Tel Aviv was awash in the colors of the rainbow on Friday, June 3, 2016, as an estimated 200,000 people joined in the Gay Pride Parade, the largest pride parade in the Middle East and largest ever in Israel. Amir Ohana, an openly gay Knesset member (Likud), joined the festivities surrounded by security guards.
The Tel Aviv parade brings Israel’s polarities to a glaring spotlight. The Torah explicitly calls homosexuality an abomination (Leviticus 18:22) and several Jewish groups vociferously oppose the gay parade. However, a recent poll shows that 76 percent of Israelis support a legal marriage framework for same sex couples in the Jewish state.
This year’s Tel Aviv parade included an estimated 30,000 tourists, according to the Foreign Ministry. The large number of tourists is a culmination of marketing campaigns by the Tel Aviv Municipality and the Israel Tourism Ministry over the past several years to promote the liberal city as a gay vacation destination.
In stark contrast, conservative Jerusalem’s gay pride parade, which usually takes place in July, is wrought with tension, is less-attended and barely advertised so as not to draw negative attention. In fact, at last year’s Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem, an ultra-Orthodox Jew stabbed several participants, killing 16-year-old Shira Banki and injuring several others.
Tolerant Tel Aviv
Rainbow flags have adorned the main boulevards for weeks leading up to the parade in the trendy, beach city of Tel Aviv, long known for its tolerant and open-minded environment.
The Daily Beast, in a 2013 report, chronicled the city’s decision to brand itself separately from the rest of the country, specifically for homosexuals, and its subsequent rise as the world’s new “gay Mecca.”
About 10 years ago ago, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, decided that his city’s open mindedness, its pristine beaches and hopping nightlife were a perfect draw for gay tourism – except that it wasn’t on the map as a gay destination.
“We knew that people who had been to Tel Aviv loved it,” says Yaniv Waizman, the mayor’s adviser on gay community affairs told the Daily Beast. “So we made a switch. We no longer talked about Israel, but Tel Aviv.”
The Tourism Ministry and the Israel Hotel Association participated in Tel Aviv’s outreach including offering gay celebrities all-expenses paid trips to the city in the hopes they would publicize their experiences.
Three years later, Tel Aviv was named the best gay city in the world in 2011, beating out New York by a landslide, in a survey by American Airlines and gaycities.com
Critics within Israel’s gay community say the surge in gay tourism coincides with a sharp rise in HIV infections and drug use. According to the Israel AIDS Task Force, the number of HIV cases has jumped 30 percent since 2007.
“Tel Aviv is the new Thailand,” Avner Bernheimer, creator of a gay TV show in Israel, told the Daily Beast. “I have friends who abstain from sex during pride month, when all the tourists are here…People come here to have sex and do drugs.”
But Huldai believes gay tourists have done only good for his city.
“Tel Aviv has always been a city where everyone is welcome. Whether you’re religious or gay, Jewish or non-Jewish,” he said. “The gay community is a big part of what makes us special.”
While this tolerance and open-mindedness has helped transform Tel Aviv into the unofficial gay capital of the world, it also allows believers to comfortably share their beliefs in public in Tel Aviv.
Israel’s stance on homosexuality is a conundrum for the Messianic community. On one hand, Israel purposefully and successfully marketed Tel Aviv for gay tourism, despite the Bible’s condemnation of homosexuality.
But on the other hand, Israel’s openness to the gay community stands in sharp contrast to other Middle Eastern countries, where homosexuals are routinely executed by the state or murdered by family members in honor killings.