American travel writer Sophie Needelman meets an Israeli soldier who shows her the gay State of Israel.
The second half of a two-part series, in which the American, gay, Jewish travel writer Sophie Needelman meets Jonatan, a gay Israeli soldier. Read the first part, “Israel from an American Lesbian Perspective” here.
One of the most incredible aspects of the trip was not just getting to travel around the country but getting to experience Israel alongside Israelis. For a segment of our trip, we were joined by eight Israeli soldiers on leave—they were rewarded for their service with the chance to travel with us and supplement our Birthright experience while also getting to be tourists in their own country. The soldiers were the same age as us—between 19 and 21—but had had extremely different experiences of maturity and coming into adulthood. While they were drafted into the Israeli Defense Force right after high school, we had come into our own—and also come out—in a progressive and alternative liberal academic environment in the United States. Getting to see Israel through the eyes of our soldier friends was extremely enlightening and engaging, especially because they were able to give us inside scoop about the various places we were visiting.
The Israeli I bonded most with was a 21-year old named Jonatan who is serving in an intelligence unit in the Israeli Defense Force. I was drawn to him because he was sort of shy and had a gentle giant energy about him, with the absolute sweetest face I had ever seen in my life. Even before we connected I loved watching him watch all of us; I really got a sense that he was soaking us in and truly absorbing all of the social and cultural quirks we take for granted in one another as fellow Berkeley students and Americans.
Once Jonatan and I started talking, we quickly bonded over our sexuality—he is gay, too, but has been less open with his peers and mentors than my gay friends from home and I have always been. We talked a lot about our coming out stories, how our families feel about our sexual orientation, and the various ways it manifests in our lives on a daily basis. Many elements of our queer experiences were similar—for example, the support he gets from his family reminded me a lot of my own. However, Jonatan explained to me that even though the Israeli Army is open to and supportive of all sexual orientations because of the nature of the draft, he doesn’t feel comfortable opening up about his sexuality because he is afraid it will affect the way he would be treated by his peers.
Jonatan also told me that his base, which is focused on intelligence, is notoriously gay and has many LGBT service members. Beyond this aspect of demographics, the Israeli Defense Force is openly against homophobia and has never had anything like our “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. Because of his own social upbringing and wariness about being out in such a controlling institution that dictates the terms of his life for three years, Jonatan has still been uncomfortable being completely open about his sexuality to more than just a few friends. Even in the context of our trip, where the other Israeli soldiers were people he had never met and worked in different units, Jonatan didn’t really want them to know he was gay in case it got back to his supervisors on his supposedly gay-friendly base. This level of secrecy and insecurity was new for me to experience because luckily enough I have always lived and worked and learned in spaces that are extremely liberal on an institutional and social level. However, I was reassured by the fact that Jonatan did at least have a sense of support from his friends and felt comfortable with the people he lived and worked with immediately on his base. Though different than mine, his experience was an important reminder that there are definitely circumstances that warrant social and emotional discretion regarding sexuality of any and every form.
In spite of his more conservative experiences in the Israeli Army, Jonatan has definitely indulged in the Israeli gay culture and was so thrilled to share that aspect of Israel with us during our travels. He pointed out the main gay bars in Jerusalem as well as in Tel Aviv, and he confirmed the appeal Tel Aviv has as the gay mecca of the Middle East. He even participates in Israeli drag culture in Tel Aviv, which is a huge outlet for the LGBT community in Israel—especially those who are in service. In the United States, many people come out when they go away to college and have a chance to reinvent themselves while getting some distance from their home and their past. This sense of sexual and emotional liberation has been extremely inviting and supportive for me as someone who chooses to actively and openly identify as gay in spite of my distaste for labels of any sort. I cannot imagine existing in a world any less liberal and accepting and open minded than the world I have found in Berkeley—especially during such a rich and transitional time in my life. The fact that Jonatan has had to find an LGBT community so far removed from his own day to day environment is hard for me to grasp, and is that much more impressive to me that he has thrown himself into drag and gay culture full throttle—in the most classy and genuine way, I might add!
Getting to share my experiences about being gay with Jonatan was as powerful as getting to hear about his. Throughout our travels I really got a chance to see my friends and peers through his eyes—and I completely take for granted how open and accepting everyone in my life is about sexuality but also about gender expression, feminism, and various other aspects of this liberal and alternative lifestyle we live as UC Berkeley students. Jonatan was constantly shocked at how open we all were, at how casually me and my gay friends talked about our sexuality—and how there was completely no discomfort, tension, or reaction from anyone else involved. During one night of group bonding, Jonatan turned to me and exclaimed, “that boy just talked about never having kissed a girl, and nobody even flinched or had a second thought about it!” Something that has been so much a part of my existence was so incredibly new for him, and getting to witness him experience a group of young open minded individuals who choose to support the LGBT community with every action, reaction, phrasing of a statement was one of the most beautiful experiences I have ever had.
By the end of my trip throughout Israel I had learned so much about myself as a Jew but also as a queer Jew and queer American. It became clear to me over the course of my travels through Israel that my identity as a lesbian could very well be accepted into the Jewish community I so strongly gravitate toward. I also realized that being liberal, open minded, and progressive as a lesbian didn’t have to limit my religious and spiritual identification. I also became greatly affected by the luxury I have as an American from the Bay Area to openly identify as gay, as well as to be safely out and travel as a single woman. Though I have always been extremely honored to have had such a supportive coming out experience, I had never considered my story and experiences in relation to other LGBT youth outside of the United States. Knowing Jonatan has completely changed that.
My sense of self and how I relate to my community was absolutely enhanced upon having to experience it in a new and different environment. The most life changing aspect of this trip, especially in regards to experience it from a queer perspective, was getting to meet Jonatan. When we finally had to part ways, his normally composed self fell to pieces as he grieved the loss of this accepting and supportive group he had so quickly come to love. Being surrounded by such understanding and open mindedness had given him hope about his potential to feel supported by a community, but also made having to go back to the reality of his base and the Israeli Army bitter and intimidating. I can tell that I had changed him as much as he changed me though, and by the end of the trip he told me many times with a smile on his face that observing us in all of our gay glory made him want to be more open about his sexuality to the people on his army base.
With tears in his eyes, Jonatan gave me his dogtag from the army as we were saying our goodbyes—as if I needed anything physical as a reminder of the impact he made on me. My life has truly been changed by his presence in my life those few days in Israel, and I know we are destined to know each other beyond the confines of our Birthright trip. I wear Jonatan’s dogtag around my neck every day now to honor my fabulous gay Israeli brother serving in an army of a heavily targeted and extremely hated country in the Middle East—of a country who has its own conflicting social history surrounding sexuality but that has still proven to be a safe haven for persecuted gays in a region of the world where social standards of sexual and gender expression are crippling and often fatal. I wear his dogtag to honor my fabulous gay Israeli brother who is expressing himself and his queer identity to make social change in circumstances of persecution and stigma that I cannot even conceive of. It is because of Jonatan that I am proud to be an active member of the LGBT community, and it is because of my relationship with and affect on Jonatan that I choose to be openly gay about my own identity expression and way of experiencing the world… from Berkeley to Israel and beyond.
Image credit: StringsOfASoul/Flickr