'This is my home': A Lebanese LGBTQ+ Israeli Christian on life in Israel

‘We’ve seen a really outspoken, vibrant Arabic community that sided with their Israeli peers (after the Hamas terror attack)’ says Jonathan Elkhoury, whose family fled from Lebanon to Israel in 2001

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Jonathan Elkhoury is an Israeli. But he’s also a refugee from Lebanon, a Christian and a member of the LGBTQ+ community.

He just completed a tour of Canada, bringing a different, nuanced perspective to the conflict in Gaza and life in Israel as a member of minority communities.

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He’s back in Israel and participating in an online event on Sunday hosted by Canada’s Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

Born in Lebanon in 1992, Elkhoury and his family fled to Israel in 2001, when he was nine years old. He entered a Jewish school and learned Hebrew, all in the coastal city of Haifa, where he still lives.

Elkhoury spoke to National Post on Friday. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

You’re participating in a conversation about Israel on Sunday. What will it be about?

Basically, it’s going to be about my story as an Israeli Christian, part of the LGBTQ+ community and also as someone who fled from Lebanon to Israel in 2001 and got shelter in Israel and now I’m an Israeli citizen.

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Tell me a little bit about your story.

The PLO, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, that was the terrorist organization that controlled south Lebanon during the ’70s and ’80s, they started targeting the Christians and Shia Muslims in the south of Lebanon. So we had to find a way to protect ourselves.

The Christians in southern Lebanon, they said, “Minorities in the Middle East need to help each other.” So they started this connection that led to the creation of the (Israeli-backed militia known as the) South Lebanon Army.

This is kind of really important in my backstory, because this is kind of what I grew up on — knowing that Israel is our ally, knowing that Israel is a vibrant democracy that we need to have peace with.

What was it like moving to Israel?

We fled through Cyprus, and from Cyprus we came to Israel. And since day one, we were immediately welcomed by the Israeli broader population, by the Jewish population in Israel.

I, myself, immediately entered school, in Jewish public school in Haifa. That’s where I’m located until today. I was really welcomed by school. The school kind of took me as a project because I was the only Arab-speaking kid in the whole school. And they had a special teacher come and … teach me Hebrew. It took me about three months to learn, to start speaking fluent Hebrew.

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And during high school and middle school, the school kind of took an extra mile, an extra step, to let us feel that our history is part of Israel’s history, by letting us read a prayer for our fallen soldiers for the South Lebanon Army in the national memorial day for the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces).

So it was something that gave us the feeling that we are welcomed here, that now this is our home, that the people around us understand who we are and the connection that we have.

A lot of anti-Israeli people just use us (minorities in Israel) to attack Israel, in a wrongful way that they use us, they kind of exploit our democracy in a way that, they lie about our life here, and it’s important for us to stand up and speak for our country.

What is it like being a Christian in Israel?

I don’t go to church every Sunday, but I always wear my cross out. And everyone that knows me knows that I’m Christian. I always speak freely about it.

I’ve never felt that I need to hide it. I never felt the need to hide my Arabic. I’ve always felt that this is my home and this is people welcoming me as who I am.

You feel like, yeah, like this is this is OK, you know, like, Jewish and Christians living together. This is something that should be super regular. And that’s how I feel about it. This is my experience with it.

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What’s it like being a member of the LGBTQ+ community in Israel?

In many parts of Israel, it’s super, you know, free, and you feel that nothing could harm you. The law protects you.

We still don’t have gay marriage in Israel. But here’s the deal: Any civil marriage can’t happen in Israel, because the way that marriage works in Israel, is only by the religious part of it. So only an imam or only a priest or only a rabbi, can get you a certificate of marriage. So in order to kind of uphold that, the Israeli government accepts any marriage that is done outside of Israel as legitimate marriage. For example, that’s how LGBTQ+ marriages are being recognized here in Israel, and also civil marriage. When they get married abroad they will be recognized here as any regular married couple and with all the benefits that comes with it.

And I’ve been active for a few years now in the Arabic LGBTQ+ communities to raise awareness in the Arabic community, because the Arabic community has kind of stayed behind in regards to LGBTQ+ acceptance. The Arabic community is somewhat more traditional, more religious, less accepting of LGBTQ+ identity. Not talking about the rights, even the identity itself, this is something that is not acceptable in many of the Arabic cultures.

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So there is a lot of progress. And at the end of the day, the LGBTQ+ community here is super vibrant. It’s everywhere. From TV to the news to movies, and day-to-day life when you walk in the streets. For example, in Tel Aviv you can see gay flags everywhere. Also in Haifa, my city, we have gay bars, gay nightlife, gay parties. So this is something that is super vibrant and open. Not in hiding.

What has your experience as a minority been like since the war began?

We’ve seen so many minorities from all Israeli backgrounds come out and speak against what Hamas did, speak against the atrocities, of the ways of how they killed, raped and butchered people.

Many of them expressed part of their identity being Palestinian, but it’s alongside their Israeli identity. They know that, at the end of the day, when the Hamas terror attack happened, they didn’t differentiate between who’s Jewish and who’s not. They targeted all Israelis.

So we’ve seen a really outspoken, vibrant Arabic community that sided with their Israeli peers on that and you can see that more than the majority of the Arabic population recognizes themselves as full Israeli citizens.

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