Gay Israeli Arab Youths Thrown Lifeline Through WhatsApp

No one said coming out in a largely Muslim community was easy, but the group Israel Gay Youth is striving to make it easier with the help of WhatsApp.

Leaders of the group Israel Gay Youth: Rachel Ben Zur, Ziad Abul Hawa and Ido Cohen, September 2016. Photo: Eyal Toueg

“Hi, how’s it going?” said the WhatsApp message in Arabic that arrived from an unrecognized number. Either way, it sure stoked lots of excitement at the group Israel Gay Youth in central Tel Aviv. The excitement wasn’t because of the words per se, but because someone had summoned the courage to send it.

Everyone in the room rushed to answer it. “I’m a counselor for IGY,” one of them texted back, using the group’s abbreviation, which is pronounced Iggy. “Is there something you’d like to talk about?”

The seconds turned into minutes, and pretty quickly we realized the conversation was over. The excitement in the room vanished as if it had never happened.

Israel Gay Youth launched its WhatsApp hotline last month – it lets Arab young people, whether LGBT or still uncertain, approach the organization anonymously. It has only received a handful of messages, and the senders wrap the conversations up quickly.

“It is not an issue that’s talked about by us at all; it’s taboo,” says 28-year-old Ziad Abul Hawa, who also goes by the name Zizo. He’s not at all surprised by the meager response. “People try to keep away from it as much as possible,” he says.

Originally from East Jerusalem, Abul Hawa lives in Tel Aviv today. He’s a staff member for Alwaan (Colors), which was started two years ago especially for Arab Israelis.

Rachel Ben Zur, 31, is the coordinator of the project. “In Israeli society there’s a wide range of identities that are erased and not expressed, and at IGY we have to give them room and expression. As a Mizrahi-lesbian woman, it’s an important principle that I follow,” she says, referring to Jews with roots in the Middle East and North Africa.

The staff at Israel Gay Youth have already translated the group’s website into Arabic. They’ve also begun work on an online forum in Arabic. The latest thing is the WhatsApp hotline, which was a great success in its Hebrew version with about six conversations received every shift on a range of subjects, both personal and general.

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