This blog post was written by Sam Shepherd, a Yahel Social Change Fellow living and working in Lod.
This year, my Pride month kicked off with a Yahel learning day on LGBTQ+ issues in Israel, which I helped and facilitate. The fellows spent the morning listening to presentations from activists and NGOs that work with LGBTQ+ teens and adults. Then, we participated in a LGBTQ+ walking tour of Tel Aviv during a hot and humid afternoon.
At the end of my day – armed with rainbow stickers, sunburns, and a celebratory Shpagat cocktail in my stomach – I swiped my RavKav and took the train home back to my apartment in Lod. As I exited the train station onto the street, I furled my Pride flag up in my backpack and closed the zipper. It was an instinctual reaction, like checking over your shoulder when walking home at night or reaching for your keys. The fun was over. Back to reality.
When people talk about being LGBTQ in Israel’s periphery – that is, if they broach the subject at all – they normally do so under two, politically motivated contexts. The first is the left-wing argument about “pinkwashing”: the idea that Israel exploits its image as a relatively stable place for LGBTQ+ people to distract from its treatment of Palestinians. “Sure,” says the nose-pierced activist, “Tel Aviv Pride may be fun and sexy, but look at how the LGBTQ+ people are treated in Mitzpe Ramon, or Netivot! Surely, Israel is not the liberal utopia that its public relations team makes it out to be!”
The other context comes from the political right, which tries to communicate that Tel Aviv is an anomaly in the grand scheme of Israeli society. Tel Aviv Pride – with its hefty budget and garish displays of promiscuity – is another example of the elites being out of touch with the needs of ordinary Israelis. According to this perspective, the real Israel is down to earth, focusing on jobs, security, and traditional Jewish living, rather than these fanciful rainbow indulgences.
After eight months volunteering in Lod, I believe that any social progress in Israel can only occur by engaging the country's geographic periphery, not by ignoring them or belittling their experiences.
In my experience, both of these narratives fail to capture the reality and nuance of LGBTQ life in Israel’s periphery, and both fail to examine the importance of promoting tolerance in these spaces at all. After eight months volunteering in Lod, I believe that any social progress in Israel can only occur by engaging the country’s geographic periphery, not by ignoring them or belittling their experiences. In Lod, the only flags that fly during June are blue and white. The public does not demonize LGBTQ+ people, so much as the concept is foreign and irrelevant to much of the city’s residents. The Palestinian community in particular – predominantly religious, poor, and unfamiliar with Western understandings of gender and sexuality – is deeply traditional. In a city consisting of religious people with large, nuclear families struggling to make ends meet, “Pride” has no natural place in the vocabulary.
Of course, there are queer people in Lod, just as there are queer people anywhere. From stories I have gathered during my time here, LGBTQ+ youth in Lod remain closeted in their teens, then they move to liberal enclaves in Tel Aviv or Haifa, or they keep their sexuality hush-hush throughout their lives. The kids often make jokes at school with “gay” as the punchline, and the idea of a man wearing even just a splotch of nail polish undermines strict, binary gender roles.
Since reacclimating to my weekly routine volunteering in Lod – my Pride flags furled, my nails unadorned – I kept thinking back to a presentation from my learning day in Tel Aviv. Rom, a queer activist, came to speak to us from a group called Israeli Gay Youth (IGY). IGY works with young people aged 13-23 across Israeli society to form peer groups and organize social events. According to Rom, 85% of IGY’s work is based outside of Tel Aviv, including contingents based in Rishon Letzion and Ramle-Lod.
I thought about my own schools in Lod, in which I have observed teachers watch idly as boys hurl “Homo!” at each other as insults. The teachers do not know how to intervene without introducing children to thorny topics that they may not feel equipped to teach, or they are too overwhelmed by their already packed schedules to react at all. This passivity enables harmful prejudices to fester in Israeli culture unchecked.
I was therefore excited when I heard Rom talk about IGY’s training programs for Israeli teachers on the topic of gender and sexuality in schools. With this training, educators can develop a vocabulary to tackle this subject more delicately. She also mentioned how IGY offer youth groups to different subsets in Israeli society with sensitive needs, including Palestinian citizens of Israel and Orthodox Jews.
These initiatives show that it is indeed possible to create an environment where kids can learn how to respect each other’s differences while still respecting their traditional culture’s values. Contrary to what Avi Maoz or some US Republicans may preach, combatting queerphobia in the classroom is not the same as sexualizing children or encouraging deviation from religious principles.
I have optimism about Lod’s future. On Yom Ha’atzmaut, I beamed with pride seeing one of my male students dancing on stage with a group of girls, while the whole city cheered him on. I also felt surprised by how casually I could come out to one of the Orthodox teenagers with whom I volunteer at a youth centre. Rather than prying, he shrugged and moved on to a game of Jungle Speed. These moments remind me not to dismiss entire groups of people as irredeemably bigoted, and it emphasized to me how the road to social change must include everyone in Israeli society, not just the secular, Tel Aviv elite.
Pride is not about celebrating one’s sexual preferences or preferred pronouns; ultimately, these are irrelevant details in the grand scheme of life. Pride is a litmus test to gauge a society’s tolerance, especially for personal identities that diverge from the dominant culture’s norm. Activists that continue to ignore peripheral cities like Lod on social issues in Israel will only create further polarization in an already divided Israeli society. To create lasting, meaningful social change in Israel –whether for LGBTQ+ rights, the democratic process, or any other topic – we must place the periphery front and centre.