Shai DeLuca-Tamasi: A love for design, and the Jewish state

Shai DeLuca

Shai DeLuca-Tamasi is an interior designer and media personality in Toronto. Since 2011, he’s been appearing on CityTV’s morning show, Cityline. Born and raised in Toronto, DeLuca-Tamasi moved to Israel after high school and served in the Israel Defence Forces. He’s an outspoken advocate for Israel and has partnered with the organization CAMERA on Campus, a non-profit whose mandate is to help students disseminate accurate information about Israel on campuses around the world. On March 15, DeLuca-Tamasi spoke at a CAMERA on Campus event held in Ottawa called Pints for Peace. It was co-hosted by the Israel Awareness Committee, a student initiative at Carleton University and the University of Ottawa. DeLuca-Tamasi shared his story of being openly gay in the military and spoke about accuracy in international reporting.

What shaped your strong connection with Israel?
I grew up in an extremely Zionist family. The matriarch of my family, my grandma, and I had a very special relationship. She always said that if she’d had the opportunity, she would’ve gone to Israel. She talked a lot about the importance of defending our homeland. This was really strongly instilled in me. From the age of 15, I knew that, at 18, I’d go do my army service in Israel. I finished high school in Toronto and in November 1995, I went into the Israeli army. It was the day after former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.

What was your experience in the IDF like?
It was life changing. If I had to do it again, I would. I was injured during my service, but that aside, it was a great experience. It was a way for me to give back to what I consider my homeland in the fullest way I could imagine. I was a combat engineer. It was very engineering-centred, but we were also in combat. We were taught to do things like clear areas of mines and build explosives to break through terrain, if needed.

I was injured during my service, but that aside, it was a great experience.

What did you do afterwards?
I knew I needed to put myself through school, so I decided to stay on and work in Israel for a bit. I worked for a number of different companies, including Hewlett-Packard. Then I decided I wanted to study design. I’m a bit of a Type A personality, so I decided I was going to study in either Paris or New York. I don’t speak French, so it ended up being New York. I registered at the Art Institute of New York City and studied there. I subsequently did an additional year at Toronto’s now defunct art institute. In New York, I was afforded a great opportunity. A woman I’d met from an Orthodox community in Brooklyn had inherited a home from a family member and asked me to help design it. I hadn’t finished school yet, and they didn’t pay me, but I got to use the project for my portfolio. It really started me off and I later got a job at a design company in Toronto. I launched my own interior design studio, Shai DeLuca Interior Design, in 2002.

Why do CAMERA’s values resonate with you?
I’m obviously a big supporter of Israel and I think there’s a lot of misinformation circulating around the world about it. People are a little too eager to accept misinformation, especially when it comes to Israel. I believe this is because the misinformation confirms underlying negative beliefs they have about Israel. CAMERA is really important because they say, ‘We’ll go through all the news, give you the correct information and call out what’s not correct.’ I think it’s really important in the current climate of fake news. Israel is so often targeted. It’s a sad reality.

You speak publicly about having been openly gay in the IDF. Was it a positive experience?
Back then, in 1995, if I had wanted to get out of going to the army by saying I was gay, I could have. It’s no longer like that. But I was open about it and I was in a combat unit and I’ve never felt more like I was with family than when I’m with my actual family. My fellow soldiers were so open and loving. My being gay made absolutely zero difference to anyone. It’s been important to me to talk about the progression of gay rights in Israel, from the late ’90s to today. Today, my marriage is recognized in Israel. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get married in Israel. That’s a step that still needs to come.

Have you ever been charged with ‘pinkwashing?’
People like to say that I’m pinkwashing; that I use Israel’s strong LGBTQ rights to cover up its so-called horrible crimes. That’s a big misconception and a blatant lie. One of my best friends was a refugee from Gaza and he is gay. He could’ve gone anywhere and he chose to come to Israel and lives there now as a citizen. He’s treated equally.
There are many different issues in Israel. Some do require criticism. But gay and LGBTQ rights – that’s something we should be proud of.

My fellow soldiers were so open and loving. My being gay made absolutely zero difference to anyone.

What was the focus of your talk in Ottawa?
I talked about my background, my story: about not being obligated, as a Canadian, to go to the army, but feeling it was very important to do so; about being an openly gay soldier in the IDF; about working in design and television; and why I feel it’s necessary to speak out for Israel.

Have you gotten pushback from people for your public support of Israel?
The only time that happened was during Israel’s war in Gaza in 2014. I remember posting on Facebook the first day when those Israeli boys got kidnapped. The storm that caused on social media, with people saying I was putting out propaganda, was horrible. I received death threats. I was open about this with my bosses. I’m extremely lucky, because they were so supportive. I’m very fortunate to work with people who know that what I was saying wasn’t what others made it out to be. It was nice to know that it didn’t matter if my views weren’t the most popular. What mattered was that I was speaking the truth, and that I shouldn’t be chastised for that.

This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.