The story of the Israeli military’s about-face begins with Uzi Even. A lieutenant colonel in military intelligence and a nuclear expert, the then-head of the chemistry department at Tel Aviv University was stripped of his security clearance in 1992 when the army discovered he was gay.
“At the time I had a partner who was much more involved socially,” says Even, now a 71-year-old professor with a shock of white hair, at his office on the Tel Aviv University campus. “One day he pointed out that Yael Dayan was organizing a conference in the Knesset about gay issues. He told me that instead of sitting at home and complaining about the situation, I could do something.” So the wry and feisty Even addressed the Knesset and told his story. The speech was televised, and people paid attention.
One of those people was Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and within a matter of weeks, Even was called to the prime minster’s office. Rabin offered to reinstate him. Even refused, but demanded the law be changed. Rabin responded by forming a committee made up of representatives of several branches of the military. After three months of talks, the military changed the law, allowing gays to serve openly. Compared to the nearly 20 years it took the United States to merely repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the speed with which the Israeli government and military accepted and implemented the integration of gays was remarkable.
Rabin wasn’t Even’s only well-placed political ally. Even, who went on to become the first openly gay member of Knesset in 2002, credits Dayan for making it possible for him to address the Knesset. The daughter of famed military commander Moshe Dayan was a brand-new member of the Knesset and the chair of its Committee on the Status of Women, through which she organized the LGBT sub-committee. For a new parliament member to take on such a controversial issue, and for a heterosexual feminist to include gays and lesbians in her agenda, required chutzpah. But before joining the political scene, Dayan had spent time in New York, mixing with, among others, Andy Warhol and Truman Capote. “It’s from there,” says the soft-spoken and unassuming Dayan, “that I treated [gay identity] as a non-issue socially and an issue politically.”
Now 73 and chairwoman of the Tel Aviv City Council, Dayan has what might be one of the best views in the city, with an office on the tenth floor of the municipal building next to Rabin Square, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Sitting behind her large desk, she credits MK and activist Shulamit Aloni for decriminalizing homosexual activity in 1988, creating the space for others to push for ending discrimination against gays. Dayan admits that there were arguments among women in the Knesset at the time about whether fighting for gay rights would dilute the feminist agenda. “But all over the world it’s the same,” says Dayan, explaining why she championed LGBT inclusion. “It’s part of the same package of human rights and anti-discrimination.”
The rights that gays have won in Israel surpass those in most countries and in many ways the United States as well. In Israel, where the Orthodox rabbinate controls marriage, couples who cannot or do not want to have a religious marriage have alternatives, such as common law marriages. The legal recognition of common law marriage provides a wide range of rights and protections. Same-sex couples were granted access to this status in 1994, which led to other benefits, including inheritance, tax exemptions, partner benefits for civil employees, residency rights for non-Israeli partners, etc. Since 2006, Israel has also recognized international same-sex marriage, just as it recognizes marriages of interfaith or non-Orthodox marriages from outside of Israel.
Israel’s courts have also weighed in on adoption rights, greatly expanding them in the last five years. In 2006, the courts determined that same-sex couples can adopt the biological children of their partners, and in 2008 rights were extended further so that same-sex couples can adopt a child who is not biologically the child of either partner. In other areas of the law, gays and lesbians are treated with equality and are covered by national employment anti-discrimination laws. Though same-sex Israeli couples are not yet eligible for subsidized surrogacy within Israel, as of 2010 international (unsubsidized) surrogacy for gay couples is recognized.
There is still more to be done, say gay advocates: until now, rights have been granted on a case-by-case basis in the courts. Transgender activist Nora Grinberg warns that it is a mistake to assume these rulings will be automatically applicable to all couples, or that they are securely enshrined in governmental law. The fact that most of the decisions come from the courts means they don’t have the same permanent effect as laws passed in parliament, she says. The institution of same-sex common-law partnerships “is a directive from the legal counsel of the government. It can be changed tomorrow morning. It’s all very shaky.”
Nitzan Horowitz, the first openly gay elected Knesset member (Even filled a vacant seat) agrees, calling the situation “fragile,” and naming the current Likud government the “worst government ever for gay rights in Israel.” He cites as an example a recent attempt to add “sexual orientation” into a non-discrimination law for school children. The Minister of Justice, a member of an ultra-Orthodox party, vetoed the bill. When asked why, Horowitz reports that the MK told him that he just didn’t want the expression “sexual orientation” written into Israeli law. “This is the attitude!” Horowitz complains, which is why he says, “if people just put faith in the court, it’s a risky business.”
With the toppling of legal restrictions came new visibility in Israel’s booming popular media culture. First there was the The Pink Papers, the gay community’s inaugural publication, founded by filmmaker Yair Quedar in 1996. Then the 1997 TV series Florentin, created by Fox and Uchovsky, brought likeable, three-dimensional gay characters to prime-time viewers. Eventually, this led to the first same-sex kiss on Israeli television. “Florentin was an important cultural event for the community,” says Quedar in his documentary film Gay Days, which explores the history of the movement. “Gays were the heroes, they weren’t in supporting roles and they certainly weren’t tragic or provocative or comic figures.”
Progress hasn’t always been smooth: If there was a moment when the frustrations of the Israeli gay community boiled over into public display, it was Wigstock, a drag festival in Tel Aviv’s Independence Park in 1998 that could be likened to the famed 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York, considered the symbolic launch of the gay rights movement in America. In Israel, public events are not allowed to run into the Sabbath, which begins on Friday evening. In accordance with this code, police cut the electricity for the Friday show, angering many in the crowd who began demonstrating and blocking traffic. Though the fracas lasted only two hours, “it became mythological,” says Uchovsky. “This was the moment that [the movement] moved from behind the scenes to the people.”
Around the time of that small domestic revolt, Israel staged a major international coup at Eurovision, the annual campy song competition that has captivated Europe for more than 50 years and has the distinction of giving the world ABBA and Celine Dion. To devotees—and there are many—it is often compared to winning the World Cup. Israel had won twice before, but when transgender singer Dana International won in 1998, it was the country’s first victory in nearly 20 years and was celebrated by the LGBT community worldwide. In Israel, the atmosphere was euphoric.
The night of the Eurovision finale, the Beitar Jerusalem soccer club won the national championship. Sports fans and gay Eurovision enthusiasts flowed into Rabin Square in a spontaneous party that for many symbolized the moment of acceptance, at least in Tel Aviv. Contributing to the significance of that year, the country held its first Pride Parade in Tel Aviv, and Michal Eden was elected to the Tel Aviv City Council, making her the city’s first openly gay elected official. Israel’s gay movement had come of age. Or as Uchovsky puts it: “I think 1998 was the moment that everyone realized that Tel Aviv was a gay city.”
Since then, the gay makeover of Tel Aviv has been relatively quick and efficient. Tel Avivis take pride in the fact that there is no “gay ghetto,” no single neighborhood or street, like Manhattan’s Chelsea or San Francisco’s Castro, where gays congregate. The city boasts a selection of bars, clubs and gay events every night of the week, in every part of the city. By day, the number of same-sex couples walking hand-in-hand down Rothschild Boulevard, which cuts through the center of town, is comparable to the number of baby strollers.
The gay community in Tel Aviv has all the trappings of other Jewish minorities in the city. Gan Meir, a park in the center of town named after the city’s first mayor, boasts the city’s official LGBT Center, not yet four years old, originally an elementary school, then a private high school. The municipality agreed to turn it into a center for the LGBT community and now financially supports its operations, making it one of the only LGBT centers in the world primarily funded by a government. The center hosts everything from support groups to free STD and HIV testing, as well as Israeli folk dancing on Monday nights, where same-sex partners twirl each other to old Zionist classics. Come High Holy Days, the small social hall is packed beyond capacity with worshippers dressed in crisp white collared shirts and the occasional tank top. Draped over the podium on which the Torah rests is a rainbow flag.