TRAVEL THURSDAY: An American Bear In Israel. Are Tel Aviv & Jerusalem Safe For LGBT American Travelers?
When I was planning my trip to go to Tel Aviv Pride, my family did not have mixed feelings about my possible journey . . . they were all against it. I only heard three phrases from all of them. “Why are you going there?”, “It’s not safe.”, and “I don’t think you should go.” Parents, siblings, cousins, other relatives … none of them had anything positive to say about my upcoming trip to Israel. I listened to them, didn’t argue, and told them I was going. “But I was going to the Dead Sea and Jerusalem, too” statement meant nothing to them.
Things happened, the trip was cancelled, and my relatives were all very happy. “Oh good,” my mother exclaimed. But then, a month later, the trip was back on, mom was upset, and I had to rearrange all my vacation time to make this happen. I wasn’t going to lose out on what would be a trip to remember forever.
As the departure date came closer and closer, mom kept asking if I was seriously going. She cares, but I also believe she has the same mentality about Israel that many Americans may still have. I say still because it’s an imagery that is about 20 to 25 years old. It’s a bad visual of Israel, a nation with checkpoints every 3 miles, tourists and citizens needing to have their passports ready to be examined all the time, guns and violence on every street corner, a run-down, third world country surrounded by barbed wire and enemies, with buildings falling apart, and poverty more prevalent than ours.
Getting on the plane from Fort Lauderdale to New York, I started to wonder what I would find over there. I knew the American 1990’s mentality was not true, but what would I find. And how would I manage as a gay man over forty and a forty-inch waist. Of course, I was going during gay pride and there are all type of men that like all type of men at pride events. I wasn’t totally worried.
The security in New York seemed simplified, stress-free, and very easy. 30 minutes before we entered Israeli air space, we all had to be seated and remained seated until we landed. A simple request, nothing major. The journey was off to a good start.
Landing at Ben Gurion Airport, of course the first guy to catch my eye was a smoking hot Israeli soldier. I wanted to throw my hands up and yell security! If there were going to be soldiers everywhere, would they all look like this? The answer is yes. they. did. Entrance into the country was nothing grand, just have your papers/passport ready and all will go smoothly.
Getting to the hotel took about 30 minutes from Ben Gurion Airport, but it allowed me and my new German friend to get to know each other, see the city, and realize that Miami traffic is still worse. There were check points, but our taxi sped right through them, as it would when we returned to the airport a week later.
The NYX Hotel would be our home for the next week. We thought it was a great location within the city since it was within walking distance of everything at any time of the day. We would stumble back from many different directions, mainly from Rothschild Street and the gay bar Shpagat. We did go in a couple of different directions looking for other local hot spots that apparently cooled off years ago. We saw some police activity late at night, like you would see in any major city, but we thought nothing more or less about it.
Throughout the week, we would see young men in their military uniforms with an AK-47 strapped across their chests walking around or riding their bicycles, coming out of their apartments. We were all jaws to the floor at first sighting of such a thing, but we were also very comfortable and wanted to see it again and again. We would see it during the entire day of the Pride Parade and welcomed it. I felt more safe walking in the Pride Parade in Tel Aviv than I have watching Pride Parades and celebrations occur in the United States.
What I did notice about Tel Aviv was that where we were, the city was going through a cleaning up. Not to say it was dirty before, but as you can see in the picture below, the building on the left is going through repair while the one in the middle has recently been fnished. Tel Aviv has the nickname of The White City since most of their buildings are painted white (heat reasons). But all across Tel Aviv buildings and roads were receiving new facades and surfaces. We love to see a city getting better and Tel Aviv does not have a long way to go to be great in all aspects.
We would soon leave the comfort of Tel Aviv and had toward the Dead Sea and eventually make it to the hotel in Jerusalem. Along the way, we saw Bedouin settlements and much larger checkpoints, walls, and more soldiers, but none of that invoked fear in any of us. As we rode through Jerusalem, our tour guide became very serious and stated, “Do not go on the other side of the wall at night. I’ve had no worry about you traveling anywhere until now, but I cannot personally vouch for your safety if you go there.” We all listened and the bus was silent. But I would expect this kind of warning about any major city. Stay on the main roads, don’t do any alleys, etc.
Quickly dropping our things in the room, we were soon out exploring the city. We stayed at the Arthur Hotel right in downtown Jerusalem. Asking the front desk for suggestions, we bounced all around downtown to places like The Gatsby, through the Yehudah Market and eventually to the one small but spirited gay bar in Jerusalem, Video Pub.
Maybe it is the arrogant American in me, but I felt safe in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. My new friends and I were out at all hours of the night and morning, exploring, looking for places to enjoy the culture and both cities did not disappoint. Keeping to normal practices like any sane person would in any large city.
And as for the gay scene. This big ol’ bear had no problem chatting people up on the gay apps and in person. Someone said that older men are a hot commodity in Israel and it was nice to see that and have some attention. My size as well was not a hindrance as it seems to be in this country often. Israeli men are very nice as I was often approached by men and they would start talking to you in Hebrew thinking we were all from Israel.
If you’re wondering about your safety in Israel, I would say yes, worry about it. Worry about it like you would traveling to any large city in the world. It is not the hostile, volatile, environment we Americans grew up learning about in the ‘90s. We need more positive coverage of this wonderful destination. I will definitely go back if the opportunity arises.
I will continue to tell of my love of Tel Aviv, the beach, the men, the food in future posts on here. This post was mainly about me, as a gay white Christian raised male feeling safe in a Middle East country. Look for future posts where I highlight more of the sites, sounds, and tastes of this great nation and vacation destination.
I'll leave you with some pics from my safe and amazing journey.