Israel’s promise of citizenship to every Jew makes it one of the most diverse countries in the world, and Tel Aviv Pride is quickly becoming one of the most talked about annual LGBT events; however, the country’s recent immigrants, that are also LGBT, are still struggling more than other newcomers to find their place.
Though Israel has a few legal protections for LGBT people in place—employment non-discrimination laws, same-sex marriages performed in other countries are recognized, unregistered partnerships that function as a sort of common-law marriage—the community is still largely invisible, and underserved. Prejudice is relatively minimal, but aside from the “party scene,” regular LGBT community gatherings have historically been almost nonexistent.
In this era of online social networking, there are multiple Israeli LGBT groups and sites online, but Freeman found most of them were, naturally, in Hebrew, Israel’s official language. Groups for new Israeli immigrants exist in English, but none focused on the LGBT set.
“The LGBT [immigrant]community is unique,” Roy Freeman, who immigrated to Israel in 2012, told the Jerusalem Post. As a native English speaker not yet fluent in Hebrew, he found himself suddenly left out. Having previously organized events with Dayenu, an GLBT/Jewish organization in Sydney, Australia, he chose to do something about it, and started the group LGBT Olim (Hebrew for immigrant) on Facebook in April; just over two months later, it has almost three hundred followers.
The goal of the group, Freeman says, is to bring together immigrant LGBTs, regardless of when they came to Israel; in addition to being a place where newcomers can get advice from those who came before, they arrange get-togethers at local events.
A similar group is LGBT English Speakers, focused mainly in and near Tel Aviv. It currently holds three events a month, and welcomes all English-speaking LGBTs regardless of origin.
In response to criticisms that such support groups further isolate members from mainstream Israeli society, Freeman said, “Israeli society isn’t purely about whether or not you speak [Hebrew] so having groups like ours doesn’t mean that we are not integrating. Many new [immigrants]move back home within the first three years… so groups like ours can help increase the success rate.”
As Pride Month begins, the LGBT Olim and LGBT English Speakers (ESG) groups are planning how they’ll participate. Both will be marching in the Pride Parade under their own banners, and the LGBT Olim group will hold its first official event, a social meeting, after the parade.
Though Israel has plenty of organizations for immigrants and for the LGBT community, until now none have been aimed at helping and welcoming those who belong to both groups. The LGBT organizations’ language is almost invariably in Hebrew, which not every new immigrant speaks, and the groups for those just off the jet aren’t specifically intended for the LGBT set, making for a different kind of communication barrier.
Freeman’s work has already begun addressing the former. For the latter, he has contacted the Jewish Agency, which aims to “connect the global Jewish family,” to explain that the overlooking of the LGBT community means they are either ignored or outright excluded—and, partly thanks to the work he’s already done, he’s already seeing results. “Having a Facebook page like LGBT Olim has helped them understand that there is a demographic that they have missed and we’re already in the process of fixing this by designing a program that will provide information and support specifically for LGBT new Olim,” he said proudly.
Change of any sort takes time, but a look at the Jewish Agency’s site shows that the seed has been planted; a search for “LGBT” gets the Volunteer Program page, which includes Amirim, “an opportunity to contribute to Israeli society through meaningful volunteer service… at a non-profit organization in a field of your interest.” Included in the list is the LGBT community.