largest natural spa filled with healthy minerals and indulge yourself with a mud therapy for two at one of the beachfront hotels. Go all “Sex And The City 2” at Biankini Beach, a Moroccan-themed holiday village. Re-create Destiny’s Child classic “Survivor” video at the Ein Gedi Oasis with your friends wearing speedos. No one will stop you.
Tip of the month: Buy a ticket on the ‘Gay Bus’ heading to the magnificent Dead Sea multiple times a month and meet fun, easygoing and gay Israel lovers from everywhere on Earth. See: OUTstanding Israel
Jerusalem – Gay-o-Meter: 7/10
Hold your breath – The Holy City is not reserved just for religious pilgrimages. Jerusalem hosts an annual Pride event and has gay-friendly hangouts. Yet there’s still a long way to go – the trans-question by the Western Wall is still a bit tricky as recently it made headlines when an Israeli woman (once a man) was pushed outside from the women’s side of the Kotel. On the sunny side – Video Pub is the ‘official’ gay bar in town, while Lev Smadar theatre’s café in the heart of the German Colony is a well known LGBTQ hot spot. There’s even a drama school teaching future drag queens to be lady-like on stage and there are dozens of reform rabbis and free thinking spiritual advisors who see no harm in homosexuality. Also, Israel’s most prestigious art school – Bezalel – is housed in Jerusalem, and as we all know, gays and arts go hand in hand.
Tip of the month: Join Yotam Zeira’s ‘Jerusalem In Pink’ tour, telling the LGBTQ history in the Golden City. What was it like to be a lesbian tourist at the beginning of the 20th century? How people dared to write a gay love story during the British occupation of Israel? Find out with Yotam. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Ashdod and Ashkelon – Gay-o-Meter: 6/10
Israeli LGBTQ people often joke that if you’re gay in Ashdod, you’ll surely end up living Tel Aviv – yet the city’s gay youth is ready to break the stereotype with occasional peaceful pride events. Ashdod and Ashkelon are both Mediterranean towns with breathtaking beachfronts – but unlike party-oriented Tel Aviv these are cities of tradition with significant religious communities, often believing in conservative family values. Israel’s Gay Youth Organization (IGY) helps a lot for local kids looking to come out of the closet. Travelling or living in the area and wanna be a part of the change? Like facebook.com/ashdodpride and offer your help so next year we won’t have to miss the parade – as we had this summer.
Tip of the month: Visit Zeh Pub, a gay-friendly, swanky waterfront bar which is one of the rare businesses openly sponsoring the Ashdod Pride. Eager swimmers can always run for a dip between drinks. Mafkura Street, Ashdod. Call: 054-808-2738
Haifa – Gay-o-Meter: 8/10
The bay-city of Israel with it’s marine port, office complexes, farms and factories is the most hard working city of the state – some people say that’s why they don’t have time to have fun. But behind the labels there’s a beautiful, vibrant, liberal city waiting to be explored. Haifa is often referred to as the City of Coexistence, therefore interracial gay love affairs are very common – just turn on your Grindr app and you’ll see if for yourself. Haifa also has an annual Pride Parade with over 2,000 participators, yet the event is less about partying and more about social justice. Jewish and Arab LGBTQ activists demonstrate the subculture’s visibility in the northern city and to fight for gay rights.
Tip of the month: Have a drink at Syncopa Bar – the restaurant’s hosts alternative parties and shows – 90s parties, Balkan beats, weekly gay parties and shows of famous local musicians. See: Syncopa Bar
Akko – Gay-o-Meter: 5/10
Akko’s old city is very ‘Arabian Nights,’ so local guys sharing a cigarette, jokingly kissing each other or holding each other riding on a tiny motor bike is not out of order – yet it’s more of a part of the tradition than an advertisement for gay acceptance. One of Israel’s most well know gay Israeli Arab activists – Karam Dadu – recently produced his movie describing how his homophobic family drove him away from this city. Within the old city walls it feels like time has stopped and old fashioned values survive all generations. Yet as an openly gay traveler arriving with my husband on several occasions, we never experienced any sort of bullying attitude – restaurants, cafés and the vendors of the ever-colorful marketplace were all welcoming and when they asked where are the wives, we smiled at each other and knew that the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is best.
Tip of the month: Get a rub at Ghattas Bathhouse, a traditional Turkish bath-themed luxurious spa. The guys will give you the greatest massage – combining fabulous Swedish, Thai and classic Turkish methods. See: Ghattas Turkish Bathhouse
Moshavim, Kibuttzim, Settlements, Judea & Samaria villages – Gay-o-Meter: 4/10
As an LGBTQ traveler it’s best to remain humble or discreet in these traditional and religious towns. Flamboyant behavior can be a trigger for deeply religious sentiments and the Palestinian Arab villages, in particular, are also known to be unwelcoming for gays and extroverted behaviors like lighting up and sexy dancing or loudly singing in the street. Yet if you happen to be in a kibbutz and you dream of a classic ‘country romance,’ take a look at your Grindr app – as the gay Tel Avivian proverb goes: gay ‘nature boy-kibutsnikim’ are rare to find delicacies. The cool villagers of the moshavs are often more open-minded. After all, many of these municipalities were founded by adorable communities of artists, passionate foodies, botanical garden designers, vegetarians and other intellectual or creative subcultures.
Tip of the month: Many of the villages in Israel welcome LGBTQ tourists in cozy and romantic cabins and posh apartments pimped out with hot tubs and private swimming pools – in Hebrew these are called ‘tzimmers.’ Aladdin Cave in the northern Golan Heights is also a proud, gay-friendly luxury cabin that’s a lot of fun. Also, one must visit Matat – a tiny community in the Western Galilee which welcomes LGBTQ travelers. Etz Hahaim (Tree of Life) zimmer is one of the most beautiful spots on the planet, near the Lebanese border. Aladdin Cave, Had Nes, Golan Heights, 053-9429792. Etz Hahaim zimmer, 053-9429872
UPDATE: A week after Time Out Israel published this article a true tragedy happened as the celebration of the Jerusalem Pride Parade was interrupted when a radical orthodox man stabbed seven protesters, leaving many of them in serious condition. Hearing the news I got furious and sad in the same time, not knowing that in few hours time I’ll have to deal with even more frustration and anger. A group of violent settlers set two houses on fire in a West Bank village, leaving a whole family badly injured, and causing the death of a 18 months old Palestinian baby.
As I often speak out against terrorism in the Middle East, I found it extremely important to make it clear: Jewish, Muslim, Christian or atheist, extremists revenging each other and harming the already delicate relationship between the many different people of the region is called terrorism. No matter if it’s carried out by Israelis or Palestinians, in the eye of the law and in the heart of the people violence and murder should be answered with zero tolerance. My heart goes out to the Palestinian family, and I wish their baby a peaceful journey to a place where labels don’t matter. I’m also lighting a candle for all the LGBTQ activists bravely fighting against narrow minded thinking and intolerance in Jeruslaem – the holy city of 3 equally sacred religions.
I truly believe in it that it’s the responsibility of all of us not to point fingers and generalize – just like in any community, within Palestinians and Israelis as well there are people of good intention and there are people who only care about dogmas. The answer is communication, not revenge. Let there be peace in Israel, Palestine the Middle East, and the whole entire Planet.