Undressing Israel: Gay Men in the Promised Land”

The New Gay Capitol

Amos Lassen

I must begin this review with a disclaimer—I am not a Michael Lucas fan and quite honestly I do not like him very much if at all. I have never bought into his views on Israel being his home and I am not sure that I can make peace with his kind of Judaism that allows him to be the uncircumcised Jew (for his own financial gain) and the spokesman for the gay people of Israel. With that said, I will review his film without bias but with the knowledge that it was my group of friends who were living in Israel that were responsible for the gay liberation of the country in the 70s and 80s and which eventually led to Israel becoming so gay friendly as it is today.

Nonetheless, I cannot deny that Lucas has been an outspoken ally of Israel (not for the usual reasons) and when we heard that he was doing a documentary on gays in Israel, most of us were fairly sure that this was being done to help him advertise the three porn films he had made there. We were wrong or so we think. (I am still not ready to concede that point). Instead what we see is a look at one of the most beautiful countries in the world as one of the most gay-friendly (now but it was not always that way). Israel has embraced her gay citizens and same-sex weddings are legal as is support of children and gays serve openly in the Israel Defense Forces (as did I). What is missing here is how it was before the milk and honey of today and what of those men and women who went to jail for what was considered abominable sexuality just a few years ago. I saw no mention of the struggles it took to bring the country to where it is today. I also know that not a single one of the founders of the gay movement in Israel was contacted about his film.

Israel is one of the most diverse countries in the world with a totally diverse population. This is because every Jew has a right to live and become a citizen there. In the United States and the rest of the world, however, Israel is seen as a war torn country and people really do not know much about the country. It is a country that is liberal in her views especially the way she treats her gay residents today but it was not always like that. It took many years to make it so. I moved there when the country was still in her mid-teens and at time when there were no gay rights and in fact, one could go to jail if found in one of the many parks cruising for sex. There were no gay bars or places where gays could meet aside from the parks but that has all changed now and because a small group fought hard for the country to change its laws. Today gay life is integrated into Israeli society.

Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, repealed prohibitions against sodomy in 1988, fifteen years before the American Supreme Court did the same. Discrimination against gays in employment has been prohibited nationwide since 1992. Gay Israelis can adopt their partners’ children, which is still illegal in many states and today gay people may sponsor their partners for immigration, which is not yet legal in America. Gays have always been allowed to serve in Israel’s military and all of the rights that go along with being married are also granted to LGBT couples. Gay marriage is not legal in the sense that it is in some of American states but that is because the religious minority is very powerful. However, “common law” marriage is recognized for same-sex couples and they gain many financial and legal rights that we do not yet possess in America. However, gay marriages that were performed outside of the country are recognized officially. The highest number of children with gay parents is found in Israel.

Israel, by and large, accepts transgender people and one of the most famous celebrities is Dana International, a trans woman who won the Eurovision song contest in 1998, a contest that is held annually among members of the European Broadcasting Union.

Today, gay nightlife in Israel rivals club scenes in other major cities but here it is basically in Tel Aviv where there are clubs, bars, discos, gay beaches and a huge Gay Pride parade. Perhaps what helped Israel become so gay friendly is that when gay rights were up for discussion in the government, a country-wide stance was taken unlike in America where individual states have the rights to dictate these. What is truly amazing is that in terms of gay rights, the country acted quickly. What “Undressing Israel” shows us is that Israel is a progressive and accepting country and she is an inspiration to other countries that are dealing with the issues of gay rights. Here we see Israel as an example of liberalism and modernity in an area of the world where many countries are not.

The film includes interviews with Knesset member “Nitzan Horowitz; a young Arab-Israeli journalist; a trainer who served in the IDF; and a pair of dads raising their children”. However, do not let the title or the name Michael Lucas fool you, everyone keeps their clothes on. It is nice to see a film, a documentary, about Israel that does not talk about the Israel/Palestine conflict but instead concentrates on the social issues of the country. We see gay life and politics as we have never seen before.

I am quite sure that those who accuse Israel of “pinkwashing” will take the film to task. “Pinkwashing” is one of the causes of professor Sarah Schulman who feels that Israel uses its treatment of gay people as a way to hide its “oppression of Palestinians”. It has been by and large discredited because it is not true and was built on false ideas. There are always people that need a cause to keep their names in the news and in this case, the concept fell flat during a conference in New York last year and we have not heard of it since and Schulman has yet to find a new cause. When I reviewed Schulman’s book “Israel/Palestine and the Queer International”, she claimed that I did not really review it but used my review as a way to debase her claims. However, there was no need to debase any claim because the book was based on a false premise. It is so important to understand here that the rights that Israel gives to the LGBT population are the result of hard work, work that took close to twenty years. Gay rights did not just happen, they were fought for. I look at the guys who were active in the fight and I am so very proud of how far the country has come.

Because throughout history, Jews have been the target of persecution, when the gay community of Israel did not share equal rights with others, many felt that the time had come to change things. Discrimination against those with a different sexual orientation is inhuman and Israel now understands that in a democracy, everyone must be treated with respect. While I disagree with much that Lucas has said about Israel in other areas, I must concede that this is a beautiful film and that Yariv Mozer has done a wonderful job of directing. My only problem here is that much of the history of Israel’s gay movement is absent and I would love to see a movie about the brave men and women who took the country to task and changed it so that so many can live there and enjoy life like everyone else. The film gets a big 4½ “Magen Davids” from me.