“During the War I Realized… I Must Come Out”

Avi Buskila stepped into the office of the CEO of left-wing movement Shalom Achshav (‘Peace Now’) in April. This weekend, he gave his first big interview to the Israeli media, which described him as ‘the man who’s the opposite of the stereotypical leftist leader.’Avi Buskila is outspoken, Mizrachi, war-hero ex-army sergeant, and gay.

Buskila, 41, Salt of the Earth, enlisted the army in 1994 and served in the Nachal Brigade, Battalion 50. “I felt comfortable there, I believed I was changing the world,” he tells Yedioth Achronot in the new interview.

In 1997 he became famous and appeared in every media outlet in Israel after stopping a Jewish shooter in the middle of Hevron. “We stood in the square, then came a soldier in uniform, with a weapon. He was wearing a yarmulke and a sweater – and it was a hot sunny day,” Avi recalls.

“I go on the radio and said, ‘Friends, there is a soldier here that looks strange to me, keep your eyes on him.’ He doesn’t have battle gear, a long gun, which means he wasn’t a fighter. I knew most of the faces who lived there. Suddenly he stood up and opened fire into the market. He didn’t really know how to shoot, so from the recoil while firing he fell down into a sitting position.”

What were you thinking?

“One – I have to stop this as soon as possible. Two – should I shoot him and endanger everyone in the market? I said to myself, ‘No, I can neutralize him.”

And here comes an unusual factor: after high school the army offered Buskila to enlist in the army as an outstanding athlete, as he was among the best runners in Israel for his age. “My record was 100m in 12.04 seconds, so 30 m? It was nothing. I remember on that day cocking and running. He was replacing a cartridge and that was the second I got to him. I jumped on him, managed to push his weapon aside. My soldiers had meanwhile taken his gun, and he was yelling, ‘Don’t shoot me, don’t shoot me.” I grabbed him by the neck and threw him to the concrete barriers because suddenly Palestinians began to come out of the market, in a frenzy. They didn’t come for me, they came looking for him. His name was Noam Friedman, a resident of Ma’ale Adumim. After the whole event, his mother called my mother, to thank her for me saving his life. ”

After the 2nd Lebanon war (2006), Buskila asked to be released from the army. “During the war I realized a few things. When you’re sitting in the operations room and rockets land around you, you can die, some thoughts about the rest of your life come and how to live it.”

Like what?

“I realized I had to come out. I’ve always known, I just thought that I was confused and I tried to explore other options, I mean, ‘girls.’ I played with it, checked it, lied to myself a lot, I repressed it. I lived with the women, at some point I felt that I had sinned greatly to the life I really wanted to live. I delayed telling my family and it was very, very difficult. In the army it began leaking, in the army you don’t have a stage to stand on and say, ‘ladies and gentlemen.’ Today I am a reservist of the division, and everyone knows. This is out in the open. They joke, ‘Buskila may be gay but he’s still the best fighter we know.'”

In the last three years he’s been in a relationship with Shimri Segal, who is currently at school in Washington and was previously the spokesman for former MK Nitzan Horowitz and for “Free Israel.” Buskila himself made his living over the last decade mainly from working in advertising agencies – he started from a bottom-position and became a CEO of two offices, the first specializing in the gay community, the other in various sectors of Israeli society.

Buskila, was very active in the struggles on the periphery of the gay community. In 2014 he began the fight of independent reservists and led a parallel project with a friend for teenagers for a fair discourse in Israeli society. A year later he received the offer from Peace Now. “Tzeli Reshef called me and said, ‘We are looking for a CEO and a little bird tells me you might fit this job.”

“Peace Now” was established in March 1978 following the visit of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in Israel. The organization’s goal: persuasion of public opinion in Israel and Israeli governments of the need and possibility of achieving peace with the Palestinian people and the Arab states in return for a territorial compromise based on the principle of land for peace. It seems that the organization has never been farther away from his goal. “Left” has become a dirty word in Israel, and the basic idea of making peace comes across as surreal, naive, unrealistic.

Despite being a new left wing leader, Buskila is reluctant to speak at an anti-Israel leftist event in the U.S. “Everyone is entitled to do what they want to do,” he says, “but I vehemently oppose the BDS discourse. It hurts us and keeps us away from reaching any agreement. We need to talk to the world but we also need to choose the arenas we speak at very carefully. I haven’t lost hope in Israel.”