Swift acceptance of gays by the Israeli military helped transform Israel into one of the most gay-friendly countries in the world.
by Brian Schaefer
In the mid-1980s, a former El Al flight attendant from the small coastal town of Hadera began writing a fairy tale about the life he dreamed of living in Israel. It took the form of a weekly column in the widely read Ha’Ir [The City], a Village Voice-like weekly of cultural commentary. The column, called “Moshe,” chronicled the daily doings of a young, middle-class gay couple who could openly live like any other young, middle-class couple in Tel Aviv at the time.
The author was Gal Uchovsky, and although he had already come out as gay, he wrote the column under a pseudonym. “I was still in the mindset of not wanting to be pigeonholed,” says Uchovsky, now an outspoken and visible member of Israel’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, and one of the country’s best-known television and film writers and TV personalities. “I didn’t want to write about my personal life. I wanted more freedom. So I invented this couple, this bourgeois, mid-thirties couple.”
“Moshe” described a mostly mundane domestic life, a fantasy compared to the reality of gays and lesbians in Israel at the time. Homosexuality was a criminal offense, and Independence Park in Tel Aviv (as well as the park of the same name in Jerusalem) served as a clandestine meeting place for gay men who had no other venue to connect. Being gay was furtive business: Men opened post office boxes to exchange notes because receiving anything at home was too risky. Often, only first names were used between friends and lovers to protect identities and to avoid police harassment. For lesbians, the situation was even bleaker: There were no communal meeting places and few social networks, underground or otherwise. Worse than the risk of exposure was the loneliness of isolation.
Fast-forward a few decades and Uchovsky’s dreams of domestic bliss have come true. The man, recognizable for his shiny bald head, hip dark-framed glasses and friendly demeanor, now lives openly in Tel Aviv with his partner of 24 years, film director Eytan Fox. Together, the two of them have helped make Uchovsky’s dream of normalcy a reality for themselves and many others.
Fox’s films, several of which Uchovsky wrote, have included Yossi & Jagger, the story of the relationship between an army commander and one of his soldiers, which became a national hit in 2002. He also directed The Bubble (2006), a Romeo & Juliet-type tragedy about two men who fall in love—one Israeli, one Palestinian—that mixed sexuality with politics and garnered international praise. Even when Fox’s films don’t explicitly deal with gay themes, like Walk on Water (2004), they feature prominent gay characters and subplots. “We’re asked at film festivals why we need a gay character in every film,” says Uchovsky. “I say, ‘A filmmaker creates a world that never existed before and that would never exist without him. And if I have the privilege of creating a world, why would I create a world that doesn’t have me in it?”
The rise of the Israeli gay movement began in 1975, when five men and one woman established the Association for
Human Rights, now known as the Association of GLBT in Israel or, more commonly, the Agudah. In the nearly 40 years since the group’s founding, Israel has become one of the most gay-friendly countries in the world and the only one in the Middle East where gays experience any degree of mainstream visibility and equality. Tel Aviv in particular is touted as a gay paradise. In 2010, Out Magazine named it “the gay capital of the Middle East” and last year, it was crowned the best gay city in the world in a survey by American Airlines and GayCities.com. According to New Family, an Israeli legal consulting firm, the number of gay and lesbian households in Israel is estimated at 18,000, raising more than 3,000 children among them.
How and why did Israel transform so rapidly into a gay paradise? One surprising stepping-stone was the Israel Defense Forces, which followed a very different path than its counterparts in the United States. As befits a nation where the next war could break out at any minute, the military wields outsized influence on Israeli society through compulsory service. Historically, this created “a very chauvinistic country and a homophobic country,” says Aviad Kissos, a popular gay radio, and TV host and writer. He notes that the celebrities of the past generation were the country’s military heroes, and the result was a mentality that rejected any sign of weakness, which many still consider homosexuality to be. “Israel hates everything that threatens her ability to win the next war,” Kissos says. So in 1993, when the military changed its policy much of Israel’s society followed suit.