I first traveled to Israel nine years ago. Following my arrival at Ben Gurion Airport an immigration officer queried whether I wished to have my passport stamped. I was befuddled. “Why?” I asked. He explained that some Arab states would not admit anyone having traveled to Israel. “Stamp the damn thing twice” I replied. My populist-pluralist instincts kicked in. Israel had made a friend.
Mine was a business trip. My first week in Tel Aviv was one meeting followed by another, affording little time to enjoy this emerald by the sea of a city. I traveled extensively in and around Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories on my own dime the following week, gaining a personal perspective on the ethnic and non-secular differences which one must see, meet and live to grasp the complexities of this land. I shared the sentiments of the Fatah sentry who allowed me inside the walls of the Muqata in Ramallah. “I love Americans I just hate your government,” he said before regaling me with tales of family visits to the United States. Moments later there I stood, alone, inside a Plexiglas dome in an empty parking before the shelled-out headquarters of the Palestinian Authority. Before me was the casket of Yasser Arafat. Surreal.
As my flight departed for New York I left Israel feeling hungry. Hungry for more time, more people, culture and knowledge. For some inexplicable reason this region beckoned me, a secular gay man who everyone greeted in English before I uttered a word- as if “American” were stamped across my forehead. “Gay” is okay in Tel Aviv but it can induce a pregnant pause in conversations in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Oy vey.
The last years have taken a toll on me. One son beset with schizophrenia, the other disavowing me over my sexual orientation as contrary to his Muslim faith, a shattered relationship with my partner, tough times financially, anger over having been rejected by the institutional Democratic Party in my 2008 Senate run simply because I am gay, deep depression and ultimately an “I don’t give a fuck” attitude that culminated in a deadly dance with addiction to crystal methamphetamine. The latter changed last February. I had an epiphany of sorts, choosing life over death. I needed time to heal. I focused on wrapping up pending obligations and getting out of America for a while. Instinctively I knew it was time to recharge my soul away from the loss, rejection and self-loathing that had overwhelmed my life for six years. I needed to go to a place where I could reconnect with my own humanity, and that of strangers. I would go back to Israel.
I arrived for a month’s stay on June 10. Tel Aviv has been my home since, a laissez-faire, secular metropolis within a Jewish state wrapped by the shores of the sparkling Mediterranean. At a friend’s urging I arrived before the Tel Aviv Gay Pride parade on June 13. Eight years earlier I had ventured into the night in Jerusalem on Shabbat in search of a gay club with the curiosity of a sociologist. On a holy night in the holiest city in the world I happened upon an alleyway where I found the door to a world all-too familiar: gay men and lesbians, drag queens, a disco ball, sweaty bodies, and the unfamiliar confluence of Arab and Jew, soldier and civilian. That gathering reaffirmed my experience: gay people transcend politics, borders, and differences more so than any other minority group. We are you—except for our same-sex affinity. We provide safe harbor for one another, and the world is rapidly embracing gay sons and daughters beyond the urban ghettos and watering holes that have sheltered us since the end of World War II. Little did I know what Israel—and my native USA—had in store for me during my current trip.
It was 2:00 am on the morning of the 11th. Too weary to sleep I walked from my rented flat up Bugroshov St. to the grand Rothschild Boulevard, turning toward the Mediterranean at Allenby Street and then westward to Ha-Yarkon Street which runs along the sea. Before me I saw a fortress-like concrete structure, one that I had seen in other countries. Many US embassies are built like prisons, devoid of character. The Embassy in Israel is no exception. I paused to gaze at the structure, and then I saw it: the American flag, fluttering toward me by the ocean’s breeze. Below the Stars and Stripes flew the Pride flag, symbol of the historical struggle for equality of gay people globally.
What, how—my G-d that’s the Pride flag flying at a U.S. embassy, I thought as I fumbled for my iPhone to capture that moment. Ignoring the directives of security personnel who descended from the shadows cautioning me not to take photograph the Embassy, I captured the moment, neither aware that U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro had posted an iconic photo on his Facebook page nor of the pink surge that US Ambassadors had initiated through similar displays in Spain, Uruguay, Estonia, the Dominican Republic, the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, Sweden, China and Slovakia. Scott Busby, a deputy assistant secretary in the State Department, acknowledged that local ambassadors make the choice of whether or not to fly the Pride flag.
Last weekend, gay pride parades were celebrated in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Minneapolis, St. Louis and Seattle. These days those events are supported by corporate sponsors like Macy’s, Whole Foods, and MasterCard. In Israel, the municipality of Tel Aviv-Yafo underwrites the Pride Parade. And unlike those urban parades back home the main event at Tel Aviv Pride is the people: families, parents, grandparents, the young and 30,000 tourists shoulder-to-shoulder as a collective rainbow.
We saw the Pride flag flying before a United States federal building, something unthinkable in any corner of America. Bipartisanship? Cory Bardash the co-chair of Republicans-Abroad Israel remarked to Fox News: “This is part of society here, despite the fact we have a large, traditional, religious minority. It shows that there is a little island in the Middle East that shares the same democratic values as America.”
Well done Ambassador Shapiro, Secretary Kerry and Mr. President. I have never been prouder of my country. And I have found peace in this land of sun, sand, conflict, religion, history, and penetrating eyes. Humanity has taken firm root and my soul is charged. Shalom.