A Queer Tour of Israel

Out and about in a nation with identity issues

Hannah Roos

Within hours of landing in Tel Aviv this past January, some new friends and I were wandering in a jet-lagged daze through a street market when we ran into an alumnus of the Taglit-Birthright program that had brought us, roughly 40 queer Jews, to Israel for a free 10-day vacation. “So,” he asked, “how are you guys enjoying faglit?”

Faglit! That was the word we’d been looking for. A blend of reclaimed hate speech and the Hebrew word for “discovery,” it was much catchier than gayright and rainbow trip, the terms we’d been throwing around—and also more deliciously transgressive.

If you hang out with Jewish Millennials, you’ve probably heard of Taglit-Birthright, established by philanthropists and the Israeli government in 1999 to bring young-adult members of the Jewish diaspora to the Holy Land. The junket is commonly, and rightly, considered a recruiting device to get Americans to make aliyah (move to Israel), or at least to stick up for the country in political arguments, and maybe even to find a nice Jewish spouse.

In 2008, the tour operator Israel Experience started offering trips tailored to LGBTQ Jews, and you can understand why: Israel wants to build goodwill with American liberals, and some queer folks would prefer to have plausible romantic prospects on the bus. But as I and my nose-ring- and skinny-jeans-bedecked fellow travelers scribbled our preferred pronouns onto our name tags before our departure from the Newark airport, I wondered how the Holy Land would sit with a group of people who resist tradition just by being themselves.

Famously cosmopolitan, Tel Aviv offered a smooth welcome. Around dusk on our first day, we visited what we were told is the only municipally run LGBT center in the world. We got the drift: Israel—exclusionary, theocratic marriage laws aside—is A‑OK with the gays. Later, we unpacked at a run-down hostel, where I bunked with a trip-mate who was a young lesbian veteran of the Israel Defense Forces and cracked Holocaust jokes. So far, so queer.

Soon, though, came reminders that we were in the birthplace of the world’s most influential codified gender norms (thank you, Abrahamic religions!). In Safed, the center of Kabbalah and home to a fabulously kitschy candle factory, we visited an ancient synagogue whose main room was designed to prevent worshippers from being distracted by the opposite sex. “There’s a flaw in that plan,” one participant called out, to giggles. “And there are 40 of those flaws in this room.”

The straightness of Jerusalem wasn’t quite as easy to laugh away. The city of 800,000 has one or two gay bars—they seem to come and go quickly. A guide showed us the park where closeted Hasidic men cruise (can you imagine that life?). A passerby on the street flipped out at the sight of two female group members holding hands. We spent a morning at the holiest site in Judaism, the Western Wall, where visitors are segregated by sex. (The government had, controversially, created a small, gender-neutral area months earlier, but it was closed the day we visited.) One of the trip’s trans participants hung back as the rest of us stuck handwritten notes into the cracks in the wall. Crying, he later recounted that he’d have felt like a liar heading into the women’s area, but knew that he—wearing tights and makeup—wouldn’t have been accepted among the men.

I bunked with a young lesbian veteran of the Israel Defense Forces who cracked Holocaust jokes. So far, so queer.

We rang in the Sabbath with a prayer recitation to the tune of the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way,” followed by one of the many “processing sessions” of the trip: everyone sitting in a circle, talking about their feelings. Tears flowed; the phrase reconciling my Jewish and queer identities came up a lot. Only half Jewish by heritage, agnostic by belief, and constitutionally allergic to earnestness, I squirmed during these discussions. Besides, I thought as the people around me sobbed about wanting to reconnect to their shul days despite their community’s disapproval of their sexuality, coming out means taking charge of your own identity. Why let religion—any religion—define you when you can define yourself?

Thankfully, my above-it-all attitude melted after about three minutes at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s sober, concrete-encased Holocaust museum. The Nazis, our guide pointed out, had amplified the oppressive rhetoric used throughout Jewish history. Other nonconforming groups—like gays—had been taken to the death camps as well.

I suddenly understood my fellow travelers’ religious-identity crises better. The state of Israel, however problematic you might find it, was founded in the years after World War II as a refuge for a far-flung race of misfits. The longing for fellowship with people of a similar background is universal and includes, yes, LGBTQ people. Wasn’t that part of why I’d opted for a self-segregating trip like this one? My suspicions toward tribalism were waning; I found myself joining in as the group shouted “I’m queer!” into the echoing canyons at the ancient Masada ruins.

The kumbaya vibes, though, wore thin on the penultimate evening, when dozens of Birthright groups converged for a “Mega Event.” A Ryan Seacrest–esque emcee led the auditorium in soccer-stadium-style chanting (“U-S-A! U-S-A!” in our section), and then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took to the stage. “This is your country,” he said. “Come back again and again.” The crowds gyrated in the aisles to a version of Diddy–Dirty Money’s “Coming Home” that had been reworked to refer to Israel.

The scene felt un-Jewish, like a megachurch, or worse: “We could talk about the parallels to the Hitler youth,” joked a friend. It also felt un-gay. I stood there, head bobbing, taking in the view. The people who’d looked so unique and defiant at the airport were now all wearing the same T-shirt—white mesh, emblazoned with a striking tagline: Be yourself.