Here is the new Israel in a glossy plastic nutshell. The following story does not sound real, but it happened just a few months ago. At an army base in charge of launching troops into Lebanese Hasbeya territory, a soldier came to his commanders and told them he felt trapped inside his male body and wanted to become a female. The commanders didn’t hesitate to tell him: if that’s what you want, no problem, you can become a female soldier. The next few months went by smoothly. The new soldier started wearing makeup and lipstick, and her commanders virtually forgot about her. That is, until the day she came back to them and said she now felt ready for the Operation. This was a little too much. The answer was: no operation during your service.
Has Israel gone crazy? Has the Holy Land become trannie heaven? The answer is more yes than no. It’s not as perfect as this article may lead you to believe, but there’s no denying the fact that most Israelis have recently accepted the option of transsexuality. Not that they would like their son to go through the process, but if someone else feels like doing it, it doesn’t bother them. As a matter of fact, it’s easier for them to accept the transgendered than to accept lesbians and gays. When the pop star Dana International goes on a talk show and starts to explain that she feels more like a gay man than like a Natural Woman, most people prefer not to get hung up on the details. She has breasts and long hair— that’s enough for them.
They love her. Within three years Dana International has not only become one of the most popular singers in Israel (and well-known all over Europe), she has also played a major role in what might be called the Big Israeli Gay Megillah. After Dana’s historic victory in the 1998 Eurovision Song contest, thousands of Tel Avivans stormed Rabin Square, where, overcome with national pride, they danced the night away, waving the Israeli flag side by side with the rainbow flag for the first time. This week, when Dana sings at the Gay Pride Festival, the first ever to be officially sponsored by a mayor of Tel Aviv, she will be performing in front of thousands of gays and straights in an event that represents a flamboyant new twist in the Zionist saga.
The new mayor of Tel Aviv is an example of this seismic shift in Israeli attitudes. Ten years ago, Ron Huldai was a cocky pilot who became the principal of a famous Tel Aviv high school after finishing his army service. Everyone predicted a rosy future for him in politics, since good-looking retired pilots are a very popular breed in Israel. But then Huldai gave an interview to a local paper in which he said, “Guys kissing— that’s disgusting.” That was a big mistake.
Ever since the mid ’80s, gays and lesbians, scattered throughout the Israeli media, have been firing back at anyone who insults gay people. These are people who ordinarily take delight in bad-mouthing each other— most of them don’t even talk to one another. But whenever there is an attack from outside, they fall in as brave soldiers and work directly or behind the scenes to ruin anybody who is a homophobe.
It took Huldai a week to start apologizing for his blunder. But even two years later, when he ran for the Labor primaries in Tel Aviv County, he learned that “those homoim” have a long memory. Huldai really tried. When his campaigners called up registered voters and came up against gay awareness, Huldai would personally call back, promising to become a gay-rights fighter.
It didn’t get him elected to the Knesset, even after he met all the available gay activists in town. But two years later, when Huldai decided to run for mayor, he found one man who believed he had really changed. Adir Steiner is a sweet, intelligent young man. His longtime boyfriend, Doron Meizel, was a pioneer and a high officer in the army medical corps, who came out to his commanders in the late ’70s. Meizel died of cancer a few years ago, and Steiner fought the army in order to become an “official widow” (which means a lot of money in Israel). He won.
Steiner decided to help Huldai’s relationship with the gay community, which by then had become a test case for all of Huldai’s liberal views. They were very successful together, and after Huldai’s victory last November, Steiner was appointed municipal spokesman, the first openly gay official in the country.
After all this, it was not too hard to convince Huldai to endorse Tel Aviv’s gay pride celebrations. For two weeks now, the city has been full of signs screaming “From Tel Aviv With Pride” (in Hebrew, pride— Ca’avah— rhymes with love— Cahavah— so it’s even more dramatic). Of course Dana International will be at the center of these festivities.
A quick morning-pink flashback: Dana started as a fragile Yemenite boy from a poor background. When she decided to change her sex and become a singer, not one record company would sign her on. At the beginning of her career, even parts of the gay community resented her, arguing she was an obstacle to assimilation and yuppie boredom.
But Dana was determined, and, more important, talented and heartwarming. She has become such an icon in Israel that even ultra-Orthodox Knesset members no longer attack her (since she’s popular even among some of their voters). It is difficult to explain to strangers why Dana is such great fun. But if you write to your congressman, she may get an American recording contract and show the Jerry Falwells that an Israeli trannie can be more than a woman— or at least more than a woman to me.
Gal Uchovsky is an openly gay Israeli talk show host and journalist living in Tel Aviv with his spouse, filmmaker Eytan Fox (“Florentine”).