Can a rave change the world? A new book tells the story of Queerhana – Tel Aviv’s radical queer party movement that stormed the beginning of the 21st century, held controversial, politically charged events, and created temporary autonomous zones for its creators and participants.
It’s hard to imagine life before Facebook and Youtube, but those of us who grew up in Israel in the 70s, 80s and 90s were used to being part of an unofficial cargo cult. As a child, my only connection to global alternative music was what was played on the radio (usually on Galatz, the military radio station) or on the one clip show on TV. As a teenager, I remember going to see every foreign band that came to play in Tel Aviv, even if I’d never heard of it before. When cable TV arrived in Israel in the 90s, I became obsessed with MTV shows like 120 minutes and MTV Dance and started to get a feel for global subcultures. But being in Israel meant being drip fed through a filter; experiencing the world by proxy through the media and second-hand accounts by those lucky enough to discover underground culture while on trips abroad. Trends took time to reach Israel. We used to joke that the 60s only got to Israel in the 70s, the 70s in the 80s and so on.
Perhaps this is why Tel Aviv’s radical free party movement only came about in 2001, a full decade after the UK’s notorious “second summer of love”. Or maybe it was more to do with the age and circumstances of the people involved, who’d had time to come of age, leave and then return to Israel with knowledge they’d gained abroad. Either way, a movement was born, in spite of the hostile environment that surrounded it on all sides.
A movement is born
In 2001, a group of local queer activists / party people were directly inspired by the time some of them had spent abroad, as well as darker events going on in Israel at the time. Having experienced the rebirth of punk as the Reclaim the Streets and free party movement in the UK and elsewhere, they organised a free party and took over Allenby Street in Tel Aviv, creating the city’s first Temporary Autonomous Zone – a beach party in the middle of the street. This was the birth of the city’s Queerhana movement, a political party outfit involving electronic music, live music, performance art, visual art and direct action. The spaces they created were unique in Israel. Those were events that brought together people normally kept apart by seemingly opposed identities – straights and gays, gay men and gay women, Jews and Palestinians, Citizens and foreign workers. That in itself was a radical concept in Tel Aviv at the time. In many ways, it still is.
Within the confines of the increasingly socially acceptable, pinkwashed Israeli LGBT movement, this gender-fluid, openly sexual, unusually dressed and radically left-wing anarchist group stuck out like the gigantic pink dildo they’d wheel out at anti-occupation demos to symbolise the warmongering “national erection”.
There is never a good time to be truly radical in Israel, but those were the days of the second Intifada and the second Lebanon war – politically charged times that were particularly intolerant of any dissent from the norm, political or otherwise. Violent clashes with the police, clashes with angry locals and general intolerance threatened the group from the outside, while internal struggles tore at it from within. Each party was a challenge and therefore a victory when it happened, always against all odds.
Queerhana – then and now
It’s now 16 years after the movement began, and the fact that the Queerhana book has been published not in Tel Aviv but in Berlin is in itself telling. Although it never officially ceased to exist, Queerhana was certainly more active during the 00s. Then things slowly fizzled out, with members regrouping occasionally to create one-off events. Now, it seems, these events are to happen away from where the whole thing started.
Queerhana – Utopia now! is composed of photos, artwork and personal essays by original members of the group and is part of a German-funded project that also includes an exhibition at Berlin’s NGBK gallery (running till July 2nd), a documentary (screening on June 28), and a series of talks and events. Would a project like this ever be funded in today’s Israel? Not likely. In fact, some sentiments expressed by members of Queerhana are deemed so controversial in Israel and Germany’s current political climate, that several members have chosen to hide behind fake identities.
The original instigators of Queerhana are now in their 30s and 40s – older, battle-worn and less naive than they were in 2001. While some have remained and are active in Tel Aviv, many have left the city. Life and love have taken some of them to other parts of Israel, and others have left the country and are not planning to return. Many original members now live in Berlin, which they see as more welcoming of their way of life. In many ways, their attempt at a revolution seems to have failed.
The revolution begins at home
Although the movement failed to end the occupation, put a stop to capitalism and turn Israel into a queer utopia (but you have to try, right?), the seeds had been planted. Tel Aviv still offers a few safe, open spaces and the occasional temporary autonomous zone. Some of these are directly inspired by the Queerhana spirit or are organised by people who attended the original events or were part of the initial crew. But there is another aspect to the Queerhana experience. For many participants, the events put on by the group offered the first opportunity for them to simply be themselves without being judged.
The motto of the group, printed on a banner hung over the DJ booth, loosely translates into “Accept and you shall be accepted”. This often radical concept of being allowed to be who you really are was (and is) revolutionary in itself in Tel Aviv, Israel and the world in general. it’s as radical as inviting Palestinians, refugees and foreign workers to party with “white” Ashkenazi middle class Jews, Mizrahi Jews and visiting foreigners.
Many of the participants of both the Queerhana events and those that followed on from them experienced an internal revolution. One that allowed them to embrace their true identities and make appropriate life choices. Sometimes these choices have meant moving away from the place they’ve called home, to a place where each individual can continue his or her personal growth instead of experiencing life as a constant struggle.
For many of those involved, simply knowing that another life is possible was the first step towards self-acceptance and healing. It was their window unto hope. While nowhere as big or as spectacular as a full-on, world-changing love revolution, this is perhaps a more realistic one considering the climate Queerhana operated in. For people who embody the saying “the personal is political”, whose mere existence is considered dissent, the open, safe spaces created by this radical movement were the revolution. More importantly, they offered a chance to be truly free, if only for a short while.
A moment of beauty
This beautifully presented book offers unique insights into the Israeli scene – a mixture of hope, nostalgia, sobering disillusionment and fleeting moments of beauty set against a harsh background of war, occupation and hate. Those involved or interested in global queer and underground culture may be inspired to witness the way ideas spread and evolve across borders and how a spark lit in one place can continue its life elsewhere, being simultaneously both the same and different, both global and local. For anyone living or visiting Tel Aviv, Queerhana, Utopia Now! offers a valuable context for understanding the city’s current zeitgeist and underground scene.
Queerhana, Utopia Now! is currently available to purchase as a limited edition book via the NGBK’s website. The related exhibition finishes on July 2nd. The Queerhana documentary will be screened on June 28th and there are talks on the 29th. More information can be found here.