The Video Pub is a valuable queer space in the holy city, and it may not survive COVID-19.
If you’re looking to find the Video Pub in Jerusalem, you might have to look a little harder than usual.
Located in a little niche a floor up from street level, the only official gay bar in the city hides from the undiscerning eye. Occasionally, you might find a pride flag hanging at the top of the stairs, leading not only to the bar but also to a small Eritrean church. Children from the church often spend the early hours of the night asking the Video’s bartender questions. I know, because as a bartender there, I used to answer them. Chances are, though, you will see nothing of gay significance as you approach the place. The magic hides inside.
The block where the Video is located is dubbed by the workers of the area “the district.” That’s partially because most of the businesses on the block (a dance club, two other bars, a restaurant, a French fry stand and a queer, feminist, vegetarian/vegan café) have the same group of owners. But the name mostly reflects the queer-friendly nature of the whole area. Working in “the district” is something a lot of queer people in Jerusalem have done or will do in their lifetime; it’s an experience that makes you feel you belong somewhere.
Open for almost a decade now (eight years, to be precise), the Video is the spiritual successor to the first official gay bar to have opened in the city in 2011, the Mikveh, which has by now been closed for about five years.
Jerusalem is not an easy city to live in; not only the heart of every conflict that plagues the country, from Israel/Palestine to the relations between state and religion, it’s also the heart of the conflict surrounding LGBT rights and queer people’s safety.
There are people who believe we desecrate the holy city with our mere presence, and local reactions to our visibility range from dirty looks to physical violence — necessitating an abundance of cops and security during Pride marches.
The existence of a gay bar in Jerusalem is not trivial, its success even less so, as the closing of the Mikveh shows. Ask any queer person in Jerusalem if they feel safe being visible, and the answers will range from “depends” to “no.” You will never find a definitive “yes” there. Yet the Video prevails. Its mere existence means queer people can feel safer.
The Video is not completely alone: There are a few queer party lines that operate monthly in several LGBT-friendly establishments, growing in number every year. There is the aforementioned café; and there is the Open House, Jerusalem’s LGBT community organization operating for more than two decades now. Jerusalem’s queer culture is certainly growing. But the bar still feels unique.
Throughout the year, the Video functions as more than a business — it’s a second home for many in Jerusalem’s queer community. A home where you can have fun, drink, dance, carry on deep conversations and meet familiar faces or new, welcoming people. A home where you can find the whole fabric of society: Israelis, Palestinians, Jews, Muslims, Christians, observant people, atheists, tourists from all over the world. In this small niche, a torn city comes together — a gay bar next to an Eritrean church, a community united.
I moved to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, a known liberal city, to study at the Hebrew University. I was alone and out of my parents’ home for the first time in my life.
I will forever remember my year working at the Video. I could be myself as an employee (not always an easy feat for a queer person); I met new friends and new enemies, too. In the Video’s tiny space — which consists of two small balconies, a shoebox-sized dance floor and the bar area — I gained an independent life in this often-unwelcoming city. The importance of gay establishments, as opposed to merely LGBT-friendly ones, became abundantly clear to me. There, I felt more at home than I did at any “friendly” space in liberal Tel Aviv. I could say that it is my space.
This March, Israel began taking drastic measures in order to combat the spread of COVID-19, including closing all bars and restaurants. I left the Video during April of last year after a full year working there, and now bartend at another establishment. I was just notified that my workplace, as others like it, will be shut down for the foreseeable future, meaning I effectively have no job.
There’s a lot to fear, but my heart aches for one thing in particular. The Video, like many other pubs, posted on Facebook about its closure for who knows how long. Alongside it, all the queer spaces that were carefully and dutifully cultivated in the city, from the Open House to any party line, cannot operate right now. Their futures remain uncertain.
I’ve never known a Video-less Jerusalem. My heart aches, not only for the business, but for the space, for all the spaces like it. The Video is part of a whole.
Michael Elias is a young Jewish non-binary poet and writer, currently studying comparative literature and history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.