Not everyone who wants freedom, believes in freedom: Israeli Journalist, Gil Hovav,tells The Oslo Times
A leading culinary journalist and television personality in Israel, Gil Hovav belongs to one of the most respected families in the Jewish World. Hovav has played a major role in changing Israeli cuisine from a basic traditional food to one of the enviable gourmet dining. After beginning his career as a restaurant critic, Hovav moved on to become a newspaper editor. He was involved in creating, producing and presenting some of Israel‘s most viewed and loved television food shows.
Hovav, along with his illustrious career in journalism and as a television presenter, has published three best-selling novels all related to his family’s colorful history, exposing with humor and emotion of his childhood’s Jerusalem that no longer exists. For the past 21 years, he has lived with his partner whom he met during their army service, and together they are raising their six-year old daughter, Naomi.
The Oslo Times International News Network’s Editor-in-Chief, Hatef Mokhtar spoke to Hovav about the current gay rights, human rights and freedom of expression topics in Israel. Excerpts:
Firstly, thank you Mr. Hovav for joining us for an exclusive interview. Though you don’t really need an introduction, it would be nice if you could give our readers an overview about yourself.
My name is Gil Hovav. I am 53 years old. I was born in Jerusalem. I was invited by Embassies of Israel and Canada to participate in a panel (organised by Embassy of Canada) about LGBT rights all over the World. There were representatives from Switzerland, South Africa, the United states, the Netherlands and Israel. There, I shared my life experience as a gay person in Israel.
In Israel, we are very privileged. Israel is very progressive when it comes to gay issues. For instance, all of my gay friends have children. Its very common for gay people to have children in Israel, either by adoption or through surrogacy. When we talk about challenges, first of all Israel comes from a pretty rough neighborhood in the Middle East. It is surrounded by the countries where gay rights are not the toast of the town. It was until recently a gay marriage had taken place in Jordan. The American Ambassador to Jordan (Alice G. Wells) participated in an LGBT event in Jordan, resulting in calls for her to leave the country. Israel is safe haven for gay people but in the Middle East, it is difficult to talk about global challenges for gay people because the countries are surprisingly different.
Can you tell me little bit about your writing (of three books)? I myself am a writer, you know.
Nice. I never wanted to be a writer. I had always dreamed of becoming a hotel manager. But people from the older generation in my family always lived with the feeling of aristocracy, which is ridiculous. I don’t believe in aristocracy but I come from an aristocratic family. My father was the head of the IBA (Israel Broadcasting Authority) and my mother was a prominent person in the IBA as well. They always wanted me to write about them. They always asked me to inherit the talents of my grandparents who were writers themselves. Eventually, I wrote such a nasty book about them and all their secrets with all the embarrassing details. They loved it! They even loved the stories that I made up about them claiming the made up plots as true! As I grew up, I started liking this nostalgia and writing stories about my family and my childhood in Jerusalem of the 60s and 70s that no longer exists.
As a journalist and an author, how you do you see the relationship between the Muslim community living in Israel and Jewish community there?
This is a very complicated question because when we talk about Muslim community or the Christian community in Israel, you have two communities. You have the Israeli-Arab community who are Arabs with Israeli citizenship and you have the Palestinian communities who are Arabs living in the occupied territories like Jordan Maria and Gaza strip. I believe we (Israel) have withdrawn from the occupied territory so that it can become a free Palestinian state. And I think that this is clear to many Israelis and it is fast becoming clearer. But I am not sure about the same with the Palestinians.
Israel is true to the Gaza strip from where 25,000 missiles were shot. ‘Who seeks peace?’ is a very complicated question. It now looks like Israel is the aggressor, the one that is occupying the territories and depriving Palestinians’ independence. How can we Israelis be sure that our borders are safe after watching IS members throwing gay people off roof tops and slaughtering people on the street. Super, super conservative Muslim are ruling these areas with Sharia law. They need to recognize Israeli borders.
Out of the eight-million population in Israel, two million are either Muslims or Christians who are entitled to every right other citizens have. They have their own struggles and the sad thing is sometimes minority groups do not fight together for freedom. These communities that I deeply respect are very conservative, they are against the gay rights. But this is the World we live in.
My next question is a question we ask all our guests as we believe every person has their own view on Human Rights. So Mr.Gill, will you please tell us what Human Rights means to you?
This is a wonderful question. I think that we should respect every person and the choices people make and let them live the way they choose to, as long as they do not hurt others. I am not a religious person at all but there is a story about somebody meeting a very very important Rabbi. He was told to define the Holy Bible in one sentence. And the Rabbi answered: “Love the Neighbor”. But the situation here is even more beautiful as Human Rights is all about loving man kind. We should understand that people are different and like others who are different or choose to do different things. We should not forget that people have dreams and we should allow them to live with respect and dignity.
I know this question is completely ridiculous and gives no facts in investigation. But this is a question relating to many religiously orthodox or extremists holding stands against gay, something which is not acceptable in their society. We have this problem specially in Iran, Afghanistan, and some African countries and South Asian countries. What do you think and what’s your response?
Firstly, I am not religious. So for me it may be an external problem. But still, to see Gay-Jewish people struggling is difficult. While they do not believe in God and Bible, and there is no other way to put in the Bible that gay people should be executed. I think modern Rabbis and other religious leaders who believe in tolerance can choose what they want to pick from the Bible, because the Bible says a lot of stuffs.
How do you see the freedom of expression and media freedom in Israel?
Israel is a completely free and liberal nation when it comes to freedom of speech. There are internet sites, TV stations and journalists who are independent. You can write about the President or the Prime Minister and criticize them demanding their imprisonment.
My next question is about Jewish extremism in Israel. There is a powerful community that exists in Israel who even have problem of sitting next to women in the bus. What’s your position on this and your opinion?
This is an interesting question because naturally I am a gay. If this is their way of living and have set those standards within their villages, we should respect it. But if they choose to marry young girls at the age of 14, we need to intervene. If they choose to throw stones at the women who are not dressed accordingly, which they believe to be immodest I have to say no–because violence should not be tolerated. But if they choose not to educate their children, you might have to step back because that’s the life they have chosen. I always feel sorry to see those communities. I think there is not lot of freedom in these communities and many-a-times people shy away from freedom. Not every one who wants freedom, believes in freedom.
As a writer who is your favorite writer?
My favorite book in the World is Candide by Voltaire. I think it (the book) shades light into my rule for life. But there are several writers whom I love, mostly women. I love Natalia Ginzburg. When it comes to poetry, there are quite a few Israeli writers of course.
I will take some name and I need you to comment on them.
Our Prime Minister. I really dislike him, do not trust what he says. I don’t think that he is an idiot because we had quite a few idiots in power in Israel. Netanyahu is very sophisticated. He is a leader by fear and not by hope. His last comment about Arabs during the elections in which he said, “Quickly go to vote because the Arabs are driving in buses to the voting stations,” not less than a racist remark. That should be condemned.
It is really frightening to see a leader who does not respect life, neither of his own people nor other’s. It is hard to believe in peace. I do believe that Israelis want peace and Israel wants withdrawal from 97 per cent of the occupied territories, even swaps of land in order for the Palestinians to get in the whole sum of land that were occupied during 1967 war. But when you see ISIS or Hezbollah on the border, it’s frightening, it’s threatening. People in Europe do not understand how extreme they are. I don’t share their values of life.
My next question is about Iran. Many people, including Human Rights groups, believe that Iran is supporting terrorist groups. Recently, there was an announcement from the foreign ministry of the US which also states that Iran ranks the highest in terms of terrorism and involvement in harboring terrorist groups.
So, do you also think that the support Hamas has garnered is based on faith or based on beliefs?
I think it is based on religion. A Muslim country supports the Muslim struggle for independence in what they call Palestine not Israel. They do not recognize the state of Israel. So, if Iran wants to erase Israel from the map, it can go ahead and try something really bad. But it needs to realize that a struggle with someone is okay but Iran denies the holocaust. It is antisemitism, racism, and there is no other term for it. I am sure that they have reasons not to like Israel. Israel supported the Shah regime when it existed and maybe this is a reason to be against Israel today.
So you think this conflict has a historical background?
It is one of the reasons. They were oppressed by the Shahs. And since now they are in power, they do not like Shah’s allies. Having said that, the condition today is completely different. They have turned to extremism, racism and oppression of the minorities forgetting the human values. It is a frightening experience to get the question of Iran’s nuclear power. Its frightening because the World has become an entity where it will be very difficult to keep peace.
How many times have you been to Oslo?
This is just my second time here.
How do you feel about Norwegian people?
I love them. To tell you the truth I prefer Europe, I love Europe, I love European culture, I love European people. There is something about Norwegians that is so open and accommodating. They have a wonderful culture. Even if it is a work-visit, it is a complete vacation. Life would have been much sweeter if people go this way everyday.
Do you want to share something with the Oslo Times International News Network’s readers about your experience, your books and your future plans?
I will tell you a story. For the last 28 years, I have been working as a restaurant critic. It means that I go to restaurant at least 10 times a week — for lunch and dinner. People always ask me what do you look for in a restaurant. I always say that I look for truth. That is a big answer to a small question. But its true, I really look for truth.
Few few years ago, I met a guy who was a restaurant owner in a little town in the north of Israel. He was immigrant from Libya and opened a very simple Libyan restaurant, a Jewish-Libyan restaurant. His family had fled from Libya in the early 50s after the Jewish in Libya were oppressed. Israel was established in 1948. Back then in Tripoli, his family were very well to do. They had the Ford car agencies in all over North Africa. But of course they left Libya with only the clothes they were wearing. They were poorest in Israel working in the houses, living under tinned roof. Eventually, they bought one room apartment for a family of eight people and split into two. They lived in one half of the room and in the other half they opened a grocery store.
They were well educated and brought up very well. Everybody had a career. That guy became a car mechanic and did well in his business. But when he turned 50, he decided that he was not doing the thing they wanted him to. He wanted to feed people and opened a small Libyan restaurant. One day his mother came to visit him and he told her, “Look at me. I am rich. I have a restaurant, kitchen, workers and cooks. But the food I cook still does not taste as good as how it used to when you cooked in that tinned house when we had nothing but rags.” And his mother answered, “My son you did not get it. It is because then we were hungry.” This is where the truth lies.
There is a mixture of sadness and happiness when you see life as a whole and not only brighter sides. Once you experience the difficulties of life it brushes your flesh. This is my truth with the food. I always like poor man’s food because it has the truth. We should all bear in mind that there are people who are oppressed. And we should fight together to make the World a nicer place.
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