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A Love Like Hers

Pop star Sarit Hadad’s new video revealed her relationship with another woman. But the public reaction revealed much more about Israeli attitudes, particularly regarding the Mizrahi community.

Dana Kessler
November 08, 2021
Yariv Fein
Sarit HadadYariv Fein

A day shy of her 43rd birthday, in September, Israeli superstar Sarit Hadad came out of the closet—sort of. She released a new song, “Ahava kmo Shelanu,” meaning “A Love Like Ours.” There’s nothing revealing about the song itself, which is a love song to a man, with gender-specific pronouns (an annoying but integral part of the Hebrew language). The video accompanying the song shows couples in love: a young surfer couple, an aging carpenter and his wife, a pregnant woman and her officer husband. And at the end of the video, we also get a glimpse of Hadad’s own loved one. We only see her love object from the back: a young woman, whom Sarit sits next to on a bench facing the sea. Filmed from the back, the singer rests her head on the woman’s shoulder and together they romantically watch the sunset. The end.

All local news outlets reported this supposedly big reveal. The fact that Hadad is a lesbian is one of Israeli show business’s most open secrets. Everybody was waiting for her to come out for ages. The day she released the video, Ynet published a celebratory news item, in which the news anchor, together with Ynet’s entertainment correspondent and Ran Shalhavi, the head of the Association for LGBTQ Equality in Israel, all gushed about how wonderful and moving this all was, sparing no cliché: “The most important thing is being true to yourself,” Shalhavi said.

Celebrities congratulated Hadad on social media and LGBT celebs welcomed her to the family. Even Minister of Health Nitzan Horowitz, who is gay, took to Twitter to say how moved he was. But the backlash was soon to follow.

Many were angry at Hadad for not doing it sooner and felt that this was too little, too late. As with any celebrity coming out, cynics saw this as a calculated career move, which has to do with Hadad’s fear of losing her place as the No. 1 female star of the Mizrahi genre. Others added unimpressed comments like “big deal, it’s 2021.” When pop star Ivri Lider and rock singer-songwriter Corinne Allal came out 20 years ago, that was a big deal, but nowadays it obviously is different.

Besides, the critics noted, even though the headlines proclaimed that she came out, she didn’t really—she just alluded to the fact that she’s in a relationship with a woman in a music video. The video release wasn’t accompanied by a clear statement regarding her identity. Gay, queer, lesbian, LGBT—none of these words were ever uttered by Hadad publicly. And the fact that she chose to come out with a love song written to a man obviously didn’t help.

Most established Israeli celebrities who came out did so in a big media interview. Lider and Allal did so in 2001, singer-songwriter Rona Kenan in 2004, deceased pop star Amir Fey-Guttman, who started out as a teen idol, in 2007. These days there are local stars who come out on social media. But however they do it, it’s usually done in a much more explicit manner than Hadad’s.

Hadad’s statement—as posted on her official Instagram page, which has 204,000 followers—was poetic, but vague: “A new song, written and performed with all my heart. The new video shows love from my own perspective, on the world and on myself. Today, as my daughters are growing fast, with curious eyes, I’m happy to present them with the ability to be whatever they want to be and to teach them that freedom, time and choice are above all else. Thank you for my family and for the place in which my career and my family have merged. This is a complete moment for me.” She then tagged Tamar Yahalomy with a heart, and thus revealed the identity of the woman on the bench.

Tamar Yahalomy wrote the lyrics, and composed and produced the song, together with Yonatan Kalimi. A photo from her own Instagram profile, posted on Rosh Hashanah, in which she is seen looking at the sunset in the same clothes as in the video, clearly reveals that she indeed is the woman on the bench. Yahalomy is 16 years younger than Hadad, but in the Mizrahi music world she is not anonymous. Israeli TV watchers met her for the first time in 2011, in season 9 of Kokhav Nolad (the Israeli version of American Idol). At the tender age of 16, Yahalomy found herself in the middle of a voter fraud fiasco: At the end of the investigation, Yahalomy’s dad admitted to buying hundreds of cellphones in order to text-message endless votes for his daughter, and Yahalomy quit the show.

But that was many years ago. Since then, Yahalomy found success in the Mizrahi music world, as a singer as well as songwriter, lyricist, and producer. She wrote songs for big stars in the genre, like Eyal Golan, Dudu Aharon, Omer Adam, Eden Ben Zaken, Moshe Peretz and—of course—Sarit Hadad.

At the end of the fateful day in which Sarit Hadad opened the door to her private life, she returned home to Yahalomy and her two young daughters, while the rest of the country began dissecting what had just happened.

In an op-ed in Israel Hayom newspaper, Raz Israeli heavily criticized Hadad’s so-called coming out. “By not really coming out of the closet in an explicit manner and exploiting the momentum to promote a new—and straight!—song, Sarit Hadad is having her cake and eating it, too.” Israeli saw the diplomatic way in which the singer almost-but-not-really came out as a not only cowardly and hypocritical, but as a deliberate and manipulative juggling act, intended to get press to promote her new single, while not risking losing her more conservative fan base. What angered him most is that the song in question is in fact a very straight song—a love song to a man, no less.

David Wertheim also published an angry opinion piece in Walla!, stating that only accountants and office clerks have the privilege of postponing their coming out—not public figures. He claimed that for a public figure to hide in the closet for so long is not morally acceptable, as it communicates that being gay is something to be ashamed of and better kept a secret.

A still from the 'Ahava kmo Shelanu' video, revealing Hadad with her partner
A still from the ‘Ahava kmo Shelanu’ video, revealing Hadad with her partnerYouTube

Wertheim believes that Hadad possessed an informal contract with the media for many years, in which she revealed almost everything about her personal life: her two daughters (whose father’s identity was also never revealed), the house she purchased, the furniture she chose, etc. Wertheim believes that the terms of this unspoken deal were that she told and showed the press everything they wanted, while they kept her secret. The fact that she allowed gossip columnists to reveal everything about her personal life, except her sexual identity, has a very disturbing subtext: that being gay is a big dark and horrible secret. According to Wertheim, in Hadad’s case, the damage has already been done.

Wertheim compared Hadad’s case to that of Israeli pop and rock star Yehudit Ravitz. Ravitz is of a different generation (her peak was in the 1980s) and different background, but the main difference in the writer’s eyes is the fact that as opposed to Hadad, Ravitz always kept her private life private. All aspects of it. Therefore, the fact that she was in the closet until 2009 was much less damaging.

In his article Wertheim thinks about “the 15-year old lesbian girl, who idolized Hadad in Hadera in 2010 or in Kiryat Gat in 2018, and understood that it’s best to lie, to fake a love for men (like most of Hadad’s songs), to talk about everything (and thus emphasizing the thing about which talking is forbidden) and to revert to the conservative terminology of ‘sexual orientation’ that kills gay pride and reduces it to the bedroom.” He concluded that “the thought that doing all of that is better than admitting you’re a lesbian, isn’t empowering—it’s sad.”

As in many other aspects of life, Israel is divided between extremes. From a legal perspective, LGBT rights in Israel are considered the most developed in the region. Israel became the first country in Asia to recognize same-sex unions. Although same-sex marriages are not performed in the country, Israel recognizes same-sex marriages performed overseas. Discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation was prohibited in 1992. Same-sex couples are allowed to jointly adopt, and LGBT people are also allowed to serve openly in the army.

Israelis a progressive country—at least in parts of it. Members of the LGBT community hold key positions in the Knesset, media, and entertainment industry. And to say that Tel Aviv—specifically—is a gay-friendly city is an understatement. Tel Aviv is known for its gay tourism, and endless gay bars and clubs. It hosts one of the largest pride parades in the world (other, smaller, pride parades and events take place in other Israeli cities) and was dubbed “the gay capital of the Middle East” by Out magazine. And gays across the world remember when Israeli transgender pop star Dana International won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1998. On the other hand, there are religious extremists who believe all of this is blasphemy, and continuously try to endanger this freedom. Sixteen-year-old Shira Banki was murdered in the 2015 pride parade in Jerusalem by a Haredi extremist, who also stabbed and wounded six other participants in the parade.

But in Israel, it’s not just a matter of being religious or secular. In recent years, the country’s most discussed social divide is between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim. And since Hadad is a Mizrahi star, her coming out is largely discussed through this prism.

Public opinion has it that it is much easier for Ashkenazim to come out as their families are generally more liberal, while Mizrahim usually come from more religious and conservative backgrounds. Being a big Mizrahi music icon, Hadad is seen as a Mizrahi woman, even though she technically isn’t. She does come from a conservative patriarchal background, but not from Morocco or Iraq, but rather from the Republic of Dagestan, located on the Caspian Sea, in the North Caucasus of Eastern Europe, from where her parents made aliyah just two years before she was born.

With this background and the fact that she operates in the Mizrahi genre, many applauded Hadad’s courage. But is it really so courageous? (Straight) Mizrahi star Omer Adam recorded “Tel Aviv”—the official song for the 2013 Tel Aviv Gay Pride Parade—and sang it live at the event. The song became one of his biggest hits, and he isn’t the only Mizrahi singer to perform at the parade. More and more Mizrahi stars cooperate and collaborate with the gay scene in recent years. Many of them performed live at Harissa—a popular gay nightclub (named after the Tunisian hot chili pepper paste) that plays only Mizrahi music—and participated in their promo videos.

On top of that, two young female Mizrahi singers—Nofar Salman and Eti Bitton—came out this past year. Plus, many Israeli celebs of Mizrahi descent such as singer Harel Skaat, comedian Orna Banai, TV host Assi Azar, and stand-up comedian Nadav Abuksis have been openly gay for years.

And even in cultural spheres that are more conservative than the Mizrahi music world, people bravely come out. In comparison to Hadad, many mentioned the true braveness of Sapir Berman, who made Israeli sports history this past April when she became the country’s first transgender soccer referee. Israeli soccer is notoriously homophobic; even today the word “homo” remains the most popular swearword at Israeli soccer matches.

So, maybe Hadad’s family background or her audience’s are no excuse for her not coming out earlier. Wertheim from Walla! thinks that bringing this as an argument for her staying in the closet for so long is a racist one. Plus—he reminds us—Hadad hasn’t been part of the Mizrahi ghetto for many years now. She has been Israel’s biggest mainstream female singer for the past 20 years. Her audience includes everyone, and she doesn’t rely on one specific demographic.

Writer and director Ron Chachlili, creator of documentary miniseries Arsim and Frehot: The New Elites, agrees with Wertheim. Chachlili wrote in Haaretz that the idea that Mizrahi parents would shun their offspring and sit shiva for them if they found out they were gay is racist. In Chachlili’s mind, some Mizrahim are conservative while others are liberal, just as some Ashkenazim are conservative and others are liberal. He believes that the assumption that Hadad had reason to fear hurting her family or losing her audience is based on mere prejudice.

On the other hand, gender lecturer Yael Mishali was quoted by Eness Elias in her column in Haaretz as stating that for a Mizrahi woman to come out as gay is twice as hard and as brave as for an Ashkenazi woman, since a gay Mizrahi woman is nonhegemonic on two counts. Mishali herself is queer. She comes from a traditional Moroccan family and performed in drag lip-syncing to Sarit Hadad songs as long ago as 20 years ago.

“Many Mizrahi families perceive being queer as something Ashkenazi, something Western … this is why Sarit Hadad’s coming out is so moving to me,” Mishali told Elias. Mishali sees Hadad as a symbol of a Mizrahi woman doing something that many Mizrahim perceive to be the opposite of what they are. And in seeing that, she believes, “awareness can change and crystallize.”

But since Hadad came out, the identity-politics machine is working overtime. “One can ask why she didn’t do it earlier,” Mishali admitted, “but if you’re Ashkenazi or straight, it’s really not your place.”

Dana Kessler has written for Maariv, Haaretz, Yediot Aharonot, and other Israeli publications. She is based in Tel Aviv.