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'We’re Fighting Two Fights Here': Being Gay and Palestinian in Israel

Khader Abu-Seif, subject of "Oriented," a new documentary about gay Palestinians in Tel Aviv, does not need a Jewish savior.
All photos courtesy of "Oriented."

Shortly after his return from New York, I sat down with Khader Abu-Seif at his office in Tel Aviv. Khader had been attending screenings of and doing promotion for Oriented, a new documentary about the lives of gay Palestinians in Tel Aviv. The film, directed by Jake Witzenfeld, follows the lives of Khader and his friends and highlights a rarely seen side of Tel Aviv.

In Israel, identity politics play a large role in public discourse, but issues of intersectionality go largely unaddressed. And while Tel Aviv's status as a gay hotspot is world news, gay Palestinians rarely—if ever—benefit from this visibility.


Being the subject of Oriented is just one part of how Khader promotes visibility and understanding for LGBT Palestinians. He is a writer, he throws house music parties; his friends know him as a man about town. We spoke about his new film, his party lines for gay Palestinians, and what makes him feel at home when he's in New York.

*Broadly: Can you tell me about the movie and how it came about?*
Khader Abu-Seif: Almost three years ago I met the director, Jake. He's British and he had this idea of filming me with my boyfriend, who's my ex-boyfriend now, and making a movie of our life together. Because I define myself as a Palestinian, he was interested in the idea of an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian who are together. I told him it's a nice idea but I've seen this a lot of times and I'm not interested. But I'll get on board if you do a film about me and my friends and our complex from living inside this country as Palestinians and as gays. We're fighting two fights here. On one side, we're fighting our fight in front of our communities, in front of Palestinians, to show that we're gay and we're allowed to be gay and to change the perception of what a gay Palestinian is and what a Palestinian is inside this country. The second fight is for your national identity.

This fight is tougher. You say you're a Palestinian, because of your roots, because your grandparents were born in a place called Palestine. When you see Jewish people who come from Iraq or Iran or other "enemy countries" and they define themselves saying "I'm an Iraqi Jew," and no one will say "How dare you, it's an enemy country." But when you define yourself as a Palestinian, its provocative. "How dare you? How do you not thank us?" But why should I say thank you to anybody? I was born in this country. This doesn't mean that I'm part of this country's nationality. That doesn't mean that I can't change the rules and fight for my rights as a citizen. That doesn't mean that at the checkpoint and at the airport I should suffer more just because you're scared.


Why should I say I'm Israeli when I'm not treated as an Israeli? I'm not intimidated by Israelis saying they're Israelis, but they're so intimidated by me saying I'm Palestinian. The reaction is almost always, "You want to throw us into the sea? You want to kill us?" No! This is the other face of Palestinians that you don't see and I'm here to show it to you. That doesn't mean I want to throw your silly ass into the ocean. It's just me wanting to be who I am. It doesn't concern you. Shut up.

So you wouldn't say you're an "Arab Israeli" or a "Palestinian Israeli?"
No way. I've never felt Israeli. This country never gave me the privilege of feeling Israeli. So why should I say that I'm Israeli?

Do you think there's a possibility of an Israeli identity that's not an exclusively Jewish identity?
There are Arabs living inside this country who call themselves Israeli. There's not so many but they're there. It's their decision. If they live in this self-hatred, if they allow someone else to treat them in this shitty way and still say that they're Israeli, good for them. Bravo. But I cannot say that. I cannot feel it. But there are some people who do this and it's fine. I'm not angry with them and I don't think that they're crazy. But I do think that they have a real problem because this country will always look at them as Arabs and will never look at them as Israeli.

I speak Hebrew fluently, maybe better than Arabic. But the minute the checkpoint guard or the police officers see my passport, it doesn't matter.


There are many Arabs, as well as African refugees and non-Jewish migrants speaking fluent Hebrew here. Do you think this non-Jewish Hebrew culture helps to make Israeli identity feel less exclusively Jewish?
No… You have to understand the strategic way this country is working. For that to happen it would have to be a country for all and not a country for the Jews. The minute you add "for the Jews" into it you make it exclusive. Say this was a country "for Islamic people" and you expected everyone who is not Muslim to feel equal. It's not going to happen.

I speak Hebrew fluently, maybe better than Arabic. But the minute the checkpoint guard or the police officers see my passport, it doesn't matter. I would guess that for Africans and Filipinos it's not about the language. It's the way that we look, the place that we come from, how we talk.

You mentioned that you were not interested in doing a film about your relationship. You've called this a "90s idea." I think I know what you mean but for Americans not familiar with 90s Israeli cinema, can you explain?
In the 90s there was this crazy cinema scene in Israel with a lot of movies about gay relationships with Jews and Arabs, Palestinian and Israeli. There was "The Bubble" and some others. And in these movies the Jewish Israeli is always the savior of the Palestinian.

There's something about this idea that is really old and not significant in my eyes. If we want to show something we should show a community growing up and not the Jewish savior again. [My ex] David is so powerful and I love him but I didn't want to concentrate on the relationship between an Israeli and Palestinian because we're past that. We've seen that concept and this would have just been the gay documentary version.


David and I were in a great place and I didn't have the urge or need to show it to the whole world. I didn't want to say, "Oh, look at us! Our people are killing each other and we are living together in peace and love." I wanted to show the struggle of three friends, each one in a different point in his life.

Americans in the States are familiar with the idea of the gay Israeli. They don't need David to show that to them. But for them the idea of the gay Palestinian is new. If they think of gay Palestinians they will always think he is a victim. We wanted to show that Israel and the Western Media don't have a monopoly on liberalism.

To me it was more important to show my people that a gay Palestinian can speak. A lot of people say, "You're privileged. Not every gay Palestinian lives like you." Of course I am. Of course not every gay Palestinian lives like me. But this is how I can talk about it, to say that we are here and we exist, to be a model for other gays and to try and change our reality. This is the first step.

So the movies show this idea of the Jewish savior. How do these relationships between Jews and Arabs play out in real life?
Most of the time it's the exact opposite. When an Israeli meets a gay Palestinian here he will have so many stigmas and wrong ideas about where he comes from and what his family is like. This meeting can change an Israeli's perception about Palestinian society, not the other way around. Because we know what's happening in Tel Aviv, but they don't know what's happening in our communities. A lot of gay guys and Israelis think that they come from a point that's more open. They think that all Arab communities are like Hasidic Jewish communities. How can you say that? Why do you think all Arabs are religious, or even Muslim?


It's a fair game, though. It's not about who is the savior and who isn't. But the media will always put the Jewish guy as the savior. I don't want to focus on that. I'm powerful enough.

Where did you grow up?
In Yafo.

I want to hear about your relationship with Tel Aviv, because Tel Aviv is probably the most liberal city in Israel—
You said it, not me.

Let me rephrase it. Tel Aviv is generally considered the most liberal city in Israel—
Again, you said it. Not me.

I said it. Feel free to contradict me.
I think that Tel Aviv is considered this way because we really want to believe that it's true. And of course Tel Aviv is considered open minded and considered the best place to be gay in Israel but actually you have to be a certain kind of gay person to receive this tolerance and acceptance. Or you need to fight really hard to make a place for yourself in this city and I say that as someone who did it.

I fight for my place here. It's not something that just happened. My relationship with this city is complicated. I moved here from Yafo. I didn't leave Yafo because they hated me. I felt I didn't belong to Yafo. And I had this perception of Tel Aviv, thinking the same as what you just said. But then I arrived and with time I understand how I'm different from the people in Tel Aviv.

I love this city. Yafo and Tel Aviv are really the two cities I can live in right now in this country. I went back to Yafo because I missed it, and I wanted to change my society and my neighbors. I didn't want to change Tel Aviv because Tel Aviv doesn't need my change. And Yafo has changed a lot. Today it's more plural and there are a lot of young people moving there. It's not Tel Aviv but it's so close. It's calmer and quieter. Even the time is different than the time in Tel Aviv.


But I know what you meant about Tel Aviv being liberal. I get it. Five minutes from here there are towns where we would get our asses kicked for being gay. But most of the elite figures in Tel Aviv, the gay ones, are white and Ashkenazi and boring.

Sure. As much as Tel Aviv is liberal, it's also the least diverse of the big cities in Israel. It's not a mixed city in the way that Haifa and Jerusalem are mixed cities. Part of the reason why there are so many gay, Jewish Israelis here is that—
People move here from all over the country. That's not a mystery.

Sure. It's not something in the water. Gay people move here. What I wanted to ask is if that same movement to Tel Aviv happens with gay Palestinian youth as well.
It's more common in Haifa. The gay Palestinian community in Haifa is different. They have a lot of critiques about how we handle ourselves here. We're dating a lot of Jews. And they don't get it.

For Palestinians, these are the biggest cities we have that are metropolitan. If you're from the center of Israel, like Lod and Ramle and Taibeh, you will move to Tel Aviv. If you're from the villages in the north you will move to Haifa. They're village boys and we're city boys.

I hoped to come back to my country and feel at home without us killing each other.

How does that difference manifest itself?
They are way more political than us. They will only speak in Arabic or in English, never in Hebrew. For us in Tel Aviv, we fool around with other cultures. But they only like dating each other. The bigger picture is that we're all one community. But there are differences.


Can you tell me about the parties you plan?
I have two party lines right now. First it was just one, called FAHEL, which is electro-house music. And now I'm doing another called Lila at the Shpagat bar which is a mix of Yemeni and Palestinian music. I started the party because I wanted a place that's for me and my friends but which isn't just Arabic music. There are a lot of Arab people coming from all over the country and that's a good thing.

Do Jewish Israelis come as well?
Yes. The Jews that come—I won't shoot myself in the foot here—they are nice, left wing, party people.

I don't want you to shoot yourself in the foot. I think a lot of gay, Jewish Israelis want to be allies to the Arab community. Also, they probably just enjoy the parties. But is the presence welcome?
A lot of times the amount of Jews is more than the Arabs and that's not exactly our purpose. But it's a trendy thing now. A lot of people here really like Middle Eastern music and Arabic music. It's happening right now. A lot of Ashkenazi Jews want to be part of this cool thing. I don't feel like they're intruding but sometimes it's a bit sad that there are more Jews at the parties than Arabs.

I mean, we're not boycotting Jews. We promote on Facebook. It's public. We don't try to hide it. Everyone is invited. It's complicated but that's our lives here. I will never go to a party and think, "there's too many Jews, bye!"

I was in New York recently, and there were two times that I felt at home. The first was when I met a Palestinian crowd after a screening of the movie. They came to say hi and say that they liked the movie and that they're proud of us. The second time was when I met an Israeli gay couple and they invited me to dinner. I went to eat with them and we had the most amazing conversation about the politics and the place. They haven't lived in Israel for ten years now.

I got so excited after this conversation. (Partly because they're such a cute couple and gave me hope for my next relationship.) But these were the two times I felt at home: when I was speaking Hebrew with Jews and Arabic with Palestinians. This is what I expect my home to look like. And I hoped to come back to my country and feel at home without us killing each other. We, Israelis and Arabs, behave like idiots. It's so ridiculous. I'm so sad that this happens because of religion. It's so upsetting. We don't need to fight.

I don't want to accept it as my reality. I just want it to stop, this whole war. Sometimes I feel that the whole purpose of this war is not security. That's not the reality. The real purpose is to not make relationships. The wall is like a condom to prevent Israelis and Palestinians from mixing, getting closer.

It seems like when it comes to the left in Israel, there is an attitude of cynicism more than an attitude of activism. There's not so much faith in the capacity of this country to change.
I don't know anybody who believes in the capacity of this country to change. But I don't rely on this country. I rely on myself. That's a huge difference. I want to change my reality in this country. What the next generation will do is up to them.