“Tel Aviv Pride is the biggest pride parade in Asia,” boomed Olof Lavesson, a member of Swedish parliament, in a keynote address at the 40 Years of Pride global conference in Tel Aviv last Thursday. The audience laughed.

With somewhere around 180,000 revelers, the Tel Aviv gay pride parade on June 12 was—on paper, at least—nothing compared to, say, its New York City equivalent, which saw over a million attendees last year. But, as I was standing in the middle of it all, the event seemed much grander than its numbers.

I’m in Israel on a week-long Writers and Bloggers Delegation sponsored by the America-Israel Friendship League, which, as the name would suggest, seeks to foster American support for Israeli policy. We’ve been brought here to see the best that Israel has to offer and obscure the worst—the Israel splashed across the New York Times last summer, the Israel that is incarcerating African immigrants in ethnic prisons, the Israel that is the subject of an international boycott. And in timing the trip to the 17th annual Tel Aviv Pride parade, AIFL really hit a home run.

The theme of this year’s parade was Tel Aviv Loves All Genders, focusing on transgender rights. The day before Pride, my delegation met with Rachel Tevet-Wiesel, a brigadier general with the Israel Defense Forces, who emphasized, in a somewhat clueless choice of words, that they “really don’t care” about the sexual orientations of IDF soldiers. For transgender soldiers, the situation is necessarily different, she explained—a few years ago, during recruitment (army service is mandatory in Israel), the army wouldn’t expect transgender teenagers to join the army if they didn’t want to. But, because being in the IDF is such a huge part of Israeli culture, “there are more and more young people who say, ‘We are transgender, and we want to come to the army.’”

She then introduced Lieutenant Shachar (a pseudonym), the first openly transgender officer in the Israeli Defense Forces. “When I told my commanders, their first question was ‘Okay, how can we help?’” he said. He began officer training as a woman and graduated as a man; the Israeli government funded his transition. “I am surprised each and every time to discover how much the army accepts you. I think there is a culture where even if someone had a problem with LGBT people, they wouldn’t say it because they know it’s not okay.”

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At 10 am the next day, the parade kicked off in Meir Park with drag performances, including a terrible but enthusiastically received Gloria Estefan lip sync. By noon, it was completely packed.

The crowd was noticeably diverse, with straight people seeming to outnumber the LGBT community being celebrated. “The pride parade has changed so much, even just in the past five years,” a local attendee told me. “It’s not just for the gays anymore; it’s become a holiday for liberalism.”

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Declared the “best gay travel destination” in 2011 by GayCities.com and American Airlines, Tel Aviv is a haven of open-mindedness in an increasingly conservative country. The pride parade, which began as more politically radical event in 1998, has fully entered the mainstream. Teenage girls bombarded the drag queens scattered throughout the crowd, asking breathlessly for pictures. Shirts came off, alcohol flowed, couples kissed; already, before the march even began, there was a strain of urgent joyfulness in this crowd that was foreign to me, and so exciting.

As we began to walk under the hot sun, a big difference between this parade and the ones I’d attended in New York became increasingly obvious. Here, the meaning of participation shifted—we weren’t bystanders, we were marching, too. Drunken groups sprayed water on the marchers from rooftops as we descended onto Herbert Samuel Blvd., spilling out onto the beach. A giant white surveillance balloon loomed quietly overhead, unmoving and largely unnoticed. Drag performers and gleaming, shirtless men danced tirelessly on floats sponsored by the city’s top gay clubs as we were swept by the crowd to our final destination, a gigantic party at Charles Clore Park headlined by Austrian Eurovision winner Conchita Wurst.

“I’ve been to so many Prides, and this is just incredible,” Wurst told a local interviewer.

It was. But while Israel is relatively supportive of its gay community—Prime Minister Netanayhu published a supportive message on Facebook (although he did not attend), writing “I am proud that Israel is among the world’s most open countries”; additionally, several cabinet ministers from Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party did attend the parade, receiving virulent online criticism—gay marriage is still not legal in Israel, and LGBT Palestinians face harsh persecution. Palestinian human rights lawyer Fady Khoury wrote that she’d be boycotting the event altogether, explaining: “While LGBT Jewish-Israelis take to the streets, either to celebrate or as an expression of political protest, the same state that is sponsoring their celebrations within the Green Line is also exploiting sexual orientation to blackmail gay Palestinians.”

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The day before, in a second keynote address at the 40 Years of Pride conference, Seattle mayor Ed Murray also referenced the occupation. First drawing a rhetorical line between the State of Israel and the international gay community—”We have to be our own advocates, we can’t rely on anyone else”—he ended his speech by gently imploring the audience to turn their attention to the plight of young Palestinians.

“The students I met on the West Bank were truly some of the most amazing young people I’ve ever met. They were educated, they were hopeful, they believe that there is a solution that they can live within the state of Israel, but they are absolutely frustrated because despite their education, they have no job opportunities. If there’s one thing I would suggest, it is maybe focusing on those young people.”

At the parade, however, Tel Aviv was distracted by issues closer to home. Namely, getting a selfie with a drag queen.


Contact the author at ellie@jezebel.com.

Images via Ellie Shechet