Gay Israel is actually a lot more popular than one would think given its less than accepting neighbors. So, how is it to be a gay traveler or a LGBTQ citizen in a tiny village by the Lebanese border? And where’s the queer scene in Haifa? Kristof Joseph Steiner takes an imaginary gaydar-gadget to travel around Eretz Israel so you can discover all the secrets about gay society in the Middle East’s most tolerant nation.
Tel Aviv – Gay-O-Meter: 10/10
The White City is well known as the most desired LGBTQ destination in the world, thanks to its liberal thinking and professional-bohemian citizens who often refer to their hometown as "The State of Tel Aviv.” No one will raise an eyebrow if you happen to walk down Dizengoff hand-in-hand with your same-sex partner. The rainbow flag is just as common on the windows of shops, cafés and restaurants as the trendy 'Vegan Friendly' stickers and even the flagless few are just as queer-friendly. The city is at its hottest peak in August when sexy tourists and hunky locals hit Hilton beach and mingle at Shpagat bar on Nachalat Binyamin or hook up at the newest addition to the non-stop naughty clubs – Sauna Tel Aviv, by the Cinematheque on Carlebach Street.
Tip of the month: Check out the ongoing events of TLVFest, Israel’s one and only LGBTQ movie festival, holding monthly screenings of gay-themed masterpieces from Israel and all over the world.
Dead Sea – Gay-O-Meter: 7/10
Don’t expect gay bars and drag queens singing songs from "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" just yet. Sadly, the Dead Sea hasn’t explored the possibility of becoming the next Mykonos. Yet, it could be. Escape to the Dead Sea – at 400 meters below sea level it's the world’s largest natural spa filled with healthy minerals. Indulge yourself with a mud therapy for two at one of the beachfront hotels. Go all “Sex And The City 2” at Biankini Beach, a Moroccan-themed holiday village. Recreate Destiny’s Child classic “Survivor” video at the Ein Gedi Oasis with your speedo-sporting friends. No one will stop you.
Tip of the month: Buy a ticket on the 'Gay Bus' heading to the magnificent Dead Sea multiple times a month and meet fun, easygoing, gay Israel lovers from all walks of life.
See: Outstanding Israel
Jerusalem – Gay-O-Meter: 7/10
Hold your breath – The Holy City is not reserved solely for religious pilgrimages. Jerusalem hosts an annual Pride event and has gay-friendly hangouts. Yet, there’s still a long way to go – the trans-question by the Western Wall is still a bit tricky – recently headlines revealed an Israeli woman (once a man) being pushed outside from the women’s side of the Kotel. On the sunny side, Video Pub is the 'official' gay bar in town, while Lev Smadar theatre’s café in the heart of the German Colony is a well known LGBTQ hot spot. There’s even a drama school teaching future drag queens to be lady-like on stage and there are dozens of reform rabbis and freethinking spiritual advisors who see no harm in homosexuality. Also, Israel’s most prestigious art school – Bezalel – is housed in Jerusalem, and as we all know, gays and art go hand in hand.
Tip of the month: Join Yotam Zeira’s 'Jerusalem In Pink' tour, telling the LGBTQ history in the Golden City. What was it like to be a lesbian tourist at the beginning of the 20th century? How did people dare to write a gay love story during the British occupation of Israel? Find out with Yotam.
Ashdod and Ashkelon – Gay-O-Meter: 6/10
LGBTQ Israelis often joke that if you’re gay in Ashdod, you’ll surely end up living in Tel Aviv – yet the city’s gay youth is ready to break through the stereotype with occasional peaceful pride events. Ashdod and Ashkelon are both Mediterranean towns with breathtaking beachfronts – but unlike party-oriented Tel Aviv, these are cities of tradition with significant religious communities, often believing in conservative family values. Israel’s Gay Youth Organization (IGY) helps guide local kids who are looking to come out of the closet. Travelling or living in the area and want to be a part of the change? Like facebook.com/ashdodpride and offer your help so next year we won’t have to miss the parade – as we had to this summer.
Tip of the month: Visit Zeh Pub, a gay-friendly, swank waterfront bar that is one of the rare businesses openly sponsoring the Ashdod Pride. Eager swimmers can always run for a dip between drinks. Mafkura Street, Ashdod.
Haifa – Gay-O-Meter: 8/10
The bay-city of Israel with its marine port, office complexes, farms and factories is the most hard working city of the state – some people say they have no time for fun. But behind the labels there’s a beautiful, vibrant, liberal city waiting to be explored. Haifa is often referred to as the City of Coexistence, therefore interracial gay love affairs are very common – just turn on your Grindr app and you’ll see if for yourself. Haifa also has an annual Pride Parade with over 2,000 participants, yet the event is less about partying and more about social justice. Jewish and Arab LGBTQ activists demonstrate the subculture’s visibility in the northern city as they fight for gay rights.
Tip of the month: Have a drink at Syncopa Bar – the restaurant hosts alternative parties and shows like 90s parties, Balkan beats, weekly gay parties and shows of famous local musicians.
See: Syncopa Bar
Akko – Gay-O-Meter: 5/10
Akko's old city is very 'Arabian Nights,' so local guys sharing a cigarette, jokingly kissing each other or holding each other riding on a tiny motor bike is nothing out of the ordinary– yet it’s more a part of the tradition than an advertisement for gay acceptance. One of Israel’s most well known gay Israeli Arab activists, Karam Dadu, recently produced his movie describing how his homophobic family drove him away from this city. Within the Old City walls it feels like time has stopped and old fashioned values apply to all generations. Yet, as an openly gay traveler visiting with my husband on several occasions, we never experienced any sort of bullying attitude – restaurants, cafés and the vendors of the ever-colorful marketplace were all welcoming and when they asked us where our wives were, we smiled at each other and knew that the "Don’t ask, don’t tell" policy was best.
Tip of the month: Get a rub at Ghattas Bathhouse, a traditional Turkish bath-themed luxurious spa. The guys will give you the greatest massage – combining fabulous Swedish, Thai and classic Turkish methods.
See: Ghattas Turkish Bathhouse
Moshavim, Kibbutzim, Settlements, Judea & Samaria villages – Gay-O-Meter: 4/10
As an LGBTQ traveler it’s best to remain humble or discreet in these traditional and religious towns. Flamboyant behavior can be a trigger for deeply religious sentiments and the Palestinian Arab villages, in particular, are known to be unwelcoming to gay and extroverted behaviors like lighting up and sexy dancing or loudly singing in the street. Yet, if you happen to be on a kibbutz and you dream of a classic 'country romance,' take a look at your Grindr app – as the gay Tel Avivian proverb goes: gay 'nature boy-kibbutznikim' are rare to find delicacies. The cool villagers of the Moshavs are often more open-minded. After all, many of these municipalities were founded by adorable communities of artists, passionate foodies, botanical garden designers, vegetarians and other intellectual or creative subcultures.
Tip of the month: Many of the villages in Israel welcome LGBTQ tourists in cozy and romantic cabins and posh apartments pimped out with hot tubs and private swimming pools – in Hebrew these are called 'tzimmers.' Aladdin Cave in the northern Golan Heights is also a proud, gay-friendly luxury cabin that promises a good time. Also, you must visit Matat – a tiny community in the Western Galilee which welcomes LGBTQ travelers. Etz Hahaim (Tree of Life) zimmer is one of the most beautiful spots on the planet, near the Lebanese border.
Contact: Aladdin Cave, Had Nes, Golan Heights, 053-9429792; Etz Hahaim zimmer, 053-9429872