September 23, 2019

To be young, Palestinian and gay in Israel

The issue of gay rights has become front and center in Israeli politics. The country’s Supreme Court will consider legalizing same-sex marriage in the wake of a petition filed earlier this month by an LGBTQ rights group, despite the fact that marriage in Israel is regulated by the rabbinical courts and that Jewish law forbids homosexuality. On the same day, a Charedi Orthodox leader called the murder of a young couple by Palestinians a punishment from heaven for the gay pride parade in Jerusalem.

Tel Aviv has become a destination for gay travelers from around the world, but its LGBT-friendly reputation has been tested by recent violent attacks against gays and lesbians. For a small community of gay Palestinians living in Tel Aviv, that sense of danger feels especially acute.

The new documentary “Oriented,” which screens at the Arab Film Festival in Los Angeles on Nov. 14, tells the story of three gay Palestinian-Israeli friends as they navigate the personal and political fault lines of daily life in a conflict zone. First-time British filmmaker Jake Witzenfeld follows the men over 15 months — through the conflict in Gaza in 2014 — as they date, go to nightclubs, make dinner together, visit the villages where they grew up and seek normality while struggling to define themselves against a backdrop of violence.

Khader Abu-Seif, 25, is from Jaffa and came out to his parents when he was 15. He writes an online column on gay Arab life and is considered a leader in the gay community. His long-term Armenian-Jewish boyfriend, David, jokingly accuses Abu-Seif of using his minority status to get out of doing the dishes. 

Naeem Jiryes is 24 and describes himself as “Palestinian, atheist, vegetarian, feminist.” He grew up in Kafr Yasif, a village in northern Israel, and moved to Tel Aviv to study nursing. But his family doesn’t know that he’s gay and they pressure him to return to the village. Jiryes insists that he is happy and free in liberal Tel Aviv but feels suffocated in conservative Kafr Yasif. 

“If he’s 100 percent happy there, why can’t he be 90 percent happy here?” his father asks. Jiryes’ sister responds: “Why can’t you sacrifice that 10 percent so that he can be happy?”

Fadi Daeem, 26, is the most politically outspoken of the trio. Originally from I’billin, another Arab town in northern Israel, he reflects the complexity of being a gay Palestinian living outside the West Bank and Gaza Strip. 

“I have an Israeli passport but I don’t define myself as Israeli. I would like to define myself as a Palestinian, but I don’t think I have the right. I don’t physically feel the occupation, because I don’t live in Ramallah or Gaza,” Daeem says in the film.

Witzenfeld discovered the three young men in January 2013 after seeing a music video they made in tribute to the song “La Mouch” by Yasmine Hamdan, a Lebanese singer. The video features an Arab woman smoking a cigarette behind her black veil and men wearing dresses — a visual interpretation of their agony of staying hidden because of negative public opinion.

“Growing up in a British, Jewish, traditional world and then challenging that, and studying Middle Eastern studies at university and being surrounded by narratives about the Israeli-Palestine conflict, I’d never come across something as live as this, that spoke of Palestine through the lens of LGBTI [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex],” Witzenfeld said in a phone interview. “These three guys share a very strong and unique friendship because of the identity conflicts they all share.”

As Witzenfeld sees it, the subjects of his film live with at least four major conflicts every day. There’s the issue of LGBT equality in Israel; the issue of being an Arab in a Jewish state (Arabs make up about 20 percent of Israel’s population); “white Palestinian guilt” from sitting in the comfort of Tel Aviv while a war is happening; and the problem of not fitting into the international narrative of what it means to be Palestinian. 

Abu-Seif recounts the time a BBC journalist called him for his story as a suffering gay Palestinian. When Abu-Seif interjected, explaining that his parents love and accept him, Abu-Seif recalls the journalist saying, “Oh. Perhaps you can find us another Palestinian who did suffer?”

There’s also the challenge of not feeling completely accepted by Tel Aviv’s gay community. In one scene, Daeem agonizes over his crush on Benyamin, a Jew who had served in the Israeli army. 

“I”m falling for a Zionist,” he tells a friend. “I’m in love with the enemy.” She replies, “Fadi, life is not just an ideology.” At the end of the film, Daeem falls for another Israeli man, Nadav. The two currently live together.

Near the end of the film, Abu-Seif and David spend a month vacationing in Berlin to escape the pressure of feeling out of place in their home countries. They have since broken up, though the two have maintained their friendship and have moved to Jaffa, the mixed Arab-Jewish city that borders Tel Aviv.

“I still have hope to change my reality and my community,” Abu-Seif said in a phone interview. “It’s not about changing the Jewish community or the Israeli community. It’s about educating Palestinians about sexuality.”

In today’s climate of fear and hostility, Abu-Seif said Israel has become an even more uncomfortable place to live. When he recently ordered a pizza for delivery, the person who answered the phone told him they don’t deliver to Jaffa, because it’s dangerous.

“And I went crazy, of course, and said, ‘What do you mean? If you don’t want to do delivery, don’t do delivery all over the country, because right now, all over the country it’s dangerous,’ ” he said. “I’m not afraid, because I got used to it.”

The young men in “Oriented” have to live with the uncertainty of the future in a place that doesn’t accept them. There are no easy solutions offered, only the necessity of continuing to demand their rights and make their presence known.

“My grandmother still has the key to her house. To an extent, I envy her because she lived in the Palestine of the past. She knows what she longs for, she knows what she wants, unlike myself. I don’t know,” Daeem says in the film. “If there will ever be a Palestinian state, or a state for everyone, I don’t know if I feel like I’ll belong.”

For information about the screening of “Oriented”