September 22, 2018

Harel Skaat gives voice to LGBT issues in Israel

I’ll never forget the look on the face of my middle-aged car service driver. I had just finished an hourlong, exceedingly pleasant conversation with Israeli pop singer Harel Skaat at a coffee shop next to his upscale apartment in north Tel Aviv a couple of years ago. When Skaat and I stood next to the car’s window and explained where I needed to go, the seemingly bored driver stared straight ahead and nodded a quick “B’seder” (OK).

Then he glanced to his left and saw who was speaking. The driver’s eyes widened, his jaw dropped, and he exclaimed slowly and loudly, “HA – REL SK-A-AT!!!!!,” and I suddenly had a much clearer understanding of just how Uber-popular this entertainer is in his home country.

Skaat has increasingly applied the power of his fame in recent years to social activism — usually on behalf of Israel’s LGBT community — after coming out as gay in 2010. Last week, he took the lead in vehemently expressing outrage over the Israeli government’s decision to keep in place regulations that make it nearly impossible for same-sex couples to adopt children.

After speaking to members of an Israeli gay youth organization, Skaat made a highly controversial recommendation that they protest by avoiding military service, saying, “As an Israeli who loves his country and is proud to be a Jew and speaks about it on every stage around the world, proudly served in the military, whose spouse is a major in the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] and who serves for nearly one month a year until today, I call upon you not to enlist in the military!” He additionally suggested that once they are employed, they refrain from paying taxes.

The singer followed that up by headlining a rally in Tel Aviv attended by a reported 10,000 demonstrators on July 20, decrying the de facto ban on adoptions by same-sex couples.

Thinking back to my interview with the soft-spoken and unfailingly polite Skaat, I realized how out of character this would have been for him just a decade ago. Born in Kfar Saba to a Yemenite-Iraqi family in 1981, he won a national children’s singing competition at the age of 6, and has been performing ever since. In 2004, he soared to prominence as a contestant on “Kochav Nolad” (A Star Is Born), Israel’s equivalent of “American Idol,” which led to a stellar recording career. For years, there was speculation about his sexual orientation, and in 2010, he appeared at a memorial marking the anniversary of a deadly attack on a Tel Aviv gay youth center.

“I felt that by standing on that stage, at that kind of event, my journey of coming out was now starting,” he told me.

Skaat was nudged along in that process by the respected Israeli film producer, TV personality and gay activist Gal Uchovsky, who publicly outed him after the memorial.

“We had a big explosion with television reports that made it look like people got me out of the closet”, Skaat said. “But it wasn’t really like that. I talked to Gal and said I’m not accusing him of anything, because it was my choice.”

When Skaat was called unpatriotic by some on the political right last week for urging young people not to enlist, it was Uchovsky who leaped to his defense, accusing the critics of twisting the singer’s words.

Skaat knows that many celebrities remain closeted for fear of their fans’ potentially negative reaction, but found that for him, “what happened was the opposite. I saw in my audiences a lot of new people. Before, they came to my concerts and liked my music, but there was a cloud above me that made it hard to understand — who are you, what are your inner feelings, what does your personal life look like.

“Once I came out,” he continued, “it was gone. They now knew who I am. The main factor in music and art is to be real, to be honest — especially in my business, because you sing your heart, your feelings, your thoughts.”