By Mitchell Crispell and Fran Cohen
Danny Savitch, Israeli gay-activist speaks at University of Michigan Hillel.
Danny Savitch, Israeli gay-activist and grass-roots organizer, recently spoke to University of Michigan students, faculty and community members about his experiences.
The event was sponsored by the American Movement for Israel, Ahava (the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender organization of University of Michigan Hillel), the LGBT Commission of the Michigan Student Assembly, and the Spectrum Center.
In his lecture entitled "Gay in the Holy Land," Savitch described Jerusalem as a "gay desert" until 1997, when he helped set up a hotline to assess the needs of Jerusalem's gay population. The hotline was extremely successful, receiving calls from people asking "Where can I meet gay people?" "What is safe sex?" and "What are my legal rights?"
He soon realized that the hotline couldn't handle the number of calls it was receiving, and opened the Jerusalem Open House (JOH) with 10 other gay men. The JOH began as a small community center situated in a Jerusalem pedestrian mall, a location that was chosen to make the statement "we are not hiding."
The JOH had two main objectives: to be a safe space for Jerusalem's gay population (in-reach), and outreach to the community in Jerusalem. It is now one of the largest LGBT organizations in the Middle East. In-reach efforts included setting up social and support groups, while outreach focused on setting up a speakers bureau to talk with schools, physicians, and others about being gay in Jerusalem.
Signs promote the event on the University of Michigan campus.
In 2002, the JOH was looking to do something more substantial, and after complications with the Jerusalem municipality denying funding and support, went to the Supreme Court, where permission was granted to the JOH to have the march and receive funding from the municipality. Fighting in court rooms was nothing new for Savitch, who had practiced corporate law for 15 years. However, Savitch commented that when he went to the Supreme Court this time, he wasn’t fighting for a client; he was fighting for himself.
In its first two years, the pride march “went okay,” Savitch said. There were protestors and verbal violence, but the JOH still felt it was achieving the goals of in-reach and outreach. However, in 2005, a stabbing occurred at the march. Savitch wondered what he had done wrong, when all he wanted was a safe space for LGBT people and to be a part of Jerusalem. Then he had a realization: gay people have always been “stabbed,” have always not been accepted. “Eventually we are doing the right thing, but it is not very easy,” Savitch said. “We will keep marching. We are persistent about that.”
Savitch spoke about several internal conflicts the JOH has had, including the decision about whether to have the center kosher or not. Savitch remarked that it seemed like that wasn’t a “gay” issue, but it became one when the population the JOH was serving needed to come to agreement on it. In the end, the center is dairy, and so a compromise was reached. Orthodox LGBT people have found a safe space in the JOH, where they can express both of their identities in an authentic way. The center is a place where LGBT Israelis and Palestinians can come together and gain insight into the others’ lives and situations. Savitch remarked about one experience where a Palestinian man was helping an Israeli man who had never used the Internet before to figure out what he was doing. This kind of interaction, he said, is hard to find in Jerusalem, and he views it as positive.
A lawyer by profession, Savitch volunteered as the legal adviser to the JOH for many years and has successfully argued before the Israeli Supreme Court on issues such as pride events and obtaining equal funding. He has participated in various Human Rights forums and campaigns, including the forum for free choice in marriage in Israel. He is also the Executive Director of Kol HaNeshama, Israel’s largest Reform Jewish synagogue, which is one of the only congregations in Israel with a visible and active LGBT presence. During Savitch’s visit, he also met with classes and other groups on campus. The visit provided an opportunity for several student groups both within Hillel and the wider University community to work together, and that collaboration made the program unique.
Mitchell Crispell is a University of Michigan Hillel student and Fran Cohen is a student representative from the LGBT commission.